How to Deal With a Wounded Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin has faced the biggest threat his regime has confronted in more than two decades in power. For now. As details about the dramatic mutiny led by Yevgeny Prigozhin — the ex-con who founded the PMC Wagner paramilitary group, which has been fighting in Ukraine — have emerged, it’s become clear that Putin narrowly avoided disaster.

On Wednesday, news media reported that Prigozhin had intended to kidnap two top Russian officials — Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff — when the two visited a Russian region neighboring Ukraine. Western officials say the plot likely had a good chance of working until details leaked to Russia’s Federal Security Service and Prigozhin marched toward Moscow instead.

Two elements of the failed plot stand out.

First, Prigozhin, a brutal warlord with longstanding ties to Putin, seized a strategically important Russian city, shot down Russian aircraft, took over several key military installations, and marched his troops within hours of the Kremlin, all without meeting significant resistance. The sheer boldness of his original plot — which reportedly included amassing huge amounts of military hardware and advanced weaponry — suggests Prigozhin expected many rank-and-file Russian troops to join in the uprising.

Perhaps more surprising: Putin, a merciless strongman who has routinely crushed perceived threats in the past, seems to have allowed the mutineers to walk. Although the details are still murky, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin ally, brokered a deal under which the rebellious forces withdrew, Prigozhin got safe passage to Belarus, and Wagner troops would face no legal consequences.

Although any kidnapping attempt failed, Putin has emerged from this fiasco as a much-weakened leader. Not only did he appear dazed and vulnerable, he has now been forced into a widespread shakeup of the armed forces, wary of further disloyalty. Prigozhin’s denunciation of the war effort — which he said was based on false pretenses and riddled with corruption — is likely to undermine public support. As Russia’s military and its economy continue to suffer steep losses, the potential for more instability will only rise.