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Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks at a meeting on tourism development during a visit to Dagestan Republic, in Derbent, Russia, on June 28.Sergei Savostyanov/The Associated Press

So Vladimir Putin was right: the war in Ukraine really is an existential struggle – just not in the sense he implied.

The Kremlin line on Russia’s unprovoked attack and invasion of its democratic neighbour was that Ukraine was historically part of Russia, that Russia was born in Ukraine, that there was no Russia without Ukraine and no Ukraine without Russia: that there was no such thing as Ukraine or Ukrainians as distinct from Russia and Russians.

Occasionally there was a reference to “provocative NATO expansion” thrown in for credulous Western observers – as if Ukraine’s purpose in seeking NATO membership was to invade Russia, and not to deter Russia from invading Ukraine – but for the most part the Russian dictator has been admirably blunt about his ambitions and their imperialist, genocidal justifications.

Frankness, however, should not be mistaken for honesty. The existence of Ukraine as an independent nation is no more a threat to Russia, in any real sense, than are the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

And yet the war has proved existential, after all. It is plainly existential for Ukraine, not just in the sense that Russia’s war aim is to erase it from the map, but because of what so many Ukrainians have endured in the parts of the country that have come under Russian occupation: imprisonment, torture and death.

But, as we have lately seen, this war is also existential for the aggressors: for Mr. Putin, for his regime, even for Russia itself. The Prigozhin mutiny, as it has been called – the attempt by Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group paramilitary at his command, if not to overthrow the Putinite regime, then at least to dictate to it – is very much a consequence of the war. It would neither have been possible nor, as its proponents saw it, necessary without it.

For, as horrible as the war has been for the people of Ukraine, it has been utterly disastrous for the Russian military, a calamity on a scale usually associated with attempts to invade Russia, rather than the other way around. In 16 months of fighting, the Russian forces are authoritatively estimated to have lost more than 250,000 troops; perhaps a quarter of these were killed, the rest wounded or missing. That is four times as many soldiers killed as the Soviets lost in 10 years in Afghanistan. It is more than the Americans lost in the 10 years they were in Vietnam. In 16 months.

And all for – what? Ukraine is no nearer to being conquered than it was at the start. Indeed, it is on the offensive, taking back ground it lost in the early stages of the war.

Any leader of a democratic state who presided over a catastrophe on this scale, if he had not already resigned or been forced out, would be facing ignominious defeat in the next election. At the helm of a personalized dictatorship, with absolute control over the levers of state and near absolute control over mass communications, Mr. Putin has not had to concern himself unduly with such fears. Through his 23 years in power, any Russians inclined to oppose him – and who remain in Russia – have learned to resign themselves to his rule. Not only invincible, he seemed inevitable. Why fight what you cannot change?

Hence the significance of the Prigozhin revolt. The details have not lost their power to astound. That a force of a few thousand men – far fewer, almost certainly, than the 25,000 of which Mr. Prigozhin boasted – could waltz through 800 kilometres of Russian territory unopposed, seizing large cities, commandeering military headquarters, shooting down Russian aircraft and marching to within 200 kilometres of Moscow without losing so much as a single soldier, is not just astonishing, but humiliating – for Russia, and especially for Mr. Putin.

That, after all this – after raising arms against the state, after declaring that Russia needed “a new president,” and after having been denounced by Mr. Putin on national television as a traitor whose actions threatened to plunge Russia into civil war – Mr. Prigozhin could then have been allowed to remain at large, albeit banished to neighbouring Belarus, without facing so much as a traffic ticket for his crimes, only compounds the impression of inertia and impotence at the top.

Quite how this will all play out remains, of course, uncertain. Mr. Prigozhin’s ultimate fate is unclear, whatever assurances he might have been given, either by Mr. Putin or by his puppet, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. So, too, is the disposition of the Wagner Group. It was the threat of Wagner’s absorption into the Ministry of Defence, and thus the loss of his power base, that supposedly prompted Mr. Prigozhin’s desperate gambit. Whether his forces now will be scattered and absorbed all the same, or whether he will be allowed to retain some portion of them, in Belarus or elsewhere, is just one of the many questions still to be answered in this murky affair.

Likewise we can only speculate why Mr. Prigozhin, with Moscow seemingly within reach, would have agreed to fold his tent so quickly, and on such seemingly disadvantageous terms. To be sure, he could have been predicted to face much stiffer resistance on the way into Moscow than he had encountered to date, but that’s the point: if it was predictable, why did he seem surprised by it?

The most likely explanation, and the one for which there appears to be some evidence, is that he had expected to find – indeed, had been led to expect – support for his insurgency from senior figures in the Russian military, perhaps even within the Kremlin, support that failed to materialize in the event. Who these might have been, what he might have been told – and by whom – is only starting to trickle out.

