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Members of the Wagner Group military company load a tank onto a truck in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24.The Associated Press

Nina L. Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at the New School and the co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.

Yevgeny Prigozhin may have called off his attempted coup just before his Wagner Group mercenaries reached Moscow, but the rebellion may nonetheless have fatally undermined Vladimir Putin’s regime. Days, weeks, or even months might pass before the cracks are fully exposed, but make no mistake: every crisis that ends with only the thinnest of resolutions, or none at all, further diminishes Mr. Putin’s stature, and thus whatever support he has left among Russia’s elites. His rivals are probably already eyeing the throne.

In the short run, Mr. Putin could spin the uprising’s failure in his favour. After all, the masses did not rise up to join the rebellion, as Mr. Prigozhin predicted, and Russia’s armed forces stood with the Kremlin, though only half-heartedly, as demonstrated by the fact that Chechen troops had to be sent to Rostov-on-Don to confront Mr. Prigozhin’s mercenaries. But, in time, it will become clear that none of this reflects the Putin regime’s strength.

Mr. Putin’s response to the mutiny was hardly that of a powerful leader or even a skilled tactician. While he condemned the coup and vowed to punish those involved “brutally,” the response did not come quickly enough, and his rhetoric came across as more panicked than menacing. This was a man who was reacting to events, not controlling them.

Worse, far from crushing the mutiny, let alone having Mr. Prigozhin eliminated, he let Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko negotiate a deal that effectively lets Mr. Prigozhin off the hook: the Wagner boss will now decamp to Belarus, and criminal charges against him will be dropped. To some Russians, the deal makes Mr. Putin look pathetically weak, as it seems to have been presented to him as a fait accompli.

Mr. Putin still has some allies, of course, such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic who pledged to send troops to Moscow to fight off the coup-makers. And Russian leaders – including Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and most regional governors – spoke up in defence of the regime.

But opposition to the uprising among Russia’s elites was less about supporting Mr. Putin than about opposing Mr. Prigozhin. While they disagree with a number of Mr. Putin’s decisions – including isolating Russia and strengthening its dependence on China – and increasingly view him as weak and erratic, he is still a safer bet than the volatile head of an army of mercenary thugs and convicts.

At the same time, it seems likely that Mr. Prigozhin does have some Russian leaders on his side. For example, he may have an arrangement with General Aleksei Dyumin, the governor of the Tula region, next to Rostov-on-Don. Some in Moscow believe that Mr. Dyumin – who used to be in charge of Mr. Putin’s security, and at one point was considered one of his potential successors – negotiated with Mr. Lukashenko on Mr. Prigozhin’s behalf, and possibly even promised the Wagner boss a military position in the future.

It would be easy to deliver on that promise if, as some suggest, Mr. Dyumin becomes Russia’s new minister of defence, replacing Mr. Prigozhin’s principal enemy, Sergei Shoigu. Under Mr. Dyumin’s leadership, Russia would undoubtedly adopt an even more brutal approach to the Ukraine war, much to Mr. Prigozhin’s satisfaction.

More ominous for Mr. Putin, Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion could well have been assisted, and even organized, by forces close to the Kremlin or by members of Russia’s domestic security agency, the FSB, who blame Mr. Putin for allowing the Ukraine war to drag on. Even if this is not the case, the fact that Mr. Prigozhin publicly defied Mr. Putin so flagrantly, and lived to tell the tale, could inspire new attempts to overthrow Russia’s top leadership.

So, who might seize the throne? Two obvious possibilities are Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, and his son Dmitry, the minister of agriculture. Another is Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who deliberately appeared on television hard at work during the crisis, while Mr. Putin reportedly flew to safety in Valdai, far from the Kremlin. Then there is Mr. Dyumin, as well as Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who controls his own powerful armed force.

This does not mean that Mr. Putin’s demise is imminent. There have been whispers about Russia’s elites wishing to replace him for a long time now. But change never seems to come. Just as Mr. Prigozhin backed down from a fight that he was not sure he would win, Mr. Putin’s potential challengers seem to lack confidence that they can defeat their rivals.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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