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All eyes are on Moscow – but no one knows what they’re looking at.
Are there more uprisings in the works? Will Vladimir Putin step up his brutality in Ukraine to compensate? Are his nuclear weapons safe? Will everything somehow return to the tense wartime status quo?
These kinds of questions gripped the conversations after a failed rebellion saw Wagner Group mercenaries march within hours of Moscow before turning back.
As Putin and Wagner’s boss Yevgeny Prigozhin continue to write dueling accounts of the rebellion, one thing seems certain: the Russian leader’s veneer of invincibility has been shattered.
This does not mean that the end of the Putin regime is imminent. But a host of unimaginable and even bizarre scenarios are now being teased as everyone speculates on what will happen next.
Like many others, a senior Central European diplomat said there were “more unknowns than known”, to discuss sensitive security matters.
Politico outlines a few of the known – and not so – about what’s going to happen now in the world’s largest country.
Putin’s next act: repression? More war? Disqualified?
Images of Wagner’s soldiers holding a key military headquarters before marching toward Moscow with little consequence, only to turn around without facing arrest, sparked muddled musings about the powerful leader’s possible next move.
More often than not, it’s a crackdown.
“What I think follows naturally from this now is more repression in Russia,” said Laurie Bristow, who served as Britain’s ambassador to Russia from 2016 until 2020.
But this has not happened yet. Indeed, despite deriding the leaders of the rebellion as having betrayed Russia, Putin claims he is offering those involved a way out.
On Monday, he said Wagner’s soldiers would be free to join the regular forces, return home or head to Belarus — adding to speculation that the center of power once dominated by the Moscow regime is fading.
An Eastern European diplomat said their assessment was that Prigozhin “was used by a certain group of the Kremlin/FSB elite who are dissatisfied with the current leadership” in the Defense Ministry. The diplomat added that Putin could still change the terms of his deal with Wagner’s boss at any moment.
It just led to more speculation as to what the coming months would entail.
Edgars Renkovice, Latvia’s foreign minister and president-elect, listed a range of options, from “Putin trying to impose more repression in his homeland” to the Russian president “trying to possibly launch an offensive in Ukraine, trying to show his own position to the public that he’s in complete control.” .
And while most experts believe Putin will retain power, for now, there is recognition that the West needs to consider a scenario in which he is replaced. It is likely that powerful figures in Putin’s orbit and the FSB are already looking to current events – and Putin’s muddled response – to spot any opportunity.
“Chaos always carries risks, but there will come a time when Putin’s position is eroded and he is replaced,” said a Western European diplomat.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who was speaking on Tuesday night alongside a group of European leaders, insisted that the NATO allies did not want destabilization.
“I refute what Putin suggested yesterday, that we in the West want Russia to slide into internal chaos,” Rutte said. On the contrary, instability in Russia leads to instability in Europe. So we are concerned. These developments are further evidence that Putin’s war has achieved nothing but more instability – and above all, has caused unbearable suffering to the Ukrainian people.”
John Love, Russia specialist at Chatham House, said he thought it unlikely Putin would still be in power a year from now.
How this process unfolds – via coup or planned succession – will, of course, affect who comes next.
Emily Ferris, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a leading security and foreign policy think tank based in London, argued that Russia’s next leader would likely be “a placeholder very similar to himself – someone with an ear from the security services, who has the type of From the security background, he is able to control the oligarchy.”
“The person who comes next will be the source of change,” she added.
Next Wagner Chief: Putin? Prigozhin? Belarus?
Remarkably, the rebellious Wagner group is not dead yet. However, who he works for is not clear.
On Tuesday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed that Prigozhin had arrived in his country, as the Wagner boss said he would be allowed to continue operating his paramilitary company.
This undertaking confused many – why would Putin allow a rogue power to operate next door in the guise of a charismatic traitorous leader? What did Belarus get out of this arrangement?
Officials in the region are looking anxiously at the situation as they try to sort it out.
Minsk has long been a close ally of Moscow and has even allowed Russia to launch attacks on Ukraine from within its borders. Earlier this month, Putin too He said He had deployed the first batch of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Now, it looks like some Wagner fighters are headed there.
