Putin appears to limp amidst speculation over his health
Western leaders hoping for the toppling of Vladimir Putin must “be careful what they wish for”, with ultra-nationalists such as Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin “waiting in the wings” to replace him, the author of a new book about Russia’s President has warned.
Owen Matthews also believes the 70-year-old realises he cannot hope to emerge from the conflict triumphant and is now focused on achieving limited gains he can present to his country – and the Russian elites who keep him in power – as some sort of victory.
Historian and journalist Mr Matthews, a former Moscow and Istanbul Bureau Chief for Newsweek, was speaking at a time when Ukraine is widely believed to be plotting a counter-offensive aiming at reclaiming territory lost since the invasion of February 24, 2022.
Looking back at everything which has happened since, he told Express.co.uk: “I think Putin’s power has obviously been diminished seriously, but not nearly as much as you might imagine, or Ukrainians might hope.
“Because the bottom line remains that actually there’s really rather little domestic opposition, there’s been very little public protest.
“He’s still kept in control of his propaganda machine.”
Mr Matthews said he knew from talking to his own contacts that “a whole swathe of the Russian elites and senior businessmen, politicians” was “totally appalled” by the war, believing it to be “total madness and stupidity.”
However, he added: “We don’t really see any signs of those people speaking up or rebelling and the only person that really speaks out against the war is the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who’s been slamming, not Putin personally, but the Defence Minister and the Chief of General Staff.
“Prigozhin has got his own axe to grind, but outside of him, there are no voices.
“Putin is weakened, but actually, surprisingly, has managed to maintain his hold on power to a surprising degree.”
Looking to the future, should Putin’s regime fall, Mr Matthews said: “I think the first default position of the people around Putin is going to be to appoint someone by consensus from inside the elite, which is exactly what happened in the last days of Boris Yeltsin, as Yeltsin was losing power, losing his grip on reality.
“The business and political elite in the Kremlin got together and said, ’Okay, we’ll have this guy,’ and they chose Vladimir Putin as a sort of safe pair of hands.
“So it’s an inside-the-palace kind of dynamic. Because the alternative to that is Putin’s power being challenged from outside or rather, competitively challenged, even from inside the elite.
“And that involves opening a whole Pandora’s box, which is like public protests, public politics, debate, all those things that the Russian elite don’t like.”
He explained: “However much they might disagree with each other, what they don’t want to see is any kind of form of democracy or competitive politics returned to Russia.
“So if we’re talking about like who can challenge Putin, it’s not really who entered in terms of a challenge, it’s about who the people around Putin might nominate to take over from Putin, if he completely discredited himself.
“If you’re talking about the opposition outside the Kremlin, the most vocal opposition that’s actually outside the political system is not nice, Western-loving liberals like Alexei Navalny, who is in jail, it’s actually people who have strongly ultra-nationalist and extremely aggressive, people who think that Putin has kind of been too soft on Ukraine and that’s really terrifying. They’re literal fascists.”
Mr Matthews cautioned: “We think that Putin is bad, but there are people who are far more aggressive and far more dangerous than Putin waiting in the wings and that and if that’s the outcome of this war, then we’re in an even more dangerous place. Careful what you wish for.
“So to all those people that want to see Russia collapse in a sort of revolution and the Russian Federation fall apart, take a look at the people who are willing who are going to step up, people like Prigozhin, and those are really scary people.”
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Mr Matthews’ book, Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine was actually written last year but has been republished with significant additional material – and he said the title offers an indication of Putin’s thought processes.
He explained: “I think the bottom line is in the minds of Putin and the paranoid ex-KGB people around them bizarre as they may seem to us as Western observers, they believe that this is a war of defence against a sort of strategic American aggression against Russia.
“There’s a close Putin ally called Viktor Zolotov, who is head of the Russian National Guard, and he said a couple of years ago, ‘Ukraine isn’t important.
“‘Ukraine happens to be where Russia’s border with the United States lies. It runs through Ukraine.’
Moreover, Mr Matthew suggested Putin was “grossly misinformed about Ukraine”, adding: “The Russian-speaking minority of Ukraine, which is a very significant minority, about 40 percent of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, including President Zelensky, by the way, and Putin thought that meant they were Russian or wanted to be part of Russia.
“And that was his really fundamental miscalculation, because actually what he discovered on invading was that even Russian-speaking Ukrainians didn’t want to be Russian at all.
“Basically, their plan was to go in topple, Zelensky’s government, install their puppet and withdraw, and then chop off some of the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine and that will be that.
Yevgeny Prigozhin on the likely outcome of war in Ukraine
“But obviously it didn’t work out that way, the Ukrainian resistance was much stronger than they anticipated and the Western support for Ukraine was much more powerful and united than Putin ever anticipated.”
“So in that sense, you know, that’s why my book is called Overreach.”
Asked to predict what would happen next, Mr Matthews said: “No one knows exactly where this and this offensive is going to end up, I can’t answer that question.
“But I think one thing we can say for sure is that even the US military and military intelligence as we know from the recently leaked series of documents on the Discord server, does not believe that the Ukrainians are going to achieve what they want to they say they want to achieve which is to kick Russians out of every inch of their territory.
“That’s going to be very, very difficult, especially when it comes to the Crimean peninsula.”
The Ukrainians may have better equipment, better motivation, better training, better leadership and better intelligence – but they were still lagging behind when it comes to actual numbers, Mr Matthews pointed out.
He said: “The problem is that all the military experts will say that if you compare quantity and quality, obviously there comes a point where quantity actually outweighs quality.
“You can have all the quality and motivation and equipment that you like, but there’s a sheer volume of numbers that’s on the Russian side, there’s going to make it very hard to push them out.”
A “really simple metric” was that the sum of all the heavy main battle tanks provided by the West, from British Challengers to German Leopards, amounted to somewhere between 60 and 100 – compared with at least 1,600 equivalent Russian military vehicles, Mr Matthews said.
He added: “So if you see it in those terms, the Russian army may be demoralised, they’re extremely corrupt, badly led, all those things that we know but they just got that weight of men and metal behind them the is going to make it very hard for the Ukrainians to push through to the final edges of their own former territory.
“But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will lose this war. I think the Ukrainians have in many senses already done an incredibly impressive job and pushing the Russians back. They’re going push the Russians back even further.
“But from Putin’s point of view, he knows that he cannot hope to win this war, really but he does have a chance and he does have a hope or clings to a hope of not totally losing it.”
Emerging from the conflict with his own regime and life intact was clearly Putin’s main priority – but second to that, he was fixated on hanging on to some territory in Ukraine and claiming it as a victory, Mr Matthews stressed.
He continued: “That’s his endgame, It doesn’t really matter how much he’s how far the Russian forces are being pushed back, as long as he has some things still to hold on to and claim, however, speciously. that’s his war aim.”
Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine is published by HarperCollins today (June 8)
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