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All eyes are on Moscow, but nobody knows what they are looking at.
Are there other riots in the pipeline? Will Vladimir Putin step up his brutality in Ukraine to compensate? Are its nuclear weapons safe? Will everything somehow return to a tense wartime status quo?
These sorts of questions captivated conversations after a failed mutiny saw mercenaries from the Wagner Group march within hours of Moscow before turning back.
As Putin and Wagner’s boss Yevgeny Prigozhin continue to recount duels over 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 number of hard-to-imagine and even bizarre scenarios are now being teased as everyone speculates about what comes next.
There are « more unknowns than known, » said a senior Central European diplomat, who like others has been granted anonymity to discuss sensitive security issues.
POLITICO lays out some of the known – and unknown – about what will now unfold in the world’s largest country.
Putin’s next act: repression? War again? Kicked out?
Images of Wagner’s troops capturing an important military headquarters before marching towards Moscow with little consequence, only to turn around without even being arrested, prompted confused reflections on what the strongman leader’s potential next move would be.
It is often a crackdown.
« What I think comes naturally now is even more repression in Russia, » said Laurie Bristow, who served as the British ambassador to Russia from 2016 to 2020.
It hasn’t happened yet, though. Indeed, while mocking the leaders of the mutiny for betraying Russia, Putin says he offers a way out for those involved.
On Monday, he said Wagner soldiers would be free to join regular forces, return home, or head to Belarus, boosting speculation that the Moscow regime’s once-dominant position of power is winding down.
An Eastern European diplomat said their assessment is that Prigozhin was « used by a particular group of the Kremlin/FSB elite dissatisfied with the current leadership » in the defense ministry. And, the diplomat added, Putin could still change the terms of his deal with boss Wagner at any time.
This has just created more speculation about what the coming months will entail.
Edgars Rinkēvičs, Latvia’s foreign minister and president-elect, listed a number of options, from « Putin trying to implement more repression at home » to the Russian leader « trying perhaps to launch some offensive in Ukraine, trying to show your audience that you are in full control.
And while most pundits believe Putin will retain power, for now it is recognized that the West must consider a scenario in which he is replaced. Powerful figures within Putin’s orbit and the FSB intelligence service are probably already watching unfolding events – and Putin’s confused response – for any opportunities.
« Chaos always carries risks, but there will come a time when Putin’s position will be eroded and he will be replaced, » said a Western European diplomat.
Speaking alongside a group of European leaders on Tuesday evening, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte insisted that NATO allies do not want instability.
« I refute what Putin suggested yesterday, that we in the West want Russia to descend into internal chaos, » Rutte said. “Conversely, instability in Russia creates instability in Europe. So we are concerned. These developments are further proof that Putin’s war has produced nothing but increased instability, above all it has inflicted intolerable suffering on the Ukrainian people. »
John Lough, a Russia specialist at Chatham House, said he thought it unlikely Putin would still be in power in a year’s time.
How this process plays out – via coup or planned succession – would, of course, affect who comes next.
Emily Ferris, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a leading London-based security and foreign policy think tank, said Russia’s next leader was likely to be « a placeholder very similar to him – someone who has the ear of the security services, he has some kind of security background, he is able to control the oligarchs”.
« The person who comes next, » he added, « would be where the change comes from. »
Wagner’s next boss: Putin? Prigozhin? Belarus?
The mutineer Wagner Group is, surprisingly, not dead yet. Who he’s working for, however, is unclear.
On Tuesday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed that Prigozhin had arrived in his country, where boss Wagner said he will be allowed to continue running his paramilitary firm.
The engagement confused many: Why would Putin allow a rogue force to operate next door under the guise of a charismatic and treacherous leader? What is Belarus getting out of this deal?
Officials in the region are watching the situation anxiously as they try to resolve it.
Minsk has long been a close ally of Moscow and has even allowed Russia to launch attacks against Ukraine from within its borders. Earlier this month, Putin too She said stationed a first batch of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Now, it looks like some Wagner fighters are heading there.
