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What will Putin do next? Four scenarios in the wake of Wagner mutiny

6 min read

Vladimir Putin slams ‘treason’ from Wagner mercenary group

Vladimir Putin has just endured the biggest challenge to his authority since coming to power over 20 years ago.

The Wagner Group – the 25,000-strong mercenary contingent that had been backing the Russian military in Ukraine – was making headway in an apparent advance on Moscow, with its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin declaring he was ready to “go all the way”.

Then, on Saturday, no sooner had the Russian president declared the mutiny a “grievous crime” and issued a warrant for the rogue commander’s arrest, Wagner’s soldiers were returning to their southern bases and all was forgiven.

The immediate crisis may have been averted, but the personal embarrassment to Putin and the glaring undermining of the rule of law for political purposes has inflicted serious damage.

What can he do now? How will he reassert himself after armed rebels dragged the war all the way back to his doorstep? Is Putin finished?

READ MORE: Wagner boss called off Moscow coup after Putin ‘threatened families’

Lash out at those who let this happen

Orysia Lutsevych, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House told Express.co.uk: “Putin blinked and Prigozhin so far got the upper hand. It has exposed the weakness of the autocrat. This is very dangerous for such type of regime.”

Putin’s iron grip on power in Russia has long relied on the brutal repression of critics – Mr Prigozhin has done far more than that. He remains a free man for now, as his forces leave Russia for Belarus.

Ms Lutsevych added: “What comes next is as important as what has happened in the last 24 hours. Will Prigozhin remain alive? Will his case for treason really be withdrawn? Will there be a hunt for traitors?”

According to European intelligence officials, if Mr Prigozhin were to join his troops in Belarus, fear of the Kremlin’s reprisals means he is unlikely to stay for long, and could jet off to oversee the company’s operations in Africa.

Loyalty to the Russian leader within the regime’s inner circle has also been tested. Ms Lutsevych believes Putin may well “use this mutiny case to purge the system of those standing in his way, either because they are inefficient, or they are sabotaging his plan.”

David Lewis, professor of conflict studies at the University of Exeter and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), is less sure. He told Express.co.uk: “The early signs are that he will not make any sudden changes, but keep largely on the same track, with the same personnel in place and the same policies, at least for now. If he does decide to change the military leadership in the near future, it will show that his position is weakened.

In his view, the Russian leader “prefers incompetent and unpopular military leaders to competent generals who might gain political popularity and pose a threat to his own position.”

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Concede to Prigozhin’s demands to get him back on side

Wagner has been behind many of Russia’s crucial victories over the past 16 months of war – most notably regaining control of Bakhmut at the end of May.

Made up of ex-Russian special forces and hardened former convicts, they have proven more effective than the regular Russian army on many occasions. Reports also suggest that their equipment and morale are better.

On June 10, the Russian Defense Ministry ordered all volunteer detachments would have to sign formal Kremlin contracts by July 1. This would essentially bring Wagner under direct control. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Mr Prigozhin, who refused the ruling.

He had long been agitating for the removal of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and head of the military Valery Gerasimov, accusing them of incompetence and corruption. Having seized control of the southern military hub of Rostov-on-Don, Prigozhin demanded the pair be handed over to him so that he could “restore justice”.

While this request does not appear to have been part of the initial deal which got Wagner to stand down, names for their possible successors have already begun to circulate. Although some troops have reportedly been subsumed into the Russian military, the company has also retained its relative independence.

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Launch a major attack on Ukraine as a diversion

Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive has now been underway for two weeks, and has already made significant gains.

With Russia’s top brass distracted by Wagner’s agitations within the motherland, Ukrainian officials confirmed their forces had reclaimed an area near Krasnohorivka, southwest of Donetsk, occupied since 2014.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has, however, admitted battlefield progress so far had been “slower than desired”.

A successful pushback of the Ukrainian advance in the coming days or weeks, or, better still, a major victory, would serve Putin very well – both as a diversion from the recent chaos, and as a signal that the Russian army is able to fend for itself.

Ms Lutsevych of Chatham House has little faith in its ability to mount a traditional assault at this stage, however. She said: “Putin has already revealed all he had up his sleeve to defeat Ukraine. His army is on the defensive and Ukrainians are advancing around Bakhmut and Zaporizhzhya.

She added: “What we could see is other Russian acts of terror, similar to the Kakhovka dam detonation.”

Indeed, the suspected Russian sabotage of the Kakhovka dam near Kherson in early June stalled the Ukrainian march southwards. A humanitarian disaster has since unfolded, with the Un now suggesting more than 700,000 people in Russian-occupied areas could find themselves without drinking water.

Putin’s end?

The consequences of the loss of Putin’s untouchable status in the past few days cannot be understated.

Speaking to Express.co.uk on Sunday, Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, said: “We’ve moved into a very volatile period for Russia. The immediate may have been diffused but this is a dangerous game-changer for Putin and his days are now, in my view, numbered.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, said the armed mutiny had exposed “real cracks” in Putin’s authority. With Prigozhin getting away scot-free, others with designs to challenge the state apparatus have been emboldened significantly.

Although a 2020 referendum paved the way for him to rule for two additional terms, until 2036, Putin’s current mandate ends next March. “Stability” was the Kremlin’s watchword at the time of the last vote, but backing that up now has become near impossible.

Professor Lewis said: “Both pro-war nationalists and anti-war technocrats want change. Putin no longer looks like an asset for the ruling elite, but a potential liability. Prigozhin has shown that an outspoken populist who complains about corrupt elites and incompetent generals can win some support among ordinary people and soldiers.

“That’s a dangerous signal for the Putinist system and for Putin himself. The system is not on the verge of collapse, but it is not clear how Putin will recover his authority among Russian elites and society at large.”

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