Vladimir Putin slams ‘treason’ from Wagner mercenary group
The Wagner mercenary group’s shock rebellion has challenged Vladimir Putin’s rule over Russia, experts have said.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, said the president’s authority had suffered a lethal blow despite his deal to quell the unexpected uprising.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin halted his troops’ armed mutiny, that saw them heading for Moscow on Saturday, as the Kremlin agreed to a swift resolution.
But analysts have warned the episode had shattered Putin’s carefully cultivated image as the country’s indomitable leader.
Mr Ellwood, a former soldier, told the Daily Express: “We’ve moved into a very volatile period for Russia. The immediate may have been diffused but this is a dangerous game-changer for Putin and his days are now, in my view, numbered.
“The Wagner group may have been muted and its leader exiled but Putin is significantly weakened and his enemies are now circling, realising that his whole pretence of power is diminishing.
“When a Russian leader has to contain a coup by offering the coup leader a place in exile rather than defeating him directly then you know power is draining from the Kremlin.”
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Mr Ellwood said history had shown that even if leaders survive the “initial wound”, such a destabilising event could lead to a complete regime collapse.
He added: “The cat’s out of the bag just how disastrous the war in Ukraine has been. The big change is that the Russian people now realise how futile Putin’s adventurism is.
“But not only that, they also see that he is significantly weakened after only being able to strike a deal with Russian forces essentially that were marching on Moscow.”
Mr Ellwood said Ukrainian fighters should “take advantage” of the chaos, which is likely to further lower the morale of Russian soldiers.
He added: “That’s how war operates, there are occasions that need to be seized. The luck that Ukraine should now have needs to be grasped and utilised to its best ability.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the attempted armed mutiny has exposed the “real cracks” in Putin’s authority.
He told US media Saturday’s rebellion by Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters was a “direct challenge” to Mr Putin, forcing him into an amnesty agreement.
Mr Blinken conceded it was “too early” to predict what impact the mutiny could have on the Kremlin or on Russia’s full-scale invasion, but warned it “raises profound questions”.
He added: “If you put this in context – 16 months ago, Putin was on the doorstep of Kyiv, looking to take the city in a matter of days, erase the country from the map.
“Now, he’s had to defend Moscow, Russia’s capital, against a mercenary of his own making.”
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Mr Blinken said the weekend’s “extraordinary” events were “just the latest chapter in a book of failure that Putin has written for himself and for Russia”.
He added: “We’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian facade. It is too soon to tell exactly where they go, but certainly we have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead.”
Former MI6 officer Christopher Steele said: “What’s changed I think is that Vladimir Putin has lost authority and legitimacy within Russia and has been challenged in a way.
“Yes, he’s managed to worm his way out of it for the present. To see events unfold in Russia yesterday and the speed with which the situation seemed to spiral out of control must be very concerning for Putin and the people around him.”
Former Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who served under Putin from 2000 to 2004, said it was “the beginning of the end – he’s in very big trouble right now”.
Marina Litvinenko, whose husband Alexander Litvinenko was a critic of Putin before he died after being poisoned in London in 2006, said the attempted rebellion exposed the Russian leader’s weaknesses.
She said Putin’s “brutal” image was “just for frightening people”, and the latest events sent a “special message” about his power.
Edward Lucas, a senior adviser at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, said the UK must prepare for a “deeply dangerous and unpredictable” post-Putin Russia.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the Government was “keeping a close eye on the situation”.
He added: “We’ve been monitoring for a while the potential of Russia’s illegal invasion in Ukraine to be destabilising, and you’ve seen the situation as it’s developing. The most important thing is for all parties to behave responsibly and to protect civilian lives.”
The scale of Putin’s humiliation was becoming clear last night. Reports suggested the Russian military lost 39 pilots and crew during the rebellion.
The Wagner group is a private military company of mercenaries, including many ex-convicts, who have fought alongside Russian forces in Ukraine.
Leader Prigozhin had long feuded with military chiefs over their handling of the war and efforts to gain tighter control over his men.
Events unfolded with dizzying speed on Saturday when he took control of a regional military command in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.
The 62-year-old then announced a “march for justice”, sending a convoy towards Moscow to confront military leaders.
Putin accused his former ally of treason and “a stab in the back of our country”.
But by the evening the rebellion had been called off after a deal between Prigohzin and the Kremlin. Russian authorities said Wagner troops who joined the mutiny will not be prosecuted, while Prigozhin will enter exile in Belarus.
Prigozhin and his troops were seen posing for selfies with residents in Rostov-on-Don on Saturday as the drama unfolded.
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