Russian mercenaries’ revolt undermines Putin and could lead to further challenges to his rule

FILE - In his photo taken and released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Thursday, June 8, 2023, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspects the preparation of equipment and weapons for shipment to the zone of the special military operation at the arsenals and storage bases of the Western Military District at an undisclosed location in Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, enter, flanked by Alexei Dyumin, acting governor of the Tula region, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, visits an exhibition at the Splav defense enterprise in Tula, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Moscow, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

In this handout photo taken from video released by Prigozhin Press Service, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, records his video addresses in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023. (Prigozhin Press Service via AP)

For the first time in his more than 20-year rule, President Vladimir Putin’s power appeared to hang in the balance this weekend.

And even though the rebellious Russian mercenary forces who descended on Moscow have turned back, Putin will struggle to project the image of a man in total control that he once did. That could set the stage for further challenges to his rule at home and could weaken Russia’s hand in the war in Ukraine.

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With spectacular ease and a stated aim of ousting Russia’s defense minister, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner troops swept into Rostov-on-Don, a city of 1.1 million people, and seized the military headquarters there. They then continued hundreds of kilometers (miles) north on a lightning march toward the capital without meeting any serious resistance.

Some were even cheered — a sign that Prigozhin’s positioning of himself as an enemy of a corrupt and incompetent elite resonated and a detail that will not be lost on those surrounding Putin in the coming days.

“This whole episode has sowed really profound anxiety across Russia’s elites,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the Institute for Strategic Studies. The actions of the Russian leader’s one-time protégé “severely shake confidence in Putin among those around him who matter.”

For several tense hours, the Kremlin seemed powerless as Wagner convoys rolled through Russia, smashing occasional roadblocks and shooting down aircraft sent by the military in a desperate attempt to stop them.

With the bulk of Russian forces tied up in the fighting in Ukraine, authorities rushed a motley collection of troops and police to protect Moscow, dug up roads and even blew up bridges to slow down the onslaught.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov vanished from public view on that decisive day, amplifying the sense of weakness and lack of control.

In a televised address to the nation broadcast early Saturday, a somber-looking Putin accused Prigozhin of betrayal and compared the situation to the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917.

But hours later, the Russian leader granted Prigozhin amnesty — on condition that he goes into exile in Belarus.

While the Kremlin tried to cast the deal as a wise move that helped avoid a looming bloodbath, it was a remarkable compromise for a man who has relentlessly suppressed any sign of dissent and sometimes violently silenced foes daring to criticize him.

The quick pardon for Prigozhin stood in contrast to the Kremlin’s methodical crackdown on dissidents and critics of the war in Ukraine, who have faced prosecution, forced exile or even violent deaths. For many in Putin’s Russia, his handling of the revolt was a sign of weakness.

“Prigozhin demonstrated that it’s possible to capture a city of a million people with impunity, put demands to the country’s leadership, refuse to obey its orders and mount military marches on Moscow while killing Russian soldiers on the way,” said Viktor Alksnis, a retired Soviet air force colonel and current hardliner who expresses views shared by many Russian hawks, who have been increasingly critical of Putin’s rule and his handling of the war in Ukraine. “Russia has moved a step closer to its final and irreparable collapse.”

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