By political or other means, a transition could be coming
When Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a short address to the nation Monday night, his first remarks since a negotiated end to the weekend's violent rebellion, he was visibly angry as he spoke of national betrayal.
While he didn't mention Yevgeny Prigozhin by name, his target was clear. So is the narrative that is being pushed by the government and the popular television channels under its control.
Their message is that Putin needed to strike a deal with Prigozhin to avoid more bloodshed, and that the decision to negotiate with a man he labelled a traitor was made by a pragmatic leader, not a threatened one.
In a country that reveres its military, the fighters are seen as national heroes by a large part of the population.
"They are elite troops. So being too harsh on Prigozhin might not be in Russia's interest," said Anna Matveeva, a senior visiting research fellow with King's College London.
In Putin's speech, he praised Russian citizens for their patriotism and civic solidarity, but over the weekend as a Wagner convoy travelled hundreds of kilometres toward Moscow, shooting down Russian aircraft on the way, there was no strong show of support for the president on the street.
Instead, crowds gathered around the Wagner fighters in the southwest city of Rostov-on-Don, giving them food and water and cheering them on as they left.
In an interview with CBC News, she said that Russian authorities are pursuing two strategies when it comes to the problem of Prigozhin, who launched a mutiny targeting Russia's top military brass.
He has been labelled a criminal, but she says he is ultimately recognized as a valuable asset.
"The other strategy is that he is a bastard, but he's our bastard and we need to keep him as our ally."
Russia has relied heavily on Wagner fighters in Ukraine, where thousands of them were reportedly killed while seizing ground in Bakhmut in May.
After it was announced on Saturday that Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a deal that saw Prigozhin end his violent revolt in exchange for criminal charges being dropped and exile in Belarus, the Wagner fighters reportedly returned to basecamp.
It's unclear whether that means bases in Russia or positions in Ukraine.
In his speech, Putin told the fighters they could either sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence, or head to Belarus.
Prior to the rebellion, the government wanted to force private soldiers to sign defence contracts by July 1. In an audio message posted to social media on Monday, Prigozhin acknowledged that he launched what he called his "march for justice" because he feared his mercenary group was being quashed.
Yevgeny Prigozhin: From Putin ally to adversary
Yevgeny Prigozhin was one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top allies, until he led what’s described as an attempted mutiny. CBC’s David Common breaks down how Prigozhin went from being one of Putin’s biggest allies to a public adversary.
The Wagner fighters appeared to easily surround buildings in Rostov-on-Don, and travel north along the main highway to the capital, exchanging fire with Russian troops along the way.
Evgeny Popov, a state television host and lawmaker, told CBC News in an interview from Moscow that the Wagner fighters are seen as friends of the military and security agencies.
"They took part in a huge fight for the cities like Soledar and Bakhut," he said. "Some of those guys are heroes of Russia. They have medals."
He said the fighters were able to move so quickly into Rostov-on-Don because they apparently had permission from the local authorities.
Popov called Prigozhin a traitor several times during the 15-minute interview. When asked where he thought Wagner's leader was, he replied that he doesn't know — and doesn't want to know.
"He is nobody for me right now," Popov said.
"He has to take responsibility for his crime. But now the first aim of our state is to win the war and then we will solve our other internal problems."
One of them may very well be Putin's future as president, and Russia's transition to whomever comes next.
Support in the street
According to the Levada Centre, a non-governmental research organization, Putin still has strong support. A poll conducted in April found that 82 per cent of those surveyed approved of the president.
But people didn't rush out to the streets to show their support for the government during the rebellion. Matveeva said it was a stark contrast with the military coup in Turkey in 2016, when thousands of Turkish citizens took to the streets after president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on them to fight off the coup.
"People felt that it's their duty to come out and do something to protect the state," Matveeva said. "Russian society demonstrated a completely different reaction."
While there was no such call from the Kremlin, and many local authorities had asked people to stay off the roads, Matveeva believes many Russian citizens saw the revolt as a fight between powerful elites that didn't really concern them.
And others were resigned to the fact that there isn't much they could do anyway.
She believes Putin is now in the twilight of his time in power, but she doesn't feel Russia is on the cusp of a revolution because for most, life is still pretty stable as the government has tried to insulate most of society from the war and "paint over the cracks" in the economy.
For the Russia elites, she says it is a different story — unhappy with the situation and where the country is headed.
She says Russia is headed toward a transition of power, but it's not clear through what mechanism.
She thinks the most optimistic scenario is that Putin will appoint someone to be his successor ahead of the presidential elections in March 2024. But she believes violence could also end up paving the way for political change.
"The road to violence is open and where it would lead is anybody's guess," she said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Briar Stewart is a correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @briarstewart
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