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The Week In Russia: Rebellion, Repression, Weakness, And War


"Putin today is not who he was last week," political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov wrote of the Russian leader.
"Putin today is not who he was last week," political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov wrote of the Russian leader.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

In the wake of the Wagner mutiny, President Vladimir Putin looks vulnerable, but the consequences of the short-lived revolt are far less clear than its causes. And while the political landscape may have shifted, Russia's war on Ukraine and repression at home continue unabated.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

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The fallout from Wagner mercenary force leader Yevgeny Prigozhin's short-lived mutiny is far from over, but one effect seems all but certain: Putin has been weakened.

Countless observers have said so, though their assessments differ in degree. Some say that Putin is "over" or "finished." Others say the dramatic events of June 24 may mark "the beginning of the end" for the former KGB officer who has been president or prime minister of Russia for nearly 24 years.

Strictly speaking, none of those is true. Putin remains the Russian president, and at this point the most likely outcome of the election due next March appears to be that he secures a new six-year Kremlin term.

And if one were to try to pinpoint the beginning of the end for Putin, the search would probably go back more than a year, to his launch of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, or more than a decade, to his decision to return to the presidency in 2012 -- if not further.

In terms of accuracy, the headline on a June 27 guest essay in The New York Times by Russian political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov appeared to hit the nail on the head, describing a palpable truth without predicting the future: "Yesterday's Putin is gone," it read.

The disappearance of the Putin of the past seemed to be both a subjective and objective matter.

Objectively, his image was altered, maybe irrevocably, by the mutiny, in which Wagner forces essentially took control of Rostov-on-Don, a city of more than 1 million, and had advanced to within 200 kilometers of Moscow when Prigozhin abruptly called off the "march for justice."

Putin's "system survived," at least for now, wrote Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin.

But "Putin today is not who he was last week," he wrote. Prigozhin "showed Russians a fleeting glimpse of an alternative future and, by doing so, gave more Russians reason to doubt their leadership. Is Mr. Putin really the all-powerful, czarlike figure they thought he was? That is the question most ordinary Russians will now, finally, begin to ask themselves."

'So Shocking'

And not just ordinary Russians. The so-called elites are also seeing a different Putin, Tatyana Stanovaya, a political analyst who studies these groups, suggested.

"This mutiny was so shocking that the regime appeared to many as near to collapse, which significantly undermines Putin's ability to secure control in the eyes of the political class," Stanovaya, head of the consultancy R.Politik and also a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, wrote on Twitter on June 29.

Still, a "fleeting glimpse" is all anyone got, in Russia, Ukraine, or anywhere else -- leaving aside the fact that, given who Prigozhin is and what he has done in the past, an "alternative future" that might have unfolded had things gone another way last weekend might not be the kind that millions who hope for change in Russia would welcome.

In the days that have passed since Prigozhin halted the "march for justice," Putin has been busy trying to portray the developments as a win or at least do damage control, suggesting that the Russian military had headed off the challenge from Wagner and that the Russian people had rallied in his support -- two assertions for which there is little or no evidence.

But even if yesterday's Putin is gone, Russia looks a lot like it did yesterday and the day before, for that matter: a place where the state is trying hard to suppress dissent. Those efforts seem unlikely to flag in the foreseeable future -- and they might, on the contrary, grow more intense if Putin senses that he is vulnerable or that widespread tacit support for the war against Ukraine is under threat.

In any case, the clampdown continued apace in the wake of the mutiny. One example: Roman Ushakov, a blogger who said he was tortured with electric shocks following his arrest in December, was sentenced to eight years in prison over anonymous posts that, among other things, referred to the killings of civilians and the destruction of the city of Mariupol by Russian forces in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the multipronged prosecution of Aleksei Navalny also continued. Already serving terms totaling 11 1/2 years following convictions in two cases he has dismissed as politically motivated fabrications, the 47-year-old opposition politician went on trial this month on a raft of new charges including creating an extremist group, and his lawyers say he could face an additional 30 years in prison.

If Prigozhin's mutiny gave Russians a glimpse of an alternative future, Navalny has sought to do that in a strikingly different way: at the ballot box. He tried to challenge Putin for the presidency in 2018 but was barred from running in the election, and the network of campaign offices h established across Russia was later deemed extremist and shut down, as was his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Who's The Extremist?

In a Twitter thread posted by his associates, Navalny wrote that he had not learned of the mutiny -- or the deal with the Kremlin under which Prigozhin is to escape prosecution -- until a court hearing on June 26, when his lawyers told him about it and showed images of the scenes in Rostov and the advance toward Moscow. The irony was not lost on him.

"I kept expecting someone to suddenly yell, 'You got punk'd,'" he wrote. "But no one did. Instead the prosecutor came in and we continued the trial in which I stand accused of forming an organization to overthrow President Putin by violent means."

Prigozhin's mutiny, of course, is a result of Russia's war on Ukraine -- it came after he had lashed out with growing vehemence against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, over their conduct of the invasion and what he asserted was the military's mistreatment of Wagner forces, who have played a prominent role in the fighting.

It also came after Prigozhin suggested that the February 2022 invasion was unjustified and unprovoked, contesting the claim that Russia faced a threat of attack from Ukraine and NATO. He again laid the blame on Shoigu, but it was a striking statement -- particularly because Putin has increasingly tried to cast the war as a necessary measure to protect Russia from Washington and the West.

Death In Kramatorsk

"On February 24 [2022], there was nothing extraordinary happening," Prigozhin said in a video released on June 23. "Now the Defense Ministry is trying to deceive the public, deceive the president, and tell a story that there was some crazy aggression by Ukraine, that -- together with the whole NATO bloc -- Ukraine was planning to attack us."

For some in Ukraine, the sight of a weakened Putin has raised hopes that an end to the war -- on terms acceptable to Kyiv -- could be closer than it may have seemed. But there are also concerns that Putin could take escalatory action in an attempt to show strength.

For now, amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in early June, the deadly Russian attacks also continue, and civilians are frequently the victims.

At least 11 people were killed and dozens wounded after a Russian missile strike hit a packed pizza restaurant in the eastern city of Kramatorsk on June 27, Ukrainian authorities said. Among the dead: twin sisters Yulia and Anna Aksenchenko, who would have turned 15 in September.

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).

Yours,

Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

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