Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Putin Survives Unexpected Military Revolt But Emerges Weakened


Over a period of 36 hours last weekend, the rest of the world watched in horrified fascination as Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of the major supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin used his powerful private army of mercenaries, known as the Wagner Group, to stage what initially appeared to be a military coup. Prigozhin, a former petty criminal who spent most of the 1980s in Soviet prisons, first ordered his Wagner fighters to take over the strategic Russian military headquarters in the city of Rostov on the Don, near the Ukrainian border. After meeting virtually no organized resistance from the Russian military, Prigozhin then sent an armored convoy with 5,000 of his heavily armed troops rolling north on the main road toward Moscow, 500 miles away.

Prigozhin said that he launched the drive on Moscow in retaliation for efforts by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, to absorb the Wagner Group into the Russian army, and to limit the lucrative government contracts to supply food to the Russian army, which had been the source of Prigozhin’s fabulous wealth.

Just as unexpectedly, Prigozhin’s troops voluntarily halted their advance Saturday night, just 125 miles south of Moscow, after he accepted a deal to end the revolt, which was brokered by longtime Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. The deal offered Prigozhin and his fighters amnesty from criminal prosecution for treason by the Russian government and permitted them to go into exile in Belarus.

This unexpected turn of events came less than a month after the Wagner Group scored its greatest military accomplishment to date, driving the last Ukrainian defenders from the southern city of Bakhmut after months of intense fighting, causing huge casualties on both sides. The victory in Bakhmut was particularly significant in light of the embarrassingly poor performance by regular Russian army troops over the previous 10 months.

For months, Prigozhin had been publicly berating Defense Minister Shoigu and General Gerasimov as incompetent, corrupt, and out-of-touch. He blamed them for the series of Russian military fiascos which had enabled Ukrainian forces to successfully counterattack, regaining control over large swaths of territory and the two major Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Kherson, that the Russian army had conquered during the first weeks following their invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. He also said that as his Wagner fighters were finally winning the bloody battle for Bakhmut, Shoigu and Gerasimov were conspiring to deny them the weapons and ammunition they needed to seal the victory, which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of his mercenaries.

The victory in Bakhmut had turned Prigozhin, who previously had sworn his undying loyalty to Putin, into a popular Russian war hero. He was both surprised and angered when Putin publicly came down on the side of Shoigu and Gerasimov, by supporting Shoigu’s public demand on June 13 that all of the Wagner Group fighters sign contracts by July 1, making them official members of the Russian military.

For many years, Prigozhin had enabled Putin to use his Wagner fighters to launch deniable attacks on neighboring countries, including the 2014 invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s

Crimean Peninsula. Wagner also helped local pro-Russian militias to gain control of the Donbas region and helped the regime of President Bashar al-Assad secure rebel territory during the Syrian civil war. Along the way, the Wagner forces also developed their reputation for committing indiscriminate killings and human rights atrocities.

The feud between Prigozhin and Defense Minster Shoigu began in 2018 when Wagner forces Syria advanced toward positions held by U.S. soldiers near the town of Deir Ezzour. When American commanders then asked the Russian defense ministry to identify the soldiers, it said it did not know who they were. When the U.S. troops then opened fire, killing more than 100 of the Wagner mercenaries, Prigozhin blamed Shoigu and never forgave him.

With Putin’s approval, Wagner’s forces have been deployed to several African nations, such as Mali and the Central African Republic, offering security for regimes in return for lucrative mining concessions.

Prigozhin was also responsible for the Internet Research Agency, the notorious St. Petersburg- based Russian computer hacking unit that tried, largely unsuccessfully, to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Over the years, the Wagner fighters had been an essential part of Putin’s long-term strategy of waging unconventional warfare to slowly rebuild the Soviet-era Russian empire. As a result, Prigozhin was clearly expecting to get Putin’s support in his clash with Shoigu and Gerasimov.

However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Kremlin did not ask Prigozhin to send his Wagner forces to help until after regular Russian troops failed to take the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and began suffering major losses in northern Ukraine.

Prigozhin announced his insurrection to the world with a grainy video clip posted on the Telegram social media messaging site at 7:24 a.m. Saturday morning. In it, he humiliated on camera two of Russia’s most senior commanders in the strategic city of Rostov-on-Don and announced the march of his mercenary army on Moscow.

“Our men die because you treat them like meat… no ammo, no plans,” Prigozhin said on the video clip, flanked by the masked fighters who had seized Rostov’s military command center, and demanded the dismissal of his enemies, Shoigu and Gerasimov, whom he called “geriatric clowns.”