But equally mysterious is why Mr. Putin, and the Russian power structure generally, seemed so utterly caught off guard by Mr. Prigozhin’s adventure. It had been clear enough just from his public utterances for some days or weeks that he was embroiled in his own existential struggle with the Russian military leadership, notably his bitter rival, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. But U.S. intelligence reportedly knew of the specifics of what he was plotting some days before the event, and if they knew, it is hard to believe Russian intelligence did not as well – hard, though given the disarray revealed in Russian security generally, not impossible.

So in the end the two men agreed to a deal, ostensibly brokered by Mr. Lukashenko, that made them both look foolish and weak. Whatever the consequences for Mr. Prigozhin, and for the Wagner Group, it is the consequences for Mr. Putin that are of greatest interest.

What was revealed in those chaotic hours over the weekend is of a piece with what has been revealed by the war: the ossification of the Russian command structure (Mr. Putin is reported to take a hand in the most minor tactical decisions), the hollowing out of the Russian military (evident in the first days of the war, and vastly accelerated by the losses sustained since – why else was Mr. Putin forced to rely on convicts and mercenaries?), the general brittleness of Mr. Putin’s rule.

Part of the military vacuum into which Mr. Prigozhin stepped is simply the result of the overcommitment of troops and arms to the Ukraine fight: With virtually the whole of the Russian army outside the country, there was little left to guard the homeland. But what should have been equally concerning to Mr. Putin was the seeming indifference of what forces Mr. Prigozhin did encounter. If they did not rush to join his cause, neither did they put up any fight against it.

Add to that the show of support he received from the population in Rostov-on-Don, the strategically placed city to the south that was the first to fall, even after he had stood down, and Mr. Putin’s position suddenly looks a lot shakier than it did a week ago. His demise is still not necessarily imminent or assured, but after this it is surely vastly more likely. A political structure built entirely around the perceived omnipotence of one man cannot long tolerate that impression being so decisively punctured.

At this point a number of potential vicious circles come into play. If Mr. Putin is not as strong as he had seemed, if it is possible to challenge him and survive, what is the response, first, among the countries on Russia’s periphery, the Kazakhstans and Kyrgyzstans, who had been accustomed to toeing the Putinite line until now?

What, closer to home, do Russia’s far-flung regions, with their very different ethnic mixes than in imperial Muscovy, conclude? As the centre’s grip on power loosens, do some of the regional barons decide to arm up their local security forces, in the style of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, in preparation for any possible attack: either from the Kremlin, or from regional rivals – or even, who knows, China?

Do the Russian power elites, seeing all this, start to look about for an alternative? Do ambitious officials start to present themselves? Does Mr. Putin, anticipating this, attempt a purge? Does this succeed in quelling doubts, or only accentuate the impression of a jittery, erratic leader no longer in control of events?

And, with all of these divisions breaking out into the open, does Ukraine press its advantage? What is the effect on morale among Russia’s conscript soldiers, already low, at the sight of Russian elites divided amongst themselves? For whom, or what, are they fighting? What is the point? What was it ever? And if Ukraine does make a decisive breakthrough, what further impetus does that give to all of the dynamics of chaos I have just described?

All of which has implications for the democracies, whose cause Ukraine is defending along with its own, and whose support has been so critical to the Ukrainian war effort. It very quickly became clear that the defence of Ukraine must, in the end, mean victory for Ukraine – there could be no reward for Mr. Putin’s aggression, no trading of Ukrainian land, and lives, for a temporary peace – and, equally, that victory could only truly be assured when Mr. Putin was no longer in power.

The moment his army crossed the border into Ukraine – not piecemeal or in disguise, in the ways that allowed Western leaders to rationalize their inaction in the past, but in open defiance of the international order – was the moment his presidency crossed from a mere annoyance or moral blight to an intolerable, indeed existential threat.

Would Mr. Putin’s fall, and the internal chaos that might follow, come with great risks? Of course. But the risks of his being allowed to remain in power – including the nuclear risk – are no less dire. In any case, it is not possible to perfectly calibrate our support for Ukraine, inflicting just enough of a defeat to chasten Mr. Putin but not enough to bring him down. Either we want Ukraine to win or we don’t. Either we do what is required to ensure its victory, or we don’t. One battle at a time.

Still, if regime change had become, of necessity, one of our unstated war aims, the events of the past week have perhaps made the question moot. It was always likely that defeat in Ukraine would lead to Mr. Putin’s demise. Mr. Prigozhin’s achievement may prove to be to have reversed that causation.

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