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Fifteen months ago, Vladimir Putin’s army was on the outskirts of Kiev. Now the Russian leader is struggling to maintain control in Moscow.
The mutiny of Wagner’s forces, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, is the ultimate confirmation of how catastrophically wrong the war in Ukraine has become for Putin. Even if the Russian leader wins the direct battle against Wagner, it is hard to believe that Putin can ultimately survive this kind of humiliation. His prestige, his strength, even his life, were now at stake.
The historical irony is that Putin’s actions have caused what he feared most: an insurrection that threatens both the Russian state and his personal power.
Putin’s fear of a “color revolution” in Russia goes back nearly 20 years. Fittingly, its origins lie in Ukraine. The Orange Revolution of 2004 – a popular democratic uprising against rigged elections in Ukraine – sparked a paranoia in the Russian president that has steadily intensified over the years.
Since then, Putin has been haunted by interrelated fears. First, that Ukraine will slip irreversibly from Russia’s grasp. Second, that a successful pro-democracy uprising in Kiev would be a dry run for the same thing in Moscow.
His decision to invade Ukraine in 2022 was an attempt to finally end both dangers — by installing a pro-Russian authoritarian government in Kiev.
As a former intelligence agent and conspiracy theorist, Putin was convinced that the origins of any “color revolution” – whether in Ukraine or Russia – would lie in Washington. His refusal to believe that Ukrainians might have agency or authority led him to fatally underestimate the strength of the country’s resistance to the Russian invasion.
In addition to underestimating Ukrainian strength, Putin—drunk from Red Army myths in the 1940s—has overestimated Russia’s military power. The failure of the Russian army opened the door for the Wagner Group to enter the war. This gave Prigozhin his own power base and propaganda platform and eventually allowed him to turn against the Russian state.
Putin’s rhetoric to the Russian people has always been that he saved the country from the chaos of the 1990s. But what is happening now is reminiscent of the military failure and the hard-line coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, when Boris Yeltsin installed a tank outside Parliament. At that point, the people of Moscow played a vital role in the unfolding events. The reaction of the Russian population to Prigozhin’s uprising will be an important – and as yet unknown – part of this story.
In his first remarks about Prigozhin’s uprising, Putin looked to a darker precedent: the alleged “stab in the back” that ended Russia’s war effort in 1917 and catapulted the country into revolution and civil war. These words were supposed to convey firmness of purpose. But they were not reassured.
Wagner’s rebellion will give hope to opponents of the Putin regime – inside and outside Russia. For the Ukrainian army, whose counter-offensive failed to break through, this looks like a historic opportunity. If Russian forces turn on each other, or are pulled from the front line to defend Putin, they could collapse in eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s political prisoners, like Alexei Navalny or Vladimir Kara-Murza, must have a new sense of hope and opportunity. They, too, may play a role in the coming months.
Prigozhin, of course, is not a liberal. His rhetoric is strictly nationalist and imperialist. Wagner’s forces have a reputation for ruthlessness. But Prigozhin – like Putin – has now unleashed forces he will struggle to control.
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