Last Saturday morning, Putin publicly responded to the takeover of Rostov by the Wagner Group and its military move threatening Moscow itself, by condemning them as acts of treason. In response, Prigozhin openly criticized Putin for the first time, He declared that Putin had made a mistake by publicly branding him and his Wagner fighters traitors, and by letting Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, open a criminal case against him.

“Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president is deeply mistaken,” Prigozhin said in an audio statement Saturday night announcing the halt in the drive against Moscow, “We are patriots of our motherland, we’ve been fighting and continue to fight, all Wagner fighters, and no one plans to go and confess at the request of the president, the FSB or anyone else, because we do not want the country to continue to live in corruption, deceit, and bureaucracy,” he added.

After Putin and Prigozhin accepted Lukashenko’s deal, and the Wagner Group column halted its march toward Moscow on Saturday night, the crisis seemed to end just as quickly as it had begun. Two days later, on Monday night, Putin reappeared for the first time in a televised speech to the Russian people, in which he angrily denounced the weekend insurrection by Prigozhin and his Wagner fighters as “blackmail” that had been “doomed to failure.” Without mentioning Prigozhin by name, Putin claimed that the Wagner forces had “rubbed their hands, dreaming of taking revenge for their failures at the front and during the so-called counteroffensive.” He also tried to claim credit for putting down the revolt with minimal bloodshed.

Putin publicly thanked the Wagner fighters for turning back before they reached Moscow. While publicly blasting their chief, Putin said, “We know that the vast majority of the fighters and commanders of the Wagner group are also patriots of Russia, devoted to their people and the state.” He also reminded the Wagner fighters that he was giving them an opportunity to sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry or to go into a safe exile in Belarus with Prigozhin.

Meanwhile, the Russian defense ministry announced that Wagner group fighters would be required to transfer their heavy military hardware, including tanks and other armored vehicles, to the Russian military.

Just how many of the Wagner soldiers would be willing to fight under Russian Army control is very much an open question. After accepting the deal to call off the Wagner Group’s march on Moscow, Prigozhin predicted that most of his fighters would not sign a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry because they don’t want to be used as cannon fodder, as had happened to them  in the battle for Bakhmut.

Andrey Kartapolov, the head of the Russian parliament’s defense committee and a former deputy minister of defense, told a Russian newspaper that the Wagner troops who seized the Rostov military did nothing wrong because they were only “following orders… They didn’t offend anyone, didn’t break anything. Nobody has even the smallest complaints about them.”

Kartapolov also said that the Russian parliament is working on new legislation to give private paramilitary groups, like the Wagner Group, legal status because “to disarm and disband them would be the best gift for NATO and the Ukrainians.”

In his speech to the Russian people Monday, Putin also blamed the United States for cheering on Prigozhin’s uprising because he said it wants to see Russia torn apart.

“It was precisely this outcome — fratricide — that Russia’s enemies wanted: both the neo-Nazis in Kyiv, and their Western patrons, and all sorts of national traitors,” Putin said. “They wanted Russian soldiers to kill each other, so that military personnel and civilians would die, so that in the end Russia would lose, and our society would split, choked in bloody, civil strife.”

But the Biden administration had anticipated such accusations from Putin and had tried to discredit them from the moment the revolt began. Biden’s first move was to hold a video call with key U.S. allies to make sure we gave Putin no excuse” to “blame this on the West or to blame this on NATO.”

In his first public comments on the insurrection in Russia on Monday, Biden insisted, “We were not involved. We had nothing to do with it. This was part of a struggle within the Russian system.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made appearances on several nationally televised news interview shows Sunday to make it clear that the U.S. attitude was closely watching the Wagner revolt, but has played no part in it. He did say that no matter how it is ultimately resolved, the revolt had revealed “cracks in the facade” of Putin’s dictatorial leadership and mounted to “a direct challenge to Putin’s authority.”

“Think about it this way: 16 months ago, Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine, believing they would take the capital in a matter of days and erase the country from the map as an independent country. Now, what we’ve seen is Russia having to defend Moscow, its capital, against mercenaries of [Putin’s] own making,” Blinken told NBC News.

During his interview with CBS News, Blinken noted that Wagner chief Prigozhin had also “raised profound questions about the very premises for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the first place, saying that Ukraine or NATO did not pose a threat to Russia, which is part of Putin’s narrative.”

