A week after a failed coup led by a mercenary, the cracks are showing in Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reassert his control.
Infighting broke out within the security establishment as the Russian president moved senior players supporting Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s 24-hour mutiny. A top general was detained for questioning, according to people familiar with the move.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s opponents from the security services have stepped up internal calls for his removal, he said on condition of anonymity, describing events that are not public. Prigozhin had been publicly attacking Putin’s longtime ally Shoigu for months over the failure of the invasion of Ukraine.
Putin spent the whole week trying to reassure key constituencies with public appearances involving the military, business and other groups. While polls have shown his public support remains strong, insiders said doubts have spread among the government and business elite about his control.
Putin claims he is back in control. Russia’s elite is not fixed
The ongoing turmoil has deepened questions about what Prigozhin’s dramatic march on Moscow a week ago will mean for Putin’s 17-month-old invasion of Ukraine. The government in Kiev again demanded more aid for its army. There were growing signs that the US and some of its allies were reconsidering earlier caution on sending the new type of weapon, despite fears of how the Russian president might react.
“It is clear that Putin has come out of this crisis weakened,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Thursday. “But a weak Putin is a greater danger.”
While Western officials agreed that Putin’s authority had been eroded by these events, some suggested that his weakened position would make him less likely to escalate into war. Ukraine’s allies have been pushing for stronger assurances for the country’s potential membership in NATO at the alliance’s summit next month.
US and European officials are closely watching for any signs that the turmoil could affect Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal, but they said so far, there is no sign of any increased risk. Officials said many capitals had grown weary of the Kremlin’s repeated threats to use weapons in the war against Ukraine.
“In the US, they see this uprising as a kind of victory – the war in Ukraine has shown cracks in Putin’s regime,” said Livia Paggi, managing director and head of political risk at consultancy JS Held. “What is not fully understood is what kind of chaos it would be if it actually happened,” he said, referring to the possibility of regime change.
Investigators in Russia questioned Sergei Surovikin, a major general who oversaw the invading forces from October to January, according to a person familiar with the situation. Surovikin, known as “General Armageddon” for his brutal fighting in Syria, is not in custody, the person said, but his movements are restricted. He could not be reached for comment.
CNN, citing documents from the Dossier Center investigating the Russian leadership, reported on Thursday that the general had personal registration with Wagner.
Russia’s top general questions rebellion that shook Putin’s regime
“A comprehensive investigation has begun,” said Sergei Markov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin. “All those generals and officers who were in contact with Prigozhin and Wagner will be interrogated.”
Close aides of Defense Minister Shoigu are also under extensive investigation, according to a person familiar with the situation. There has been no public confirmation of this or Surovikin’s whereabouts.
An insider said he pointed to the power vacuum in the wake of the rebellion, which has weakened Putin supporters like Shoigu.
But Western-allied officials said they do not expect any imminent changes that would threaten the positions of Shoigu and Russia’s military chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov. Known for his loyalty, Putin has been particularly reluctant to alienate longtime supporters under pressure.
“The damage to the face of all the players involved still hasn’t gone away,” said Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation. “There is absolutely no clarity about repression among the security forces, but no one is in a hurry to refute it.”
Putin highlighted the military in his first public appearance since the weekend uprising ended. On Tuesday, he addressed 2,500 soldiers in the main square inside the Kremlin and later met uniformed officers in an ornate hall and thanked them for their loyalty.
At a stop in Dagestan the next day, Putin waded into crowds of supporters, something he has rarely done since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Putin made positive comments at a business forum on Thursday. After a standing ovation from the invited guests upon his arrival, he said, “There is a sense of confidence that no matter how many difficulties we face, we will overcome them all calmly, rhythmically and moving forward.”
A new opinion poll shows that support for the president has remained stable despite the rebellion. Also, the poll showed that a majority of Russians now support peace talks to end the war in Ukraine rather than continuing military operations.
Among the elite, the failed coup by a longtime protégé has raised doubts about Putin’s control, but he has drawn top government and business leaders to his side because of the international isolation caused by his war. Many of them are subject to US and European sanctions.
“The most likely scenario is not a direct challenge to Putin as leader, but a sustained collapse of the ruling system,” said Oksana Antonenko, Global Fellow at the Kenan Institute. His current term is due to expire next year, “It is still his choice whether to stay on after 2024, but the arguments for him to step down are stronger than ever.”