It’s quite possible that only the end of Putin can put an end to the absurd war he launched to devour Ukraine and return it to the Russian sphere of influence, which has been dwindling since the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. The ambition displayed by the president of Russia – in the destruction of Chechnya, in the skirmishes in Georgia, in the annexation of Crimea and in the underground war that he waged against Ukraine in Donbas since 2014 – finally culminated in the full-blown invasion of Ukraine by a European power, which has returned us to the bloody scenes of World War II.
But Putin’s plans were cut short. What was intended to be a lightning-fast conquest and occupation ran aground on Ukrainian territory. The unexpected courage shown by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his army – combined with the unconditional support of the West and the flaws in Putin’s military strategy – plunged the conflict into a long-term war that threatens to become a lasting armed conflict, such as those that rattle the Middle East. But, a year-and-a-half after attempting to rewrite Russian patriotic history, Putin now faces his biggest challenge… and, for the first time, the enemy can be found within.
From the beginning, it was clear that Ukraine alone could not stop the war, not even with all the weapons and aid received from Europe and the United States. The patriotic effort of the Ukrainian soldiers and the enormous amounts of international support cannot go any further in the face of a threatening nuclear power such as Russia. Only if an internal element of dissent arose in Russia could the contrived consensus around Putin and his war be jeopardized.
Lots of brave Russians tried. But many were imprisoned and thousands fled. Everyone saw the harsh punishment faced by dissidents in prison. For this reason, the challenge could only come from within the regime. The war belongs to Putin and its continuation has always depended on his internal power. For this reason, the outbreak of this short-lived rebellion by the leader of the Wagner mercenary group is the first indication of internal dissent. It also has the potential to unleash the most anticipated question: is this the beginning of the end?
Prigozhin’s mercenaries – criminals lifted from the worst Russian prisons and sent to the front lines as heroes in exchange for pardons – have reached their limits. These murderers and rapists were being used as a spearhead; they were the very first line at the front, ahead of any regular troops. The Wagner Group’s men have suffered the death and mutilation that they themselves have also inflicted on the invaded Ukraine – and on local populations back in Russia. They are criminals and, as such, they have behaved in a criminal manner at the front. Russia will not be able to separate its image from that of these mercenaries. And, for this very reason, it’s even more paradoxical that the most critical link in the chain is the one that has been broken. But that’s the way things go.
Prigozhin’s defiance saw him promise to storm Moscow and finish off Russia’s military high command, before he quickly backtracked. Regardless, his campaign would have surely ended in disaster. However, his message reached the Russian people, who are neither fully nor objectively informed. He will certainly undermine the level of public opinion that supports the government.
Coups and revolutions don’t usually have a single date. But as they gather their forces – while the front is exposed and while Zelenskiy and the West celebrate new signs of Russian weakness – we can say that, this Saturday, a new chapter has been written in this atrocious war. The beginning of the end, hopefully.
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