Blinken also said, “To the extent that it presents a real distraction for Putin and Russian authorities that they have to look at — sort of mind their rear, even as they’re trying to deal with

the counteroffensive in Ukraine — I think that creates even greater openings for the Ukrainians to do well on the ground.”

During his comments on the revolt to ABC News, Blinken said, “I doubt we’ve seen the final act. Any time you have a major country like Russia that has signs of instability, that’s something of concern.”

But he was also quick to add, “When it comes to their nuclear weapons, we have seen no change in their posture, and we have made no change in our own posture. But it’s something, of course, we’re looking at very, very carefully.”

Despite his public promise to abide by the deal offered by his close ally, the president of Belarus, it is hard to imagine, given Putin’s reputation for the harsh treatment of his enemies. He is notorious for having them hunted down and killed, even when they have fled to other countries, or for throwing them into a Russian jail on trumped-up criminal charges. It is therefore highly unlikely that Putin will now allow Prigozhin to go scot-free after having so thoroughly exposed the Russian president to the world as a weak leader. At the very least, Putin will feel that he needs to redeem his pledge to the Russian people that, “Those who organized and prepared the military mutiny, who turned weapons against their comrades-in-arms, have betrayed Russia, and will be held accountable for that.” Prigozhin also knows that, because the leader of Belarus is utterly beholden to Putin, that country is unlikely to be a safe haven for his exile from Russia.

However, Putin is likely to be more lenient to the members of the Wagner Group. It is still a very powerful military force that Putin will want to use in Ukraine and elsewhere, but under much closer Kremlin control.

Meanwhile, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was seen for the first time since the uprising started in a short video clip posted by Russia’s Defense Ministry Monday. It showed Shoigu inspecting a command post for the war in Ukraine, and was interpreted as a sign that Putin has no intention at the present time of removing the defense minister from his post. Later Monday, Shoigu again appeared at a meeting with Putin and other security officials to discuss the current security situation.

On Monday, after having fled Russia to an unknown location, Prigozhin defended his actions in an 11-minute audio clip that was posted by his press service. He insisted that he never had any intention of overthrowing Putin’s government and that he was only interested in the removal of Shoigu and Gerasimov from their positions of power over the Russian military because of the way they had mistreated the Wagner group. He also said that he had ordered the march of his fighters toward Moscow because he didn’t want them to kill Russian soldiers.

“The goal was to prevent the destruction of Wagner and bring responsibility to people who made a lot of mistakes” during the Ukraine war. He explained that he stopped the drive on Moscow because “we determined that the demonstration up to that point was sufficient.”

Whatever his fate, Prigozhin is unlikely to be forgotten by the Russian people to whom he revealed the enormous extent of Russian casualties in Ukraine and the many setbacks Russia’s military has suffered due to poor planning, bad leadership, and incompetence.

Surprisingly, his Wagner fighters were able to capture a key military installation in Rostov with no resistance from local law enforcement or regular Russian military forces. The local public reacted to the masked and heavily armed fighters with some anxiety but no visible signs of panic. In some cases, there were cheers and applause. When Prigozhin’s fighters pulled back from Rostov-on-Don, the local people cheered, “Wagner! Wagner!”

Soon after the news of his amnesty deal with Putin broke, Prigozhin got a celebrity send-off as he left Rostov in a black SUV. A group of bystanders clapped and cheered for him, with one man running up to the car to shake his hand.

But even though Russia’s long history is filled with stories of heroic uprisings against the powers that be at the time, few of them end well for the rebels. Cossacks who rebelled against Peter the Great in a key 1709 battle against the Swedes were also lured into surrendering by promises of amnesty only to be killed en masse, with their severed heads sent floating down the Dnieper River.

The sad fate of Cossack leader Emelian Pugachev, who led a failed rebellion against the rule of Catherine the Great in the 1770s, has closer parallels to last week’s revolt. Like Prighozin, the Pugachev uprising was prompted by peasant fury at Russia’s corrupt military leadership. But in the end, Pugachev was captured and publicly beheaded in Moscow and his name has now become synonymous with the Russian proclivity for senseless, doomed rebellions.

While Putin did manage to survive the challenge to his power from Prigozhin, the damage to his carefully cultivated image as a classic Russian strongman leader will be difficult to repair. Within the course of a few hours starting Saturday morning, Putin went from warning of the “brutal” response to be meted out on what he described as a “rebellion” launched by “traitors” to authorizing his chief spokesman to announce that the criminal charges against Prigozhin would be dropped and that Wagner fighters who did not participate in the mutiny would be offered employment contracts by the Russian Defense Ministry.