“We have to closely monitor all the movements of the Wagner Group,” Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur warned Tuesday when asked if the arrival of Wagner personnel in Belarus posed a regional risk.
“There seems to be a lot to discover regarding the Prigozhin and Lukashenka deal,” he said in a text message.
Asked about Wagner’s presence in Belarus, Ben Hodges, the former commander of the US Army in Europe, said on Tuesday that this “doesn’t pose a greater risk to Ukraine…but potentially strengthens Lukashenko’s hand against his opposition and/or a future push by Russia”.
“I imagine,” Hodges added, “will also view this Wagner connection as a business opportunity for himself in Africa.”
Speaking in The Hague on Tuesday, Polish President Andrzej Duda said that Wagner’s presence in Belarus was “really dangerous and very worrying” and that in his opinion the move required “a very tough answer from NATO”.
Wagner’s forces are already in several African countries, including Mali and the Central African Republic, to help support governments hostile to the West in exchange for access to natural resources. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pledged that they would continue to work there. But not everyone is convinced the business will always be for Moscow.
“Can Lukashenko now be smarter than Putin?” shouted a second diplomat from Eastern Europe. “This will be the final blow to Moscow!”
Moscow’s Next Chapter in Ukraine: Downsizing? Less mercenaries? The duel between the paramilitary forces?
Officials are working through how the failed Wagner rebellion will affect the battlefield in Ukraine—both in terms of how many Wagner members have returned to fight in Ukraine and how their rebellion affects the thinking of the average Russian military.
“One of the things we have to watch closely over the next few days is whether morale sinks in the Russian army,” said Bristow, the former British ambassador.
But he added: “We have to be very careful not to think that this means that Ukraine still faces a long and arduous battle.”
A senior defense official in Central Europe asserted that if Wagner’s forces were no longer involved in Ukraine, this could change the dynamics.
“For many months, the official said, the Wagner Group has been the most effective fighting force on the Russian side in Ukraine. “If the group is disbanded and is no longer deployed to Ukraine, it will reduce Russia’s military offensive capability.”
And it’s not just about Wagner: The weekend’s rebellion could also affect the calculus of the corporate oligarchs and leaders inside Russia who control their armed groups.
Renkovice, Latvia’s foreign minister and president-elect, emphasized that there are many private military entities in Russia — and that more could emerge amid Putin’s weakening position.
“It’s not just about the regular army in Russia, it’s not about the FSB, but also how this situation can develop if more and more oligarchs, private companies or people in power will form their own forces,” Renkovis said in a phone interview. Mercenaries, everyone should take this matter seriously.”
The next owner of nuclear weapons: the Russian state? future rebel?
Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal is one element that sets it apart from most other countries experiencing political turmoil. Officials are more than happy to see Putin weakened — but they also want to see nuclear weapons in stable hands.
Indeed, even at this frosty stage in the relationship with Moscow, Washington still appeared to check with the Kremlin over the weekend about its nuclear weapons. Speaking on Monday, Lavrov said the US ambassador in Moscow had conveyed a message “that the US hopes everything will be fine with regard to nuclear weapons.”
But experts and officials say they are confident the nuclear weapons will not fall into the wrong hands.
“It is very difficult to imagine a situation in which the Russian state would lose control of its nuclear arsenal,” said Bristow, a former British ambassador.
Others agree — but say Russia’s nuclear arsenal could still play a role in a future power struggle.
“We have a good view of what they’re doing for security,” said William Alberki, a former director of NATO’s Center for Arms Control who is now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and has visited Russia’s nuclear sites.
“I have great confidence that their nuclear weapons remain safe and under the command of the 12th GUMO,” he said, referring to the Russian Defense Ministry’s directorate that manages Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
But Alberky said that GUMO XII himself could become a kingmaker in the future Russian Game of Thrones. Should Putin lose power, his successors could court the powerful leadership of the Directorate — and whoever wins their support will be in pole position to win the succession battle.
“If there is chaos in Moscow, if there is one or more demonstrators,” Alberky said, “I think the smartest one will say, ‘I just spoke to the commander of the 12th division from GUMO. “
Paul McCleary and Tim Ross contributed reporting.
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