Editor’s note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and blogs at Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
For hours, as Friday morphed into Saturday and then into Sunday in Russia, the world seemed to be holding its collective breath, to be bracing for the next shoe to drop.
Then suddenly it was over. Or was it? I think not — at all.
The stunning announcement that Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner paramilitary group, was halting what seemed to be an inevitable confrontation with the forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin — some called it a coup d’état, others a civil war — did indeed remove the prospects of a bloody battle at the gates of the Kremlin.
Prigozhin was turning his troops around from advancing to Moscow and heading (or so the Kremlin and Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko avowed) into what appears to be exile in Belarus.
Halted indeed was the immediate crisis, but not the underlying foundations that Prigozhin and Putin had laid long before.
Above all there was the long-unspoken belief by many Russians who feared to make their voices heard that fundamentally, the war in Ukraine is not worth fighting or dying for — far from it. Now, that dirty little secret has had a full, if not yet complete, airing. And the consequences of that alone could be monumental.
The most immediate and perhaps epiphanous moment began on Friday when Prigozhin released a stunning 30-minute video describing the invasion of Ukraine as “a racket” carried out by a corrupt elite, though he carefully avoided any direct mention of Putin.
“The oligarchic clan that rules Russia needed the war,” Prigozhin said. “The mentally ill scumbags decided: ‘It’s OK, we’ll throw in a few thousand more Russian men as cannon fodder. They’ll die under artillery fire, but we’ll get what we want.’ ”
Of course, it wasn’t the first time Prigozhin has spoken so directly about the corruption he believes is eating away at the Russian state and military.
Last month, he gave an incendiary interview to pro-Kremlin blogger Konstantin Dolgov, charging, “While the children of the elite smear themselves with cream on the Internet, ordinary people have children in battle, torn to pieces, and a mother cries over her son.”
Noting that the war had accomplished none of its objectives of disarming Ukraine, Prigozhin added, “If (the Ukrainians) had 500 tanks before, now they have 5,000. If 20,000 fighters were skillful then, now it’s 400,000.”
Will relocation to Belarus quiet Prigozhin? That’s hard to see. Now, in theory, though he is beyond the long arm of Putin’s justice system, he could still be brandishing a powerful cell phone and laptop.
But perhaps even more monumental was the equally unspoken but hardly invisible suggestion, now all but a reality, that the emperor really does have no clothes. Not anymore.
Sure, Putin managed to avoid a violent confrontation that could unseat him. Still, he was forced to renege on his pledge made in a nationwide broadcast, while Prigozhin’s forces were on the move, that those on a “path of treason” would be punished: “Those who (organized) and prepared the military mutiny, who turned weapons against their comrades-in-arms, have betrayed Russia, and will be held accountable for that.”
Not really — this was without question the greatest, most direct challenge to his presidency, and there have been no apparent consequences.
Of course, some may not become apparent for a while.
First, the Russian leader has not only Prigozhin to deal with but also thousands of soldiers who more than ever may be wondering just why they are fighting Putin’s war.
Prigozhin’s Friday video was issued on his Telegram channel, certainly widely watched, especially among troops in the field and by millions across Russia. Many of his earlier interviews, especially with Dolgov, are equally followed.
How, then, does Putin or his generals persuade the forces deployed in Ukraine that theirs is a war worth dying for? At least 10,000 appeals from Russian military forces to surrender voluntarily were received on Ukraine’s “I want to live” hotline since September.
Moreover, there seems little evidence that Putin will ditch any of his top generals in the immediate future despite Prigozhin’s warnings that they are incompetent and losing a war they had long ago pledged to win quickly and painlessly. That would appear to hand Prigozhin too easy a victory.
Indeed, Prigozhin’s Wagner Group seems to be the only force that’s winning at all methodically in Ukraine these days. As he pointed out, it was his men who finally seized the strategic town of Bakhmut after weeks of fruitless fighting.
But beyond the battlefield, other uncertainties may loom for Putin. He now appears to be faced with circumstances of his own making and apparently outside his control. That it was necessary for him to turn to Lukashenko, who has long served effectively as a lapdog, to defuse a potentially mortally dangerous situation cannot go unnoticed in the circles that Putin has long relied on for support. And the fact that Putin’s trusted spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was unable to tell reporters where Prigozhin was located seems even more troubling.
Above all, the facts on the ground effectively rebut virtually everything Putin has said. Russia is not winning this war that was supposed to be over in a matter of days or weeks more than a year ago. Ukraine is only getting stronger and better armed, as Prigozhin has pointed out most directly. And the fear is spreading that Putin may no longer be the unchallenged strongman he has portrayed himself for two decades.
Indeed, if it was a question of who was the more powerful, it may be argued that Putin was the one who blinked.
“Sixteen months ago, Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv, Ukraine, thinking they were going to take the city in a matter of days, erase the country from the map,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “Now they have to be focused on defending Moscow, Russia’s capital, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making. So this raises lots of profound questions that will be answered, I think, in the days and weeks ahead.”
Ultimately, the focus shifts to Ukraine and how President Volodymyr Zelensky and his generals can best capitalize on this gift that Prigozhin has suddenly bestowed on them.
Could a powerful strike from Ukraine’s forces be the answer to the tough questions Prigozhin has surfaced during this extraordinary weekend? If so, it may simply be a matter of sitting back to observe how Kremlin power struggles play out.