Prigozhin, a former St. Petersburg hot dog vendor, who spent most of the 1980s in a Soviet prison for criminal offenses such as robbery, eventually managed to get close to Putin by catering lavish state dinners, which earned him a sarcastic nickname among the wealthy St. Petersburg and Moscow elite for serving as “Putin’s chef.” His Concord catering company was then able to secure lucrative contracts for the Russian military. The Wagner Group grew out of a small unit of armed men that Prigozhin put together to protect his business interests and provide leverage against some of his more dangerous Russian political rivals.

But for nearly nine years, Prigozhin had publicly denied any links to the Wagner Group which had developed a fearsome international reputation for its extreme violence. and sued journalists over investigations that proved the connection. But after the Wagner Group assumed a lead role in the Russian military effort in Ukraine last September, Prigozhin went public for the first time to claim the credit for its battlefield successes.

Less than two weeks later, Putin appointed Prigozhin’s favorite Russian army commander, General Sergei Surovikin to lead the war effort in Ukraine,

The state-controlled Russian news media then lavished praise upon the Wagner Group. A glass-sheathed high-rise tower in St. Petersburg was rebranded Wagner Center and Wagner fighter recruitment posters were put up across the country.

But Prigozhin’s fate began to turn this past January as the Russian Ministry of Defense began to reassert its power with Putin’s appointment of General Gerasimov, to replace Surovikin as the top commander in Ukraine. Prigozhin had frequently belittled Gerasimov in his social media messages, suggesting that he was an office-bound bureaucrat who smothered more competent regular soldiers with red tape. It appears that his problems with Gerasimov also started during Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war when they clashed while competing for Russian military resources and the right to claim the spoils of war.

In February, the Defense Ministry cut off Prigozhin’s right to recruit thousands of fighters who had been inmates of Russian prisons, promising them full pardons for their crimes if they survived their tours of duty on the frontlines of Ukraine.

It was at that time that the simmering tensions between the Wagner Group and Russia’s military exploded into public view. Prigozhin accused the defense ministry of deliberately withholding supplies, weapons, and ammunition for the 50,000 Wagner fighters who were leading the assault on Bakhmut, which had become the largest battle of the war.

Prigozhin publicly accused Shoigu and General Gerasimov of treason, and used social media to begin appealing for support for him and his fighter directly from the Russian people, ignoring the law in Russia against publicly criticizing the armed forces.

A Pyrrhic Victory in Bakhmut

By late May, Prigozhin was able to claim credit for victory in Bakhmut, Russia’s only significant battlefield victory in Ukraine this year, but at a terribly high price in human lives. To win, he sacrificed the lives of 20,000 Wagner fighters, many of whom were among the convicts he had recruited from Russia’s prisons, using them as cannon fodder.

In a video of Wagner troops raising their flags to celebrate the victory in the devastated town’s center, Prigozhin used the opportunity to criticize Shoigu and Gerasimov directly. He said, “Because of their whims, five times more guys than had been supposed to die have died. They will be held responsible for their actions, which in Russian are called crimes.”

Soon thereafter, the Wagner fighters were replaced in Bakhmut by the regular Russian army, and Prigozhin began to realize that his power and influence over Putin were slipping away.

His private army in Ukraine had been sidelined, and his favorite Russian general had been removed from command there. He had lost access to his most effective source for recruiting new fighters, the Russian prisons, and the profitability of his lucrative government catering contracts was being threatened by his enemies.

On June 6, Defense Minister Shoigu revealed in a public letter that Mr. Prigozhin said the food he had supplied to Russian military bases and institutions for food, since 2006, amounted to a total of 147 billion rubles — $1.74 billion. Prigozhin also complained, that “high-level people” were trying to force him to accept a new network of “loyal suppliers” that threatened his catering business’ cost structure and good reputation.

Then on June 10, the Russian Defense Ministry issued an order requiring that all private military groups such as Wagner, would have to sign contracts with the Ministry by July 1. Protesting that the order would place Wagner under formal military control, Prigozhin refused to sign.

That would have given Shoigu full control of the Wagner forces, and Prigozhin said he would not sign, hoping that Putin would back him up. But at a June 13 news conference, Putin said that the contracts were necessary to ensure that members of the private armies receive proper social benefits, sealing Prigozhin’s defeat in his long-running power struggle with Defense Minister Shoigu.

In the days that followed, Prigozhin made several more attempts to reach a deal on the contract issue on his own terms. He released a video on June 16, showing himself delivering a “contract” to the Ministry of Defense in Moscow, but the receptionist in a caged booth at the ministry refused to accept it and quickly closed the window in his face.