“We have to monitor all movements of the Wagner group very closely,” Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur warned on Tuesday when asked whether the arrival of Wagner personnel in Belarus poses a regional risk.
“It seems there is much more to find out about the Prigozhin-Lukashenka deal,” he said in a text message.
When asked about Wagner’s presence in Belarus, former US Army commanding general in Europe, Ben Hodges, said on Tuesday that this « no longer poses any risk to Ukraine … but potentially strengthens Lukashenko’s hand against its opposition and/or a future push from Russia ».
« I imagine, » Hodges added, « that he’ll also look at this connection with Wagner as a business opportunity for himself in Africa. »
Speaking in The Hague on Tuesday, Polish President Andrzej Duda said Wagner’s presence in Belarus was « really serious and very worrying » and that he believed the move required a « very tough response from NATO ».
Wagner’s forces are already in several African countries, including Mali and the Central African Republic, helping to prop up anti-Western governments in exchange for access to natural resources. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has promised that they will continue to work there. But not everyone is convinced that the job will always be for Moscow.
« Could Lukashenko be smarter than Putin now? » exclaimed a second diplomat from Eastern Europe. « It would be the final blow to Moscow! »
Moscow’s Next Chapter in Ukraine: Deflated Troops? Fewer mercenaries? Dueling paramilitaries?
Officials are working on how the failed Wagner mutiny will impact the battlefield in Ukraine, both in terms of how many Wagner members will return to fight in Ukraine and how their mutiny will affect the thinking of the regular Russian military.
« One of the things we should be watching very closely over the next few days is whether morale dives in the Russian military, » said Bristow, the former British ambassador.
But, he added, « We should be very cautious not to think that this means that Ukraine is not yet in a long and hard battle. »
A senior Central European defense official has pointed out that if Wagner troops are no longer involved in Ukraine, the dynamics could change.
“The Wagner group has been the most effective fighting force of the Russian side in Ukraine for many months,” the official said. “If the group is disbanded and will no longer be deployed in Ukraine, it will reduce Russia’s military offensive capability.”
And it’s not just Wagner: the weekend mutiny could also impact the calculation of oligarchs, companies and commanders inside Russia who control their own armed groups.
Rinkēvičs, Latvian foreign minister and president-elect, stressed that there are multiple private military entities in Russia and that even more could emerge from the weakening of Putin’s position.
« It’s not just about the regular army in Russia, not the FSB, » Rinkēvičs said in a telephone interview, « but also about how this situation could develop if more and more oligarchs, or private companies or people in power formed the own, mercenary forces, everyone must take this seriously.
The next owner of nuclear weapons: the Russian state? A Mutiny Future?
Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal is one element that sets it apart from most other countries in political turmoil. Officials are more than happy to see Putin weakened, but they also want to see nuclear weapons in stable hands.
Indeed, even in this icy phase of the relationship with Moscow, Washington still appeared to be checking in with the Kremlin over the weekend for its nuclear weapons. Speaking on Monday, Lavrov said the US ambassador in Moscow had conveyed a message « that the United States hopes all is well with nuclear weapons. »
But experts and officials say they are confident nuclear weapons will not fall into the wrong hands.
« It is very difficult to imagine a situation where the Russian state loses control of its nuclear arsenal, » said Bristow, the 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 do for security, » said William Alberque, a former director of NATO’s arms control center who now works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and has visited nuclear sites in the past. Russians.
« I have a lot of confidence that their nuclear weapons remain safe and under the command of the 12th GUMO, » he said, referring to a Russian Defense Ministry directorate that manages Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
But the 12th GUMO itself, Alberque said, could become a kingmaker in a future Russian game of thrones. If Putin were to lose power, his successors could court the leadership of the powerful directorate – and whoever wins their support would be in pole position to win a succession fight.
« If there was chaos in Moscow, » said Alberque, « if there were one or more suitors, I think the smartest one would say: ‘I just spoke to the commander of the 12th GUMO.' »
Paul McLearly and Tim Ross contributed to the reporting.