The head-spinning events of the past few days witnessed Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin leading his private army in the direction of Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin calling the events ‘treason’ and accusing his former ally of pushing Russia onto the brink of civil war.
But now with Wagner Group forces turning back, Prigozhin agreeing to exile in Belarus in exchange for treason charges being dropped against him, the big questions are – where is Putin? What is his next move?
Russian state agency TASS quoted Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying his boss was “working in the Kremlin” at the height of the crisis on Saturday.
But some on Twitter, quoting data from the FlightRadar plane tracking service, noted that Putin’s presidential plane – identification number Il96-300PU – left Moscow at 2:16 pm local time.
There was no information on where Putin went or whether he was even on the plane.
BBC reported that Putin’s aircraft was tracked on radar flying to St Petersburg, but vanished near the city of Tver.
Bloomberg noted that Putin hasn’t been seen in public since he made the speech vowing harsh punishment for Prigozhin.
Putin has no shortage of places to go.
According to USA Today, Putin has many palaces including a villa on the Black Sea.
Security measures were still in place in Moscow on Sunday, though fewer police were visible, and passers-by said they were unconcerned, despite Prigozhin’s exact whereabouts remaining unclear.
Of course, I was shaken at the beginning,” Ludmila Shmeleva, 70, told AFP while walking at Moscow’s Red Square. “I was not expecting this.”
“We are fighting, and there is also an internal enemy who is stabbing you in the back, as President Putin said,” she said. “But we are walking around, relaxing, we don’t feel any danger.”
Prigozhin was last seen late Saturday in an SUV leaving Rostov-on-Don, where his fighters had seized a military headquarters, to the cheers of some local people. Some shook his hand through the car window.
Trucks carrying armoured vehicles with fighters on them followed his car.
There were reports that Wagner fighters had come as close as 400 kilometres from Moscow, while Prigozhin himself claimed that “in 24 hours we got 200 kilometres from Moscow”.
The mutiny was the culmination of his long-standing feud with the Russian military’s top brass over the conduct of the Russian operation in Ukraine.
Putin had on Saturday denounced the revolt as treason, vowing to punish the perpetrators. He accused them of pushing Russia to the brink of civil war.
Later the same day however, he had accepted an agreement brokered by Belarus to avert Moscow’s most serious security crisis in decades.
What happens next?
While the agreement halted an extraordinary crisis, analysts said Wagner’s revolt had exposed Putin’s rule as more fragile than previously thought.
Even the experts aren’t quite sure what happens next.
They agree that Putin’s authority in Russia has been severely damaged.
As US secretary of state Antony Blinken told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, the rebellion was a ‘direct challenge’ to Putin that ‘raises ‘profound questions’.
“We can’t speculate or know exactly where that’s going to go. We do know that Putin has a lot more to answer for in the weeks and months ahead.”
Kirill Rogov, a former Russian government advisor, told Bloomberg, “Putin had to make concessions and actually surrender, and instead of defeating Prigozhin, he had to negotiate with him and give security guarantees, demonstrating in public his vulnerability.”
“Previously, Putin absolutely didn’t allow anyone to talk to him in the language of public ultimatums,” added Rogov, who heads Vienna-based think-tank Re:Russia.
BBC quoted leading Russia analyst Tatiana Stanovaya as writing on Telegram, “Many inside the elite will personally blame Putin for the fact that everything went so far and that there was no proper reaction from the president in good time.”
“Therefore, this whole story is also a blow to Putin’s positions.”
Some think Putin will lash out – either at Ukraine or people within his own regime.
Speaking to BBC, Polish Member of European Parliament Radek Sikorski predicted he would “probably purge those who he saw as wavering” and that the Russian government would become “more authoritarian and more brutal at the same time”.
A piece in CNN predicted that Putin may act irrationally in a bid to project strength.
“He may prove unable to accept the logic of defeat in the coming months on the frontlines in Ukraine. He may be unaware of the depth of discontent among his own armed forces, and lack proper control over their actions. Russia’s position as a responsible nuclear power rests on stability at the top,”
“A lot more can go wrong than it can go right. But it is impossible to imagine Putin’s regime will ever go back to its previous heights of control from this moment. And it is inevitable that further turmoil and change is ahead,” the piece concluded.
“The crisis of institutions and trust was not obvious to many in Russia and the West yesterday. Today, it is clear,” independent political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP.
“Putin underestimated Prigozhin, just as he underestimated Zelensky before that. He could have stopped this with a phone call to Prigozhin but he did not.”
‘Window of opportunity’
Within hours of Prigozhin’s announcement that his forces would return to base to avoid “spilling Russian blood”, the Kremlin said Putin’s former ally would leave for Belarus.
Russia will drop the “armed rebellion” charges against Prigozhin and not prosecute Wagner troops, it added.
Ukraine revelled in the chaos, stepping up its own counter-offensive against Russian forces, while analysts also said the deal had exposed weakness in the Russian president’s grip on power.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said he had negotiated the truce with Prigozhin. Moscow thanked him, but observers noted that an intervention by Lukashenko, usually seen as Putin’s junior partner, was itself an embarrassment.
Zelensky’s senior aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that “Prigozhin humiliated Putin/the state and showed that there is no longer a monopoly on violence”.
Russia insisted the rebellion had no impact on its faltering Ukraine campaign, and said Sunday that it had repelled new offensive attacks by Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian soldiers leaving the front line Sunday said the revolt had not noticeably affected fighting around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
“Most people, most military, understand very well that the circus from Russia is still here,” said Nazar, a 26-year-old bearded soldier, parked at a service station on a road leading out of the Bakhmut area.
Kyiv, however, said the unrest offered a “window of opportunity” for its long-awaited counter-offensive.
French president Emmanuel Macron also said the march on Moscow “shows the divisions that exist within the Russian camp, and the fragility of both its military and its auxillary forces”.
Foreign Minister Qin Gang of China, which has maintained close ties with Putin since the Ukraine operation was launched, met Russia’s deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing on Sunday.
Afterwards the Chinese foreign ministry called the mercenary revolt an “internal affair” for Russia while expressing support for Putin’s government.
With inputs from agencies
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