Prigozhin had already begun expressing feelings of resignation, saying that none of the problems plaguing the Russian military in Ukraine would be fixed and that the relatives of the Russian fighters killed in the war would exact their revenge on the incompetent officials, such as Defense Minister Shoigu, who were responsible.

“Their mothers, their wives, their children will come and eat them alive when the time comes,” Prigozhin said in a June 6 video interview, suggesting there might be a “popular revolt.”

He added, “I can tell you, honestly, I think we have only about two to three months before the executions.”

Even though Prigozhin’s uprising and march on Moscow ended in failure and exile, it did seriously weaken the classic image which Vladimir Putin has tried to project of a ruthless Russian strongman in total control of his country. It could set the stage for further challenges to Putin’s rule.

According to Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the Institute for Strategic Studies, the Wagner Group’s revolt “has sowed really profound anxiety across Russia’s elites, [and] severely shaken confidence in Putin among those around him who matter.”

“This is Russians killing Russians on Russian territory while Russia is trying to contain a Ukrainian counteroffensive. This is not what Russia wants in wartime,” and it is the security of the Russian state that Putin said was his guiding motivation for invading Ukraine, and has been a vital element in his support by the Russian public.

The fact that Prigozhin and his forces are not being harshly punished, at least for now, has further damaged Putin’s reputation as a decisive leader who does not tolerate disloyalty.

The Wagner revolt might also inspire challenges to Putin from rebel leaders from far-flung Russian regions such as Chechnya and Tatarstan, with long-standing grievances with the central Russian government, especially if Putin’s efforts to defeat Ukraine militarily and forcefully bring it under Russian rule continue to falter.

Putin himself alluded to that danger in his hurried televised address to the nation last Saturday morning comparing the Wagner Group revolt to the Russian revolution of 1917, when Russian troops tired of the bloodshed of World War I mutinied and overthrew Czar Nicholas II. That revolt ultimately led to the October Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, followed by a humiliating peace agreement with Germany in which the first Soviet communist leader, Vladimir Lenin, gave up large pieces of territory in Finland, Poland, and the Baltic States.

Similarly, heavy Soviet military losses in the decade after invading Afghanistan in 1979 were a key reason for the internal tensions that led to the internal collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But Putin’s problems with Prigozhin were largely of his own making: He tolerated Prigozhin’s criticism of the top leaders of the Russian military because it enabled Putin to escape the blame for the embarrassing Russian military blunders in Ukraine. Putin also believed that because Prigozhin was not a member of the powerful oligarchy of wealthy Russian elites, he could keep the volatile Wagner leader and his powerful military forces fully under control.

According to a competing analysis of the revolt by Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, “Prigozhin’s rebellion wasn’t a bid for power or an attempt to overtake the Kremlin. “It arose from a sense of desperation; Prigozhin was forced out of Ukraine and found himself unable to sustain Wagner the way he did before, while the state machinery was turning against him.’’

“To top it off,’’ she added, “Putin was ignoring him and publicly supporting his most dangerous adversaries.”

What will ultimately be Mr. Prigozhin’s fate? Will Putin keep his promise to allow him to survive unscathed in exile?

Not likely.

Prigozhin’s long and bloody conquest of Bakhmut, costing the lives of 20,000 of his fighters, is likely to be recorded in future history books as a modern example of a Pyrrhic victory.

In taking the city Wagner forces showed they had learned hard lessons from the mistakes that the Russian military had made over the last year, improving their tactics by sending wave after wave of prisoner conscripts into the fight to be slaughtered, but also making it far harder for Ukraine to mount an effective defense.

In the end, it was all for naught, because Bakhmut was not the prize many in the Russian military thought it would be. Its strategic value was diminished when Ukraine’s military seized the surrounding high ground, preventing the Russian military from using the Bakhmut as a staging ground for attacks on larger nearby cities in eastern Ukraine.

After sixteen months, growing frustration over the war in Ukraine is now impacting all of Russian society. Putin’s decision to mobilize hundreds of thousands of young Russian men to shore up his front lines in Ukraine prompted a mass wave of emigration.

Despite the long stalemate and setbacks on the battlefield, Putin continued to believe that time was on Russia’s side, and that Western democracies would eventually tire of supporting Ukraine. But just the opposite has happened. Opinion in the rest of Europe has now solidified against Russia. The formerly neutral Russian border countries of Sweden and Finland have applied for NATO membership, and most of the other members of the alliance are increasing their defense spending in light of their new appreciation of the Russian military threat.

