Nothing lasts forever. Especially dictatorships. Last week, Russian strongman Vladmir Putin found out he wasn’t invincible. Although I suspect that Mr. Putin always knew he had feet of clay, and that his make-believe tsarist comportment was but a feint.
I think this is true of all dictators – they stoically project an image of indestructability although they are completely terrified that we will find out how weak and trifling they are. That’s because when you rule by fear, you fear everything and everybody. Like a wolf in the wild, a dictator sleeps with one eye open. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, has exposed Mr. Putin as a paper tiger. He exposed Mr. Putin’s shocking vulnerabilities.
For more than a year, Mr. Prigozhin led the most effective fighting machine on the side of Russia in its brutal war against Ukraine. Many analysts believe that Russia would have suffered a more crushing defeat had it not been for Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group killing machine. The warlord had long been critical of the fat, unprepared and ill-equipped Russian force in Ukraine.
The war has demonstrated the shambolic and unprofessional character of the much-touted Russian military and the utter incompetence of its top leadership. Mr. Prigozhin took every opportunity to lay into the slobs leading the Russian war effort. But he made sure never to directly criticize El Presidente, Mr. Putin, the commander-in-chief – until last week.
All that changed with stunning speed in a weekend never seen before in modern Russia. Mr Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries decided to stage an armed coup against Mr. Putin in broad daylight, and without flinching.
In a shocking display of braggadocio and military precision, Mr. Prigozhin’s men easily took Russia’s Southern Military District Headquarters in the City of Rostov-on-Don, the most critical nerve center of Russia’s calamitous war in Ukraine. Residents in that key city welcomed Mr. Prigozhin and his men as heroes. They feted them with flowers and other manifestations of patriotic love. Not a single shot was fired, or life was lost. The fighters then made a lightning advance north towards Moscow. Could Moscow be taken?
In less than a day, the Wagner boys covered hundreds of miles and came to within 125 miles of Moscow. A panicked Mr Putin gave a shrill address to the nation and called it to arms against what he called traitors to the motherland. The Kremlin couldn’t hide the fact that it was under siege with the real threat of the regime’s collapse.
For the first time in his reign, Mr. Putin stared at his political demise in the face. Once a seemingly steely character, he now looked weak and disheveled.
This was the question – was Mr. Prigozhin working alone, or did he have a cohort of senior Russian military leaders behind him? Was this a broad-based coup attempt?
Or was Mr. Prigozhin, the maverick mercenary, a lone wolf? Who could Mr. Putin trust in his inner circle? Tanks and other weapons of war appeared on Moscow streets as Wagner pressed ahead unimpeded to the seat of power.
Then Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, perhaps Mr. Putin’s most loyal ally literally saved his friend’s hide. In another incredible development, Mr. Lukashenko announced that he had brokered a deal between Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin where the latter would stand down the mutiny and receive domiciliary in Belarus with no charges against him, or his men. Mr. Putin, the master tactician, was bailed out by Mr. Lukashenko, his sidekick. My jaw dropped to the floor with incredulity.
There are now reports that Mr. Prigozhin was not acting alone, but possibly had the support of senior Russian military commanders in Ukraine and Moscow. The most prominent of those has been mentioned as General Sergei “Armageddon” Surovikin, the one-time leader of the war in Ukraine who had been demoted by Mr. Putin.
The New York Times reported that General Surovikin had advance knowledge of the Wagner coup attempt but did nothing to alert the Kremlin, or his superiors in Moscow. He was reportedly working with other generals on the side of Mr. Prigozhin. He has disappeared and is reportedly under interrogation along with others. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin is trying to take over the Wagner Group from Mr. Prigozhin.
The Wagner Group coup attempt shows that Mr. Putin’s end is nigh. Both inside Russia and around the globe, he’s been defrocked. His veneer of toughness and absolute power over Russia is gone. His grip over the Kremlin is shaky. It must worry Mr. Putin, no matter what happens to Mr. Prigozhin and the Wagner Group, that Russians didn’t seem to care whether Moscow was taken by the mutineers, or not.
Russia is suffering from dictator fatigue.
Given the rough nature of Russia’s politics, it’s anyone guess when Mr. Putin will be driven from power. My crystal ball tells me that the sharks smell blood in the water.
They will pounce sooner than later.