Top 1 Magazine

Top One Magazine

‘The People Are Silent’: The Main Reason the Wagner Mutiny Bodes Ill for Putin

With a deal reportedly worked out by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the Wagner mutiny appears to be over. The commander and owner of the “private military company,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, promised to turn the troops back to the Ukrainian border, while he himself was reportedly going into exile in Belarus.

What Prigozhin called the March for Justice is likely to be remembered not so much for the actual military operation as for what it revealed about Russia. Like a powerful searchlight, the 48-hour rebellion illuminated the murky innards of the Putin regime including the military’s divided allegiances, the seeming hollowness of the people’s support for the regime and, by extension, the regime’s shaky legitimacy. The images — of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a famous night owl, addressing the nation in a dark suit and tie early on a Saturday morning; of mangled Russian helicopters felled by Wagner forces; and of residents of Rostov-on-Don jeering local police after the mutiny was ended — do not bode well for the Kremlin.

Prigozhin had been pushing the envelope for months. Yet until very recently his obscenity-laden Telegram rants were directed at the Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov. He hugely upped the ante this past Friday, when he dismissed as fabrications the reasons for invading Ukraine: a preemptive strike against NATO’s alleged aggression and protecting the inhabitants of Russia-occupied Donbas from supposedly relentless Ukrainian shelling. Those were Putin’s pretexts, so while Prigozhin blamed Shoigu for lying to Putin and didn’t name Putin directly, everyone knew that the criticism was ultimately directed at the president.

And so Putin finally decided to end the long-running feud between Prigozhin and Shoigu and Gerasimov. After the Wagner chief refused to sign a “contract” subjugating his troops to the ministry of defense, Prigozhin was already guilty of insubordination and the military leaders’ hands were untied. Whether or not they ordered missile strikes on the Wagner camp, as Prigozhin claimed, he apparently opted for dying like a soldier in a battle against Shoigu’s and Gerasimov’s regular troops to facing a firing squad for treason. (And when a third choice suddenly appeared, the offer of exile in Belarus in return for halting the advance on Moscow, Prigozhin apparently judged that there was enough of a guarantee in the Lukashenko deal keep him alive — even though, a virtual Putin stooge, Lukashenko is hardly in a position to shield the rebel from Putin’s retribution.)

Coups are a tricky thing for an authoritarian. Address the nation too quickly and you are deemed panicked. Wait longer and you come over as indecisive. Putin waited 24 hours. It is now clear why: Once you call it “treason” and threaten the mutineers with “tough” and “imminent” punishment, you’d better follow through. Putin likely hesitated because he doubted that his forces would follow those kinds of orders and he could look impotent as a result.

He was right. Regular troops appear to have melted away before the advancing Wagner forces. There was no resistance even in Rostov-on-Don, the headquarters of the Southern Military District. Apart from a few helicopter gunships, shot down by Wagner, no one attacked the “muzykanty,” or “musicians,” as the Wagnerites like to call themselves. Where were the bomber and jet fighter pilots, who could have pummeled the advancing columns from on high as they marched from the Ukrainian border to Rostov-on-Don?

Even more significant in the long run was the reaction of the people. Coups — and revolutions — are decided not by how many storm the palaces but by how many come to defend them. Indifference helps the plotters. The last line in Pushkin’s tragedy Boris Godunov encapsulates a key condition of a successful rebellion: “Narod bezmolvstvuet.” The people are silent.

In fact, things turned out even more dire than that for Putin. The residents of Rostov were worse than silent. Instead of deploring the Wagner takeover, they appeared in videos welcoming Prigozhin’s “musicians.” Instead of waving portraits of Putin and Russian flags, they brought the insurgents water and candy.

Putin is an avid (and shamelessly mendacious) amateur historian who decries both the end of the Russian Empire and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his address to the nation, he replaced his favorite trope of the 1941 Nazi invasion with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as the calamity from which he was defending the Motherland. That was a telling substitution. Abandoned both by the people of Petrograd and the troops of Petrograd Military District, the Provisional Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks with only two regiments, two armored cars, and two cars armed with anti-aircraft guns. Was this the memory he was guarding against in his address to the nation?

It proved far from a groundless foreboding. Neither the top military brass, nor the prime minister nor the leaders of the Duma parties, nor the mayor of Moscow backed Putin publicly. The fissures in his support were also evident with the Russian people, who appeared at best indifferent to the outcome of mutiny and at worse, like the residents of Rostov, welcoming it.

In the Soviet classic satire “The Twelve Chairs,” when the charming rogue hero senses that fortune is about to shift his way, he shouts, “The ice is breaking!”

The rebellion was ended by the man who started it, and the ice did not break. But we can all see the cracks.

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