Russia: Instability ratchets up pressure on Vladimir Putin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a televised address to the nation in Moscow, Russia, 24 June 2023IMAGE SOURCE,SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

After a weekend of mayhem, I’m beginning to understand why Russia’s national symbol is the double-headed eagle: two heads staring in opposite directions.

First, Yevgeny Prigozhin declares he’s ready to “go all the way” in his mutiny against the Russian military. Then he makes a sudden U-turn and orders his Wagner fighters back to base.

In a TV address, President Vladimir Putin declares the rebellion “a criminal adventure… a grievous crime… treason… blackmail and terrorism.” Yet just a few hours later, as part of an agreement with Prigozhin, it’s revealed that all criminal charges against the Wagner leader are being dropped.

So much for “grievous crime”.

The Kremlin leader’s mixed messages have been raising eyebrows here and changing perceptions of President Putin.

“He definitely looks weaker,” says Konstantin Remchukov, owner and editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

“You can’t make a public statement declaring people are criminals and then, on the same day, at the end of the day, let your press secretary disagree with you and say ‘No, those people haven’t broken the criminal code.'”

Russia’s former minister for economic development, Andrei Nechaev, makes a similar point.

In a post on social media, Mr Nechaev argues: “The law has lost all power. Even grievous crimes won’t be punished due to political expediency. In the morning, you might be declared a traitor. In the evening, you can be forgiven and the criminal case against you dropped.

“The country is so clearly on the threshold of big change.”

Big change? Bold prediction. But if change is coming, might the Wagner rebellion be the trigger? A deal may have been done and the mutiny called off. But the fact the uprising happened on Mr Putin’s watch is embarrassing for the president, who is also commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces.

And keep in mind: Mr Putin’s current presidential term runs out next year.

“All elite groups will now begin to think about the 2024 presidential election,” predicts Mr Remchukov. “They will ask themselves whether they should rely on Vladimir Putin, as they have been doing until this military coup.

“Or should they think about someone new, who is capable of dealing with problems in a more contemporary manner?”

“Someone new” for the presidency is not something you normally hear the Russian elite discussing openly. That doesn’t mean a change of guard in the Kremlin is imminent. If there’s one thing Vladimir Putin has perfected after 23 years in power, it is the art of political survival.

But his decision last year to launch the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has triggered widespread instability within his own country: everything from economic problems to drone attacks on Russian regions, from shelling of Russian border areas near Ukraine to cross-border incursions into Russia by saboteur groups, and now an armed uprising by Wagner.

All of this ratchets up the pressure on the Kremlin leader.

Don’t expect President Putin to concede that he got things wrong, though. Admitting mistakes and miscalculations is not his style.

So what will be the Russian president’s next move? A clue, perhaps, came in the latest edition of Russian State TV’s flagship Sunday night news show. Reporting on the Wagner uprising, the presenter played an extract from an old Putin interview.

“Are you able to forgive?”

“Yes. But not everything.”

“What can’t you forgive?”

“Treachery.”

I wonder if Yevgeny Prigozhin was watching.

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