Humiliated, Putin’s every instinct might be to launch a purge against his enemies, writes OWEN MATTHEWS

To understand how Putin will react to the humiliation inflicted on him by the Wagner group mutiny, it is worth paying for two very revealing meetings with radio host Alexei Venediktov, surely one of Russia’s most objective and perceptive media commentators.

At a pre-meeting just after the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, Venediktov spent two hours talking with Putin, drinking white wine and discussing the battle. “Than (Putin) says, ‘Listen, you were a history teacher. What will they write about me in school books? Venediktov remembers.

Initially unfazed by the question, he recovers by detailing a few key takeaways from Putin’s first two phrases on the job.

Putin, clearly irritated, says, “That’s all?” Six years later, in 2014, Venediktov, together with a number of different editors, is invited to perform with Putin during the annexation of Crimea.

Putin greets everyone and, reaching Venediktov, says: “And now?” When he notices that Venediktov has completely made up his mind, he says: “Textbooks.”

The 24 hours that rocked Russia: Humiliated, Putin’s intuition may be to launch a purge against his enemies

In the early hours of the uprising on Saturday morning, Putin gave an emergency speech to the nation, and the tone was strikingly different from anything he has ever addressed before.

To say that the Russian boss is obsessed with his legacy is like saying that Liverpool fans will get joy out of an away win over Manchester City. And so no one could be more indignant at the devil-may-care he had to do on Saturday night to prevent Wagner’s troops from reaching Moscow.

Putin has, in a sense, received because he has not abdicated his throne and defused a full-scale civil conflict. But this victory here was won at a huge price. Putin’s signature demeanor has always been decidedly macho, and his main appeal is that of a ruthless, tough man capable of taking on Russia’s enemies wherever they rear their ugly heads.

Putin’s rant will undoubtedly continue. But Wagner’s mutiny — and Putin’s cowardly capitulation to insurgent appeals — undermined his credibility in exterminating Russian individuals.

In the early hours of the uprising on Saturday morning, Putin gave an emergency speech to the nation, and the tone was strikingly different from anything he has ever addressed before.

Yes, he described Wagner’s mercenary boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, as a “traitor” who had “stabbed Russia in the back,” but in an unprecedented transfer, Putin felt compelled to invoke the idea of ​​Russian unity nationwide.

“We are fighting for the lives and safety of our people; for our sovereignty and independence; for the right to remain Russia, a country with a thousand-year history,” he said. “This battle, in which the fate of our nation will be decided, requires that all our forces be united; unity, cohesion and responsibility’.

Gone is the downplaying of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “special forces operation” rather than a conflict. In Putin’s new story, Russia is denying its life.

But the Wagner coup has made Putin particularly credible in taking down Russian figures. Pictured: Soldiers of the Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner Group pose with a local woman

“We will protect our people and country from all threats, including internal treason,” he promised. “What we are dealing with is betrayal.”

But just hours after those words were uttered, Putin officially pardoned 25,000 of Wagner’s soldiers who had seized the headquarters of the Russian army’s Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don and allowed their chief to be driven into exile.

As Prigozhin’s procession made its way through the streets of Rostov, it was cheered by huge crowds chanting: “Wagner! Wagner! A few hours later, the same crowd taunted the Russian police as they stepped in to fill the power vacuum.

Such cheering on the rioters and mocking the police will echo in Putin’s mind today.

The Russian people, after two decades of repression and a relentless diet of state propaganda, have been extremely reluctant to take to the streets to protest the war.

But when an armed rebel known for his power, including fierce criticism of the Kremlin’s military incompetence, took control of the region’s military headquarters, not only did he face no opposition from the police, army or National Guard, he was wildly applauded. local residents.

Naturally, Putin’s instinct will be to take an ever-stronger step. After all, we are talking about a former KGB man whose hallmark is paranoia. How can he respond other than to initiate a purge of potentially disloyal elements in the military, security services and his own government?

There is certainly a precedent. Stalin, restored as a national hero by Putin, launched an operation to purge the armed forces between 1937 and 1939, in which three out of five marshals, 13 out of 15 army commanders, eight out of nine admirals, 50 out of 57 army commanders were executed and imprisoned. corps commanders, 154 out of 186 divisional commanders, 16 out of 16 army commissars and 25 out of 28 army corps commissars.

This devastating act of self-mutilation crippled the Red Army and Navy on the eve of World War II and, incredibly, was followed by even more officer purges at the height of the war.

Someone like Putin, who is obsessed with his place in history, will not miss the parallel between Wagner’s mutiny and the mass desertion of the Tsarist army that led directly to the Russian Revolution.

“Intrigues, quarrels and political quarrels behind the backs of the army and the people turned out to be the biggest disaster, the destruction of the army and the state, the loss of huge territories, which led to tragedy and civil war,” Putin said. notification. Saturday emergency handle, recalling the 1917 lesson.

‘Russians killed Russians; brothers kill brothers. Its beneficiaries were various politically happy soldiers and foreign powers that divided and tore the country into pieces.

The prospect of a twenty-first-century model of this bloody infighting may keep Putin up at night.

According to him, he is leading an apocalyptic battle against evil forces both inside and outside of Russia, and Russia’s very existence is at stake. Some Russians might even agree with him.

But for many in the country’s elite—mostly well-educated, well-traveled, highly intelligent individuals—the reality is clear: Putin has led the nation into a senseless and destructive conflict that has alienated Russia to its greatest extent and left it abroad. an increasingly helpless financial and political vassal of China; and, at worst, plunge into chaos and civil conflict.

Now his last statement of legitimacy – his ability to ensure Russia’s internal security – has been undermined.

Does this mean Putin is about to fall? In the second case, it is unlikely, especially since any new leader will face financial problems, anger and guilt, which may include the end of the conflict.

Moreover, Wagner’s coup has demonstrated that there are pernicious ultranationalist forces outside the Kremlin’s political ecosystem, ready to violently capitalize on any dysfunctions in the energy corridors.

However, Putin is expected to be re-elected on March 17, 2024. Most Russians believed he was in for another victory, keeping him energized until 2030, when he could be 77 years old.

But Wagner’s rebellion could raise critical questions among many of the elite’s silent majority about whether he was really the perfect guarantor of their wealth and status.

However, he leads a security force that employs 4.5 million people – if you depended on the police, paramilitary police, FSB security forces and the army.

Most of them do not fight at the entrance, however, they maintain the road against internal unrest. After last weekend’s riots, their job has become much more difficult.

Owen Matthews is the creator of Overreach: The Inside Story Of Putin’s War On Ukraine.

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