Putin's fate isn’t the most important thing for Russia any more

The change of power in Russia might be peaceful. Putin may not take part in next year's presidential election due to health reasons. He may retire to his dacha, where he would probably die peacefully in the following few months as his successor consolidated his power. After all, there is no mafia job for a "retired don".

In my opinion, after the operetta-like rebellion of Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner group there are many keys to solve the situation in Russia. Three, however, are the most important, and from them follows the fourth. One involves the Ukrainian front, the second, an office of one of the officials (the Governor of Tula or the PM of the Russian Federation perhaps), while the third is in Beijing. The fourth key is time.

Paradoxically, the fate of Vladimir Vladimirovich is not and will not be the most important. This, despite the fact that we can expect increased activity from him in the near future, thanks to which he will try to regain control over the country and authority. The same fate awaits the leader of the group of military mercenaries he created. Already, both have become people of yesterday, as per the popular saying. When exactly their fate will be sealed and how the above scenarios (or maybe just some of them) will play out is impossible to say for sure right now. However, a number of elements to this situation can be grasped already.

Beijing is becoming impatient

Let's start with the seemingly most distant key [to solve the situation in Russia], that in Beijing. There are many indications that Putin's Chinese friend, with whom he was to change the world, has lost his patience despite their friendship and cooperation supposedly knowing no bounds. The signals from official Chinese propaganda in recent days leave no doubts about it, even if at times they are unexpectedly subtle. The essential message, however, is far from subtle.

On June 25, China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang received Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Andrei Rudenko. It is not clear whether Rudenko had already been in Beijing [before Prigozhin’s rebellion] or if he went there specifically to reassure his Chinese brothers. Considering that about the same time, a Kremlin representative made a special visit to Damascus to look after Russian interests and convince the dictator there that the Wagner Group would remain in Syria under Russian state control, it's not unreasonable to assume that Rudenko went to China for the same purpose.

The communiqués issued by the two countrties' respective ministries after the meeting differed fundamentally. Moscow said that "the Chinese side supports Russia's efforts to stabilize the situation." The Chinese ministry, on the other hand, dryly and coolly stated that the ministerial pair had "exchanged views" on relations between the two countries and on international issues of mutual interest. This type of formulation suggests a very serious difference, almost an argument, hardly the line taken when cooperation is going well. When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Beijing, the communiqués state that he "exchanged views" with his interlocutors. But how come this happened to Moscow? It is difficult to understand.
Cardboard images of Russian presidents Vladimir Putin and Chinese presidents Xi Jinping in the center of Moscow, June 28, 2023. Photo: PAP/EPA, MAXIM SHIPENKOV
Yet this was only a foretaste. On the same day, Rudenko was received by Chinese deputy FM Ma Zhaoxu who told him that "in view of the complicated and serious international situation, it is essential to stick to the arrangements made by both heads of state, to communicate in a timely manner, to ensure stable long-term relations between China and Russia and to ensure the common interests of both parties. In other words, he scolded his Russian colleague that China was not being informed quickly enough about what is happening, and that its interests are being threatened by the irresponsible actions of the Russians. To be clear, the phrase "exchange of views" also featured here.

China's official daily, the "Global Times", added a comment to this when international relations professor Wang Yiwei wrote openly about Putin's waning leadership. He added that [the rebellion] will make "Putin and the Russian authorities realize more clearly the conflict between Russia and Ukraine should not be prolonged, because the longer the war lasts, the more internal problems will appear."

Characteristic of the Chinese way of communication, all these blows to Putin were delivered in an article entitled "The weakening of Putin's power by Wagner's revolt is the will of the West", much like the positive message about the fabled Mr Smith who has already stopped cheating on his wife. The message was clear: the weakening of the power of the Russian president is a fact, but since the West is talking about it, we [the Chinese] will not agree with it, but Russia should get a grip and stop causing trouble because we've got enough on our hands.

     Next day, the editors of the "Global Times" decided to deal another blow, and once again it bore all the pretense of friendship. Under the title "The West does not understand the Russian patriotic opposition will not act against the state and people", the paper published an interview with two Russian political scientists, members of institutions professionally dealing with friendship between the two countries. Just putting the term "patriotic opposition" in the title was enough to make one think -- are we dealing with other patriots who are as good for Russia as the patriots currently in power? Isn't it interesting? But something else was more interesting. Friendly Russian political scientists as befits friendly Russian political scientists explained everything. They said the president was stronger than ever; that the nation is united around the president; that all conspiracies will fail. Chaos? There is no chaos. There has never been a greater order in Russia! And there will be even greater one!

The interviewer swallowed it all. After all, his job wasn't to ask hard questions, but to let his friends have their say. However, there was one minor but noticeable discrepancy in this friendly Matrix, and that was a reader’s comment beneath the interview. "Global Times" is the official organ of the Communist Party of China. If readers' comments appear under its articles, they are the views of those supporting President Xi and the greatness of China, or disavowing the hostile actions of the Americans. Seeing an unplanned comment is a bit like meeting a sober Siberian (or an intoxicated Martian) in the evening. In this instance, the comment not only appeared but also completely disavowed the narrative conveyed by both Russians about law and order in their country. "How is it possible to say ‘there is no chaos’? What about Wagner's rebellion?", the indignant reader with the endearing nickname GTU49CPHl asked. And again: can the Chinese comrades be accused of anything? After all, they had given their friends space in their media and let them frame the situation as they wished. As for the comment? Well, China is a free country, anyone can comment...

