Bloomberg Editorial: The Putin problem – what next for the wounded leader?

In a daring mutiny, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the paramilitary group PMC Wagner, posed a significant threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Details reveal a plot to kidnap top Russian officials, which was narrowly averted when Prigozhin changed course towards Moscow. The boldness of the plot and Putin’s apparent leniency towards the rebels highlight the weakened state of the Russian leader. As Russia’s military and economy suffer losses, the West should focus on nuclear safety measures and continue supporting Ukraine, while cautiously navigating Russia’s internal politics.

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How to Deal With a Wounded Putin: The Editors

By The Editors

Russian President Vladimir Putin has faced down the biggest threat his regime has confronted in more than two decades in power. For now. As details about the dramatic mutiny led by Yevgeny Prigozhin — the ex-con who founded the PMC Wagner paramilitary group, which has been fighting in Ukraine — have emerged, it’s become clear that Putin narrowly avoided disaster.

On Wednesday, news media reported that Prigozhin had intended to kidnap two top Russian officials — Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff — when the two visited a Russian region neighboring Ukraine. Western officials say the plot likely had a good chance of working until details leaked to Russia’s Federal Security Service and Prigozhin marched toward Moscow instead.

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Two elements of the failed plot stand out.

First, Prigozhin, a brutal warlord with longstanding ties to Putin, seized a strategically important Russian city, shot down Russian aircraft, took over several key military installations and marched his troops to within hours of the Kremlin, all without meeting significant resistance. The sheer boldness of his original plot — which reportedly included amassing huge amounts of military hardware and advanced weaponry — suggests Prigozhin expected many rank-and-file Russian troops to join in the uprising.

Perhaps more surprising: Putin, a merciless strongman who has routinely crushed perceived threats in the past, seems to have allowed the mutineers to walk. Although the details are still murky, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin ally, brokered a deal under which the rebellious forces withdrew, Prigozhin got safe passage to Belarus, and Wagner troops would face no legal consequences.

Although any kidnapping attempt failed, Putin has emerged from this fiasco as a much-weakened leader. Not only did he appear dazed and vulnerable, he has now been forced into a widespread shakeup of the armed forces, wary of further disloyalty. Prigozhin’s denunciation of the war effort — which he said was based on false pretenses and riddled by corruption — is likely to undermine public support. As Russia’s military and its economy continue to suffer steep losses, the potential for more instability will only rise.

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How should the West respond? So far, NATO has rightly stayed above the fray. Any attempt to influence Russia’s internal politics at such a time is likely to be either ineffectual or counterproductive. Two more modest steps would help, however.

One is to reiterate through all channels the importance of controlling nuclear devices and following established safety protocols. Russia’s embattled leader has not hesitated to make nuclear threats in the past, and recently began moving weapons to Belarus. Amid this added chaos, NATO should ensure that risk-reduction measures, including communication hotlines, are maintained. It should also accelerate recent efforts to bolster its conventional forces, secure its borders and improve ballistic-missile defenses so that they have the capacity to meet any escalation.

Next, the West should continue its support for Ukraine unabated. Any withdrawal of the battle-hardened Wagner troops from the fight (Russia is insisting they be contracted directly with the defense ministry) will likely help Ukraine’s forces, which are undertaking a grueling counteroffensive. It’d be foolish to hold back much-needed military assistance now when it could be most effective on the battlefield and ultimately hasten the end of the war. There’s no need for a reckless escalation: The West’s job is simply to stay the course.

Prigozhin’s brief mutiny called to mind Winston Churchill’s old saying about Russia in 1939: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Perhaps an older proverb, about those who live by the sword, may prove more apt. Putin’s reign — long abetted by a grotesque cast of gangsters, mercenaries and war criminals — was never likely to end well for him. The question is how much damage he can do in the meantime.

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—Editors: Therese Raphael, Timothy Lavin.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg Opinion’s editorials: Timothy L. O’Brien at [email protected]

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