Opinion | Putin Thinks He’s Still in Control. He’s Not.

Opinion | Putin Thinks He’s Still in Control. He’s Not.

But it soon became a problem. Mr. Prigozhin, riding a wave of popularity, became increasingly personal and insulting in his denunciations of Mr. Shoigu. Yet Mr. Putin failed to mediate. Though he arranged a meeting between the two men in February, he did not, according to a source in the presidential administration, say anything specific in the conversation, hoping the gathering itself was a sufficient warning to stop the public attacks. Mr. Prigozhin did not take the hint, however, and continued to fulminate against the military commanders.

In the weeks after, Mr. Prigozhin traveled the country as if he were a politician running an election campaign, meeting with potential supporters and criticizing the war effort. In this again he was unhindered by the Kremlin, which knew of his plans but chose to do nothing about them. As Mr. Prigozhin grew in popularity, even pulling in a former deputy defense minister as a deputy commander for Wagner — a clear sign he had high-ranking admirers among the security forces — Mr. Putin kept to himself. Sources close to him tell me he hasn’t met with Mr. Prigozhin for months.

This silence was crucial. In early June, when Mr. Shoigu sought to clamp down on private militias like Wagner by making all mercenaries sign a contract with the army, Mr. Prigozhin couldn’t get in touch with the president to object. In the language of Russian bureaucracy, this signals the highest degree of disfavor. A source close to the president told me Mr. Putin could easily have prevented the uprising if he had just talked to Mr. Prigozhin — or at least instructed someone in the administration to do so. Instead, without access to the Kremlin and fearing the loss of his autonomy, Mr. Prigozhin embarked on his aborted uprising.

The fallout was immediate. For Mr. Prigozhin, spurred on by pride and anger, it surely signals the end of his political and military career. Had he bided his time, waiting until perhaps the fall to raise a rebellion while building deeper support across the security apparatus, things could have been very different. Instead, after a deal brokered by President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus — who has known Mr. Prigozhin for decades — the Wagner chief is in Belarus. Exile in the Central African Republic, where the Wagner group has a military base, is reportedly in the cards.

The situation for Mr. Putin is equally serious. In comments this week, he has sought to project control. But there’s no doubt much more will be needed to flush away the memory of the revolt. Despite Mr. Putin’s promises to pardon those involved in the rebellion, repression of the so-called patriotic camp is surely to come. Until now, such figures — hard-liners operating largely on the Telegram social messaging app, who generally support Mr. Prigozhin — could criticize the authorities with some impunity. Now it has become obvious that this hard-right, fascist wing is no less dangerous than the liberals persecuted by the Kremlin — not least because it includes many armed supporters. A purge is to be expected, starting with Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a former commander of Russian forces in Ukraine who allegedly knew of the mutiny in advance.

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