Peace under the supervision of the UN and China?

American analysts on Ukraine: to help “as long as needed,” i.e. until the end of the year.

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Around the same time, China's Representative to the European Union, Fu Cong, in an interview with Al Jazeera TV, when asked about the restoration of Ukraine's 1991 borders, casually declared: "I see no reason why not." A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, with a face that looked like thousand-year-old porcelain, immediately assured us that this statement did not refer to Crimea in any way, and that the Chinese position was "coherent and clear." Coherent and clear enough that you can gently suggest to your lifelong friends in the Kremlin that it can change at any moment and will continue to be "coherent and clear".

Finally, an opinion piece by the experienced commentator Hu Xijin, the title of which proclaimed ambiguously that Putin still had many options, included a sentence containing a veiled threat: "People will watch in the coming days Russia returning to normal ". There is no doubt as to who these watchful "people" are and where they are located. Commentator Hu's statement implies that the Chinese leadership is closely watching the situation in the neighboring country and expects order to reign there. What does it mean? Firstly, that the Chinese leadership will be informed about developments, and not surprised by them; secondly, that the war in Ukraine will soon be over; thirdly, and finally, that both countries will cooperate economically. The latter issue is especially important for China, since the country's economic situation has been shaken by the demographic crisis, the pandemic and the trade conflict with the United States. Meanwhile, the Russian friend, instead of cooperating, is causing more and more problems. It is very possible that the mention of the "patriotic opposition" in Russia is a subtle signal that the head of state does not have to be called Putin, just as long as he is a patriot.

The Chinese option: peace and trade

It just so happens that right after Prigozhin's revolt, the Valdai Club published a text by the Chinese economist Wang Wen, which had probably been submitted to the editorial office earlier, but for some reason was published only now. In the usual way for Chinese texts, it had an official, or "friendly" layer, in which the author wrote emphatically that economic cooperation between the two countries had no borders, and a real layer, in which he listed the limitations to this cooperation. The article clearly showed that the Chinese were dissatisfied with the small scale of trade and its limitation to hydrocarbons. The author expressed disappointment that China imports 110 million tons of grain annually, yet only one million tons come from Russia, despite its arable land area being larger than that of China.

Similarly, disappointment was palpable in the passage on infrastructure, where Wang wrote diplomatically that his research had shown that "the development of Russian infrastructure is extremely slow”, hence the need to build high-speed railways, expressways and networks. And China can take on this task and connect the transport systems of both countries, because they know how to do it.
Prime Ministers of Russia Mikhail Mishustin and China's Li Qiang during a welcome ceremony in Beijing, May 24, 2023. Photo. PAP/EPA – THOMAS PETER/POOL
There are many indications that the best successor to Putin from China's point of view would be the current Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who was received in Beijing a month ago with the kind of honors reserved for Russia’s president. Mishustin talked about closer economic cooperation and avoided political and military issues, other than ritual statements against the West. Such a partner would be perfect for Xi. The mafias fighting each other for a place in the Kremlin should take this into account because if China does want to limit its economic cooperation with Russia, it would be a significant blow. Iran, India, North Korea and a handful of African and Hispanic states alone are not enough to sustain Russia's faltering economy. And when it collapses, ordinary Russians may rebel for purely economic reasons, while both administrative and miliatry mafias may have nothing to steal any more.

Mafia key: who will remove whom

That is a power struggle. There are many indications that Prigozhin's coup could have been successful, but the participants could not ultimately agree on the future distribution of influence. Of course, a thousand or two thousand mercenaries attempting to take the Kremlin (the number 25,000 is a fairy tail) had no chance of success in the military sense. It was simply impossible to conquer a city of several million people with such a force. The group of rebels, with their "African" logistics of getting fuel from gas stations and dragging fuel tankers behind them like sci-fi warriors in "Mad Max 2", could have been destroyed at any moment by a few rockets. It was just a signal for the general public. The entire coup, were it to succeed, would have been played out with telephone calls, not street fighting.

But the phones failed. Those who could negotiate were clearly not yet ready. Was the Governor of Tula and the author of the brilliant operation to seize Crimea in 2014, Aleksey Dyumin, among them? Or General Sergey Surovikin, the "butcher of Syria", a rapist and murderer, and at the same time a proficient military man? Or Mikhail Mizintsev, "the executioner of Mariupol" and an associate of Prigozhin? Or maybe Prime Minister Mishustin, who certainly did not reach his position dealing only with the economy? Many names could be mentioned, but that's not the point. These people function in mafia structures and any change in the position of the Godfather must ensure for them personal security and adequately rich feeding grounds so that they can feed their clients as well.

