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Putin, the Weak Strongman. Part II

Boris Grozovski
Putin looking over his shoulder
Yerevan, Armenia —October 1, 2019: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Yerevan, Armenia.

Despite its apparent failure, Prigozhin’s mutiny opens a new stage in Russian political history. Preparations for a fight for Putin’s legacy may have already started.

After the mutiny, Russia’s regime seems very fragile. The war has thrown Putin’s system off balance, and there are growing calls for it to be reformed. The positions of both those who want to stop the war and those who want more brutality have been strengthened. It has not been possible to mobilize the elites, the security services, or the population to defend Putin. 

A Taste of Future Struggles
The army and the security services have not come up with ways to respond to mutiny. The war has undermined the regime to the extent that powerful power brokers may now be tempted to bring it down. This was hard to imagine before the war. The likelihood of a protracted power struggle or even a civil war has increased.  

A post-Putin Russia will not begin after Putin, it has already begun, in June 2023. Putin has undermined the very institutions of the state that he purported to defend. He surrounded himself with oligarchs and crooks, transferring to them some of the functions of the state, which had lost its monopoly on violence. 

In Africa and Syria, the Wagner group has been acting on the Russian state’s behalf. The military perceived the Wagnerites as “Putin’s men” and could not take up arms against them. When the state ceases to perform its basic functions, private actors like Prigozhin try to take over those functions. The struggle between the army and the Wagner group could in time come to resemble a conflict between two (or more) groups of military forces and insurrectionists of dubious legitimacy fighting for power, just as has been happening in Libya or Sudan. 

Putin has aged, and lost his grip. The power entrepreneurs he created have begun to fight each other for money and power. Putin has found it harder to play the role of supreme arbiter. The war has enraged the siloviki, many of whom find it more profitable to fight each other than to fight Ukraine. The mutiny showed the Russian elite that the czar was losing potency and could no longer control the golems he had created. His standing in the eyes of the Russian elite collapsed. Putin’s weakening makes the position of the elites, already shaken by the war, even more vulnerable and fragile. Putin’s transformation into a lame duck makes the people who got their business and wealth from him think about how to keep it if the czar can no longer reliably guarantee the previous rules of the game. At the same time, however, Prigozhin and other figures who are trying to play in the field of anti-elite opposition do not excite Putin’s friends who govern Russia. 

Putin’s heirs have taken over everything in Russia, from Gazprom and Rosneft to the army and Rosgvardia. However, it will be very difficult for them to agree on how to live together when the czar loses his power. The level of interpersonal trust in Russia is extremely low, especially among the upper classes, and the war and mutiny are lowering it even further. How can people be trusted when even Putin’s old friend Prigozhin has betrayed him? 

If Putin’s heirs cannot come to terms with each other, Russia will face many violent internal conflicts. To reach an agreement you need mutual trust. Stalin’s junior partners faced the same problem after his death, so they conflicted with each other between 1953 and 1964. It was only in 1968 (the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia) that the Soviets overcame the post-Stalinist turmoil, when it was unclear where the country was going or what elites and ordinary people could and could not do. 

What Will the Next Transition Be?
Dictatorships and lost wars rarely end in democratization. The fall of dictatorships more often leads to violence and the transition to a new autocracy (the ruling group may either keep or lose power). Often the successors of dictators continue their policies, but less aggressively. The longer the war lasts, the more unresolved traumas, resentments, and the readiness for irrational behavior and aggression remain alive in the security forces, in society, and in the power structures. 

The support for the Wagner group in Rostov showed that the war has increased the demand for a just and dignified rule among both the military and the civilian population. Given Putin’s inadequacy and the serious difficulties of the Russian budget, this demand will go unmet. The Wagner meeting in Rostov showed the elite that the population will accept the change of power calmly and happily, that not only Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great can compete with Putin. People will support another autocrat if he satisfies the demand for justice. So experiments in this direction will continue, and their participants, if they are not prevented by mistrust of each other, will be able to form various coalitions.

Of course, Putin will not leave tomorrow. The FSB may well respond to Prigozhin’s mutiny with reprisals against the military and “patriots,” who see the situation at the front in much the same way as the head of the Wagner group. However, this would make it difficult for Putin to wage war. Moreover, after a few setbacks on the front, panic in society would grow again.

Putin’s post-Soviet era is coming to an end. If the West does not rush to end the war in Ukraine and allows Russia to lose, the next Russian regime, while remaining authoritarian, could prove at least slightly more cooperative than the current one. It will be less frightening for Russia’s neighbors, even if the battle between the old and the new now looks like a conflict between the ugly and the terrible. 

Yet, for the more distant future we must hold fast to the position that for sanctions to be lifted from Russia it is necessary not only to end the war but also to pay reparations, accept accountability, give up all the occupied territories, demilitarize, and restore political and civil rights to the Russians.

For part I of the two-part series, please see here.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Boris Grozovski

Boris Grozovski

Kennan Correspondent on Russian Media and Society;
Journalist and public educator; author of Telegram channel EventsAndTexts
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more