Russian President Vladimir V. Putin always seemed to thrive on chaos. Now it threatens to consume him.
In recent months, as mercenary chief Yevgeny V Prigozhin escalated his feud with the Russian military, Mr Putin has not publicly revealed his discomfort with his diatribes. The silence encouraged the kind of political ambiguity that has long been a hallmark of Mr Putin’s rule: conflicts within the elite were tolerated and even encouraged because they kept potential rivals at bay, while at the same time emphasizing that supreme authority should always be at hand president himself.
The Russian leader’s main litmus test was loyalty – a fact Mr. Prigozhin showed he understood even given his recent criticism of the military leadership: “I listen to Putin,” he said in May. And yet on Saturday, after more than 20 years of benefiting from his personal ties to Mr Putin, Mr Prigozhin threw aside the last remnants of that loyalty, plunging Russia into the biggest political crisis in three decades as its armed forces seized control of key regions took over military installations in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don and threatened to invade Moscow.
At no time since his appointment as acting President on December 31, 1999 has Mr. Putin faced such a dramatic challenge. And it comes from a man who, like much of Russia’s elite, owes his power and status to the Russian president’s informal, personalist style.
“Putin underestimated the threat posed by Mr. Prigozhin,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “He thought he was completely dependent and loyal.”
Putin’s patience with Mr. Prigozhin’s outbursts this year may have served his political intentions, but it led officials, stunned by Mr. Prigozhin’s verbal attacks on Russia’s top politicians, to conclude he enjoyed the president’s tacit support, analysts said . This further reinforced Mr. Prigozhin’s insistence from the outset of his armed rebellion that “this is not a coup” and that the “presidential authority” remains in place.
Confusion over Putin’s personal views only ended on Saturday morning, when the president delivered a five-minute address to the nation, in which he branded Mr Prigozhin – without naming him – a traitor and vowed to crush the paramilitary leader’s uprising that started. But the damage was already done.
There were no immediate signs that Mr Putin’s power was in danger of crumbling, and no one in Russia’s elite publicly sided with Mr Prigozhin. Other powerful men at the nexus of Putin’s informal power structure – such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the powerful leader of southern Russia’s Chechnya region who controls his own paramilitary force – expressed their support for the president on Saturday.
Of course, given Saturday’s rapid developments, it was not possible to find out if Mr. Prigozhin had received any behind-the-scenes support.
In any case, the events were a striking consequence of the informal power structure that Mr Putin had built in his 23 years at the helm of Russia. For more than two decades, the system helped Mr. Putin secure his unmatched authority and ensure that he personally held the keys to wealth and influence in modern Russia.
People who know Mr Putin say the president has always been comfortable with this personalized system because it allowed him to entrust important tasks to a trusted inner circle while preventing the rise of rival cliques that could undermine him. And it ensured that the institutions of the state – from the courts to parliament and the news media to the numerous security services – remained mere instruments in murderous power games brokered by Mr Putin, rather than sources of influence in their own right.
Shortly after taking power, Mr Putin used brute force to crush the “oligarchic” business tycoons who wielded immense influence over President Boris N. Yeltsin in the 1990s. He then allowed competition between rival groups to simmer and even promoted security agencies with overlapping responsibilities; For example, a committee of inquiry, a prosecutor general and a federal security service are involved in investigating crimes.
In the war-torn region of Chechnya, Mr Kadyrov established a private fiefdom, professing allegiance to no official except Mr Putin himself.
A Russian business tycoon, while reflecting on Mr Prigozhin’s rise on condition of anonymity, said Mr Putin’s approach to his rule had always been “divide and conquer”. Another put it bluntly, referring to Russia’s rival law enforcement agencies: “You never know who’s going to arrest you.”
Mr. Putin’s strategy extended beyond Russia to foreign policy; He preferred to keep the world in the dark about his intentions, just as he did when his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine stunned friend and foe alike.
But for those who found their way around this system, the rewards were tremendous. A judo sparring partner from Putin’s youth became a tree billionaire and built Putin’s landmark, the bridge to Crimea. KGB veterans now oversee Russia’s military-industrial complex and its oil sector. A friend from 1990s St. Petersburg is entrusted with control of Russia’s most important private media asset and the bank that is said to be at the heart of Putin’s own financial dealings.
And then there was Mr. Prigozhin, who said he met Mr. Putin in 2000 as a restaurateur in St. Petersburg. He turned those personal ties into lucrative government contracts and described himself as a ruthless, multi-talented problem solver for the Kremlin.
In 2016, when the Kremlin tried to extend the US presidential election to Donald J. Trump, Mr. Prigozhin joined the fray with an internet “troll factory” and waged an “information warfare against the United States.” As Russia sought to expand its reach in Syria and Africa, Mr. Prigozhin deployed his growing Wagnerian mercenary force to those regions – allowing the Kremlin to demonstrate its might while minimizing Russian military operations on the ground.
In Ukraine, Mr. Prigozhin recounts, Wagner troops were only called up after Putin’s original invasion plan failed. For much of the first year of the war, Mr. Prigozhin was above the law as he toured Russian prisons recruiting thousands of convicts to bolster his armed forces.
Earlier this year, the Kremlin appeared to be taking some steps to stem Mr. Prigozhin’s rise to power. TV commentators were ordered to avoid mentioning him on the show, and he lost his ability to recruit convicts.
But Mr Putin appeared to be hesitant about his own support for Mr Prigozhin. In May, he congratulated the Wagner mercenaries on their role in the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in a statement published on the Kremlin’s website. Weeks later, he backed the Defense Ministry’s demand that mercenaries sign service contracts with the Russian military by July 1, a demand that infuriated Mr. Prigozhin.
Many believed the president saw good reason not to put a definitive end to Mr Prigozhin’s social media attacks on the Defense Ministry, which he described as incompetent, corrupt and indifferent to soldiers’ lives. Some analysts say Mr Putin viewed him as a useful figure – a hedge against the risk of a military leader becoming overly popular.
Mr Putin “needs someone quite weak and compromised” to represent the army politically, because in Russia “even the most devastating wars produce very popular generals,” said Andrei Soldierov, an expert on Russian intelligence and a senior fellow at the Center for Analysis of European politics. “His plan was to keep Prigozhin talking, but he miscalculated.”
Now, as Mr Putin is struggling to crush an uprising he warned on Saturday could lead to “anarchy and fratricide,” Mr Prigozhin is threatening as a creation of the Russian president.
Mr Prigozhin “did not have a truly independent power base other than the president’s favor,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s military and security services. “Anyway, it undermines Putin’s credibility and legitimacy.”
Neil MacFarquhar And Valerie Hopkins contributed to the reporting.