The rebellion in Russia blurs the line between patriots and traitors

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The writer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin and a visiting fellow at the European University Institute in Florence

Vladimir Putin appears to have overcome his biggest internal crisis since the Chechen war that began his reign. But the Russian president’s allies at home and abroad are in no hurry to congratulate him. The mood among the elite and the tone of official propaganda is far from triumphant. The prospect of a coup after 23 years in power, and in the second year of the Ukraine War—a campaign that is supposed to cover Putin and his regime in glory—calls his grip on Russia into question. It also challenges the idea of ​​unanimous support from the national majority.

The capture of Rostov-on-Don, one of the largest Russian cities, by the leader of the Wagner Army Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and their rapid advance to within 200 km of Moscow painted a stunning picture of the powerlessness of the authorities, even if this was partly explained by the desire to avoid bloodshed. . Some Rostovites even delivered flowers to the PMC rebels. The people of a country taught by state propaganda that there is no greater betrayal than “color revolutions” have re-enacted the symbolic gesture typical of such uprisings.

Prigozhin’s uprising had its roots in an internal equilibrium that Putin had maintained for years but began to unravel after the faltering invasion of Ukraine. Many Russian citizens refuse to acknowledge the weakness of their country. They blame the defeats in Ukraine on indecision and betrayal at the top. Failures at the front gave rise to demands for further militarization of the economy and purges of the elite. Prigozhin’s vision of Russia went even further: a gigantic North Korea with a complete mobilization of the population and economy, at least until victory.

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Before the invasion, Prigozhin’s role in the Russian system was that of a service provider. With Wagner and his factory, the ex-convict has been doing Putin a favor by engaging in missions the state has been reluctant to undertake in its name: intimidating domestic enemies, meddling in foreign elections and fighting in Africa. As a result, an increasingly ambitious non-state entity with state functions emerged.

With the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine and Wagner’s significant contribution to the war, Prigozhin’s job changed. He conducted public campaigns marked by provocative statements on domestic and foreign policy. His calls to punish the state apparatus and mobilize private business gained him a lot of support in a short period of time.

Prigozhin chose to cross the line after June 10, when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu issued an order to subjugate the “voluntary” combat formations of his ministry. This threatened Prigozhin with the loss of his main power assets to the official Russian armed forces. However, he has not directly challenged Putin – with good reason. During his two decades of rule, Putin has so merged with the Russian state in the eyes of the population that for many to oppose him would be tantamount to an attack on Russia itself.

It seems that Prigozhin’s goal was not to overthrow, but to partially replace the ruler. Removing Shoigu would have allowed Prigozhin to demonstrate his importance not only as a mercenary leader but as a politically influential figure. Prigozhin’s attack on Shoigu, whose military successes in Crimea and Syria made him the regime’s second most popular figure after Putin, was an attempt to secure the position for himself.

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Putin has avoided the worst-case scenario: civil war-style clashes between “patriots”, bloodshed, and the army’s bombing of cities. The state apparatus, especially in the regions of Russia, showed at least passive loyalty. But all this came at the cost of enormous pressure on the regime. And Prigozhin’s actions put the pro-war camp, which he deeply respected, in a difficult situation. Opponents of the war could now be charged with treason against some of its supporters. The official line between “good” and “bad” Russians, or “patriots” and “traitors,” is no longer clear.

Russia’s “patriotic majority” has long suspected that the country’s wealthy rulers and private business elites are indifferent to national interests and ordinary people. This was precisely Prigozhin’s claim, and it will continue to resonate despite his apparent marginalization.

Putin will either have to continue acting in the precarious role of protector of the “corrupt elite” or, under the pressure of last weekend’s events, embark on a purge of that elite. In this sense, Prigozhin’s adventure may spell the end of not only the current form of Putin’s regime, but also the entire legacy of post-Soviet Russia.

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