Perhaps they were unable to reach an agreement. Perhaps there was no time, given that not only U.S. and British intelligence, but Russian intelligence also, all knew about the planned "putsch", while Prigozhin felt that if he did not act immediately, he would not have a second chance. It is characteristic that Surovikin, accused of complicity in the rebellion, was the one who on Friday (June 23) had already appealed to the Wagnerians to halt their activities. Did he know that the rebellion was premature and doomed to fail?
A member of the National Liberation Movement (NLM) at a rally in support of the Russian president at the square in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, June 29, 2023. He wears a t-shirt that says "US and NATO left the territory of the USSR", and holds a poster of Vladimir Putin with a slogan: "We stand with him in defense of Russia's sovereignty. And you?". Photo: PAP/EPA, SERGEI ILNITSKY
Or maybe Putin managed to reassure the mafia bozos in the course of feverish negotiations that he could after all still play the role of Don and that he would provide them with the necessary balance. For how long? Probably until the "families" communicate and put forward an agreed candidate. It is likely, therefore, that the change of power will take place peacefully and "democratically" simply because Putin may not take part in next year's presidential election due to health reasons. He may retire to his dacha, where he would probably die peacefully in the following few months as his successor consolidated his power. After all, there is no mafia job for a retired Don.

War key

Another key lies on the Ukrainian front. It is no coincidence that virtually all Western comments after the hot weekend in Russia focused on one essential: the West must continue and even increase military aid to Ukraine. The pressure on Russia must not be reduced. The non-radical British think tank Chatham House released a lengthy report this week entitled "How to end Russia's war in Ukraine." In it, a group of authors cracks down on the theses of "realists", mercilessly criticizing sentences such as "every war ends at the negotiating table", "Russian security fears must be acknowledged", "Russian defeat is more dangerous than Russian victory", and Moscow’s defeat will destabilize Russia internally."

It is the war that destabilizes Russia. It was supposed to be a quick victory ending with the annexation of the failed state to the "Mother" but it turned into a fight to the death. Tens of thousands of Russians have died. Soon it will be necessary to mobilize tens of thousands more. At the same time, Russia’s economy is shifting closer and closer to warfare. This means that in a matter of a few months, millions of ordinary citizens of the Federation may face shortages of supplies. In addition, there is complete ideological chaos in the country. Former patriots are turning out to be traitors, yet instead of being punished, they are declared patriots again a day later. On the other hand, radicals like Igor Girkin are claiming that Putin must be removed from the Kremlin and nobody punishes them either. State propaganda does not keep up with the developments and gets lost in more and more new concepts. Truly there is chaos.

In addition, the military themselves are increasingly dissatisfied with the war. These are not special operations in third world countries, easy and conducted with a large technological advantage. This is a fight against a strong, determined and well-equipped opponent. A fight they are gradually losing. Prigozhin's open criticism of the war also had its overtones. He denied the war’s sense, but above all he called it "war" many times, something that in Russia is not allowed. You can go to prison just for that. Russia is tired of war.

First, Putin hoped that he would defeat Ukraine quickly, and then that the prolonged conflict would definitely weaken the West and allow for the capture of an isolated state. However, it seems that the stick that Putin seemed to hold in his hands has rotted. In fact, the only way for him to end the war on his terms (and save his power) is using nuclear weapons. However, Russian society strongly opposes this. In a recent poll by the Levada Center, over 80% of those questioned said that these weapons should not be used in Ukraine "regardless of the circumstances." China is also opposed. Finally, members of the Russian establishment object. Sergei Karaganov's statement that Russia should use nuclear weapons to "break the will" of the West met with polemics from other political scientists. Would members of the Mafia's administrative-military "families" be happy with such a prospect? It is doubtful because these people do not care about the Great Russian ideology. At most they treat it as a tool. They do not care about "breaking the will of the West" either. They only care about their own interests and power.

Putin's and Ukraine's definitions of victory differ so fundamentally that there is no way to reconcile them. Perhaps in the fall, when the Ukrainian counter-offensive does not bring much in the way of results, the West may want to put pressure on Kiev to freeze the conflict, as indicated by a number of American comments earlier this year. Putin will then have the opportunity to present this as a kind of success. Perhaps the Russian president is still counting on it and will want to survive until autumn. Only time is short and the material at his disposal is falling apart in his hands. And the West, i.e. the U.S., is showing greater determination than was evident just a few months ago.

The most important key: time

Time is the key factor. Ukraine needs to get as much land as possible before the autumn rains. Putin must do something about the war, achieve some or any success, otherwise his power will fall apart, and the only real ally (I do not count Belarus) will eventually leave him. Mafia families in Russia must come to terms before next year's presidential election to determine who will take over the Don's position. There are many indications that the next six months will be decisive for Russia.

–Robert Bogdanski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Souvenirs market in St. Petersburg, June 28, 2023. Face masks depicting the main actors of the aborted Wagner rebellion are still hanging side by side on a stall: from left to right, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who was supposed to mediate between Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of PMC (Private Military Company) Wagner, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: PAP/EPA, ANATOLY MALTSEV
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