Embarrassed faces and hectic activism in the Kremlin give an idea of how irritated and nervous President Vladimir Putin is after the failed lightning revolt of the Wagner army. This Tuesday, the 70-year-old is trying to get closer to his soldiers and secret service agents with unusual intensity - with a speech outdoors on the Kremlin grounds in front of the uniformed officers, with a minute's silence for the pilots killed in the uprising and with personal conversations. And Putin emphasizes that the use of everyone against the troops of mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin saved Russia from a "civil war." That may be an exaggeration, but the choice of words should show how serious the situation in the nuclear power is.
Putin, who has led the giant empire for more than 23 years, is also fighting to stay in power with a view to the presidential election in March 2024. For the Kremlin, the assessments of top international politicians and experts regarding a possible collapse of the Putin system cannot be ignored, which is why Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov now feels compelled to go on the offensive. He does not believe that the power structure in Russia has been shaken by the armed uprising of the Wagner mercenaries, which has since ended. There is no reason for "ultra-emotional hysteria". Rather, the rebellion has welded society further together – for Putin.
One of Peskov's tasks is to downplay even the biggest crises involving Putin. But for many Russians it remains a mystery how ordinary citizens who peacefully speak out against the war in Ukraine with a message on the Internet, for example, end up in a prison camp for years - and someone like Prigozhin and his mercenaries, who are accused of serious war crimes, run around freely. The 62-year-old has arrived in Belarus as expected, according to the ruler Alexander Lukashenko.
The politician, notorious as Europe's last dictator, grants Prigozhin and his troops - and also wants to benefit from their experience in combat operations for their own armed forces, as he said in Minsk. In a speech to the military, Lukashenko let it be known that he had negotiated the end of the uprising with Prigozhin on Saturday in order to prevent bloodshed.
Putin's friend also portrayed himself as the savior of Prigozhin, whom the Russian president wanted to "kill." Lukashenko sometimes likes to use gangster jargon. And he made it clear that Putin and Prigozhin had let their dispute get out of hand. Neither of them is a "hero" in this story. Kitten can no longer tolerate the relationship of long-term friends.
Prigozhin should now set up field camps and training grounds for his troops in Belarus and be able to operate from there. Belarus is also not far from neighboring Ukraine, where Putin is continuing his war, which has been riddled with defeats. However, it is unclear how many soldiers, what command structures and what equipment Prigozhin is now operating with.
Putin again offered the Wagner commanders signing contracts with the Defense Ministry in a speech Monday night. But the distrust of the Wagner mercenaries towards the ministry is great. Prigozhin himself repeatedly criticized defeats in the Ukraine war - due to Minister Sergei Shoigu's "incompetence" in waging the war. The Wagner troupe, which according to a new statement by Putin was completely financed by the Russian state, is now to hand over its equipment to the regular armed forces of Moscow.
Despite Putin's promise of impunity, experts at the US Institute for War Studies ISW now see Prigozhin in a "trap" in Belarus, because the ruler Lukashenko, who is dependent on Moscow, could extradite him and his mercenaries to the neighboring country at any time. In addition, the death penalty applies in Belarus itself, which is why the Wagner troupe, some of whom are said to have committed the most serious crimes, should hardly feel safe.
And Putin himself hinted at what else might be in store for Prigozhin: he now wants to have his former friend's Concord corporate empire scrutinized. Anyone who knows Putin knows that such threats don't end well. Prigozhin, whose name Putin no longer speaks publicly, earned billions, for example by providing food for the Russian armed forces. The Kremlin chief now wants to put all this to the test. The judiciary controlled by the Kremlin has always struck gold with opponents of Putin when it came to eliminating them.
None of this is a liberation for Putin - the Wagner boss is considered unscrupulous and dangerous, tried and tested in power struggles in Africa and the Middle East, for example. Putin's former speechwriter, the political scientist Abbas Galliamov, emphasizes that the revolt not only revealed weaknesses in the Russian security apparatus. Prigozhin marched almost unhindered all the way to Moscow on Saturday, before turning back 200 kilometers from the capital to prevent worse things from happening. Putin is no longer a guarantor of stability, his decline in power is accelerating, said Galljamov.
"Putin's weakening in the eyes of the Russian elite will be faster, stronger and deeper," he wrote on his Telegram news channel. It is once again high time for Putin to look for a successor. He said that Putin was pale in his recent speeches and especially in dealing with the uprising. "He tried to correct that. But it only got worse."