As a result, the NATO military potential along Russia’s European border is building up and will soon be greater than it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War.

When Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling was seen in the West as the main danger. Putin’s statement that month that he was putting his nation’s nuclear forces into “special combat readiness” prompted fears that Moscow might employ tactical nuclear weapons if conventional military means failed to produce a victory over Ukraine.

While U.S. and Western officials see Putin as a potentially dangerous enemy, none of them want to see a breakdown of government authority in a country like Russia whose arsenal includes more than 4,000 nuclear weapons.

That is why, while the revolt in Russia was unfolding, the Biden administration was careful about making public statements or taking any action, such as putting forces in Europe on alert, that might suggest to Putin that the United States was trying to exploit the situation.

Instead, the Biden administration told the Russian government that the United States considers this a “Russian affair in which the U.S. would not involve itself.”

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had no such concerns and is using the revolt as another opportunity to ask for more weapons and to renew his requests for Ukraine to be allowed to formally join the NATO alliance at a NATO leadership meeting to take place in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11.

“Today the world saw that the bosses of Russia do not control anything,” Zelensky said in his evening address from Kyiv. “Nothing at all. Complete chaos. Complete absence of any predictability . . . We know how to win, and it will happen. Our victory in this war.”

“And what will you, Russians, do?” Zelensky asked. “The longer your troops stay on Ukrainian land, the more devastation they will bring to Russia. The longer this person is in the Kremlin,” he said of Putin, “the more disasters there will be.”

Western governments are for now observing events and conferring in efforts to coordinate responses — an approach that they believe has served them well since the U.S. first got indications of a looming Russian attack on Ukraine in late 2021.

Rosa Balfour, director of the think tank, Carnegie Europe, said that before the invasion of Ukraine, Western governments had differed in their views on the potential expansionist threat from Russia and how to react to it, with some favoring diplomatic engagement and others taking a more confrontational military approach. Now NATO members are more closely aligned on their Russia strategy.

For example, French President Emmanuel Macron, who originally tried the diplomatic approach with Putin to prevent or end the Russian invasion, said last month at a recent security conference in Bratislava that France and other Western European countries had failed to heed their eastern neighbors’ warnings about Russia’s aggression, and called for more efforts to assure Ukraine’s security.

The NATO nations that border Russia are also bracing for potential chaos if the leadership situation in Moscow deteriorates, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in an interview.

“If there is chaos in Moscow, there’s the same question people were asking back in 1991,” during a coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “Who controls the nuclear football?” Rinkevics asked.

There may be some satisfaction in the West over Putin’s current predicament, but Renkevics said it was difficult to take any pleasure from the situation.

“Seeing the mood in Russia, the propaganda apparatus, there are going to be very challenging times ahead regardless of the turn of events,” he said.

The short-lived revolt that Wagner paramilitary forces launched against Russia’s military establishment late Friday occurred as officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were finalizing plans for their annual summit in Lithuania next month.

Wagner’s insurrection exposed weakness and indecisiveness among Russia’s armed forces and their leaders in the Kremlin. According to a Wall Street Journal editorial, “the unsuccessful rebellion Saturday by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group of mercenaries. . . underscores how much Mr. Putin’s failed attempt to conquer Ukraine has weakened Russia and sapped its military strength.”

The editorial notes that that Prigozhin’s short-lived rebellion and retreat suggest that he “lacked the broader support in the military or political class he hoped to inspire. This presumably ends his challenge to Mr. Putin’s 23-year rule. But it doesn’t end the larger frustration in Russia over a war the country hasn’t been able to win but Mr. Putin isn’t able to extricate from, except at the cost of admitting defeat. . .

“The failed coup also offers portents of trouble for the stability of Russia as the war grinds on. Mr. Putin’s goal in Ukraine has been to revive the Greater Russian Empire, but instead, he has pushed the Ukrainian people closer to the West. . .

“The best result from this costly, tragic war would be a stronger Western alliance free of the post-Cold War illusions that Russia and China pose no threat and the welfare state can replace the will and money required for national defense.”

The editors of the Washington Post expressed similar sentiments.

They write, “Before the revolt, Mr. Putin appeared invincible, leading a highly personalized power structure, bestowing wealth upon various clans in exchange for loyalty. Now, in a flash, he is humiliated and his structure cracked. The implications are deeply worrisome for Russia, for Ukraine, and for the world.”



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