June 28, 2023

In Brief: Be Wary of a Wounded Putin

“The damage inflicted by this episode to Putin’s public image as the capable strongman … is considerable, as is the sheer humiliation.”

The dust has yet to settle following the short-lived mutiny of Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin against Vladimir Putin. The strange ending of the episode that left the world wondering if Russia was heading into a civil war is far from convincing that all is well in the Kremlin. Observing this situation, the National Review editorial board warns that the situation with the war in Ukraine may have just gotten worse.

The damage inflicted by this episode to Putin’s public image as the capable strongman who restored order and pride to Russia after the chaos in the 1990s, already dented by a seeming endless war in Ukraine, is considerable, as is the sheer humiliation. However, for all that, and despite the fault lines beneath the surface, Russia remains a largely effective authoritarian state: The country is not on the edge of popular revolution (it’s worth noting that many of those who might have participated in, say, street protests — including many men of military age — left the country after the invasion of Ukraine), let alone break-up.

Putin is indeed in a tough spot, as the appearance of weakness in totalitarian regimes only invites challenge. He will need to reestablish and reassure Russians that he is still formidable and in control.

Should Putin fail in these respects, he will be in trouble, and while, for obvious reasons, that could be something for the West to welcome, there is not a small possibility that any successor could come from the ranks of the ultra-nationalists in the so-called “patriotic” camp. It is also worth noting that the Wagner Group is not the only paramilitary force to have emerged in Russia in recent years. The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was quick to declare his support for Putin, has his notorious Kadyrovtsy. Even Gazprom, Russia’s oil giant, has a militia.

Therefore, in the near future, expect to see some significant action taken by Putin against his real and perceived domestic enemies.

From a U.S. perspective, therefore, the situation is, if anything, more dangerous than it was before the tanks started rolling towards Rostov. That is no reason to let up on our support for Ukraine, but it is a very good reason to prepare for rocky months ahead.

Read the whole article here.

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