Putin’s endgame? Kremlin infighting spills out into the open – POLITICO

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Vladimir Putin was master of everything he investigated; then he invaded Ukraine.

For the first time in two decades, the Russian president’s opponents believe it is more likely than not that he will leave in the short term, even as they disagree on how the endgame might play out, who might replace him and when . Much depends on the course of a war that turns against him and undermines his air of invincibility.

In the past few weeks, the Kremlin’s infighting has spilled out into the open, with insiders publicly criticizing each other and Moscow’s top military command, while demoralized Russian forces are forced to withdraw after humiliating defeats in Ukraine, and a confused, unpopular mobilization backfires on the home front.

Top officials now appear to be scrambling to take advantage of the changing political landscape. Kremlin watchers argue for glimpses of public dissent from members of Russia’s elite – including the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and paramilitary commander Yevgeny Prigozhin – is unprecedented.

Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin’s prime minister from 2000 to 2004, predicts that the president’s grip on power could slip suddenly. “In three or four months, I believe there will be a decisive change,” Kasyanov, now living in exile, told Sky News on September 30.

Other Putin opponents are less definitive about the timing, but with accusations mounting and criticism mounting of Russia’s military leaders, they sense the war marks a turning point and hope for the beginning of the end for Russia’s latter-day czar.

“Can he wiggle out, I don’t know,” Russian exile and prominent Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky told POLITICO. Thanks to Ukraine’s resistance and Russia’s missteps and inept battlefield tactics, Kremlin insiders and other major political players appear to be considering life after Putin, he added.

The war party

Khodorkovsky believes that explains why some Kremlin insiders seek the political spotlight — particularly Kadyrov and Prigozhin, normally close allies of the Russian leader. They have launched broadsides against Russia’s military leaders, men they despise as “peacetime generals.”

As leaders of a “war party”, they have called for more violent action in Ukraine. Both men are careful to appear loyal, but Khodorkovsky suspects they are playing a double game. “Prigozhin is under Putin’s control today,” Khodorkovsky said. “But he is also getting ready for life after Putin. And he is building a relationship with Kadyrov,” he adds.

Prigozhin has changed his mode of operation. In late September, he acknowledged for the first time that he founded the Wagner Group, the Russian paramilitary outfit accused of commit gross human rights violations in Africa, Syria and Ukraine on behalf of the Kremlin. It’s a surprising admission considering he has sued earlier media to designate him as Wagner’s boss.

Now he presents himself as someone to be taken seriously as a military commander and, in light of Ukraine’s counter-offensives around Kharkiv and Kherson, has applauded Kadyrov for his demands on social media for “more drastic measures”, including a declaration of martial law. in Russia’s border areas and “use of low-yield nuclear weapons.”

Prigozhin has also joined Kadyrov’s call for hapless commanders to be punished, stripped of their rank and medals and sent to the front. “Beautiful, Ramzan, keep going,” Prigozhin said in a social media post. “These thugs should be sent to the front barefoot with machine guns,” he added.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian exile and prominent Putin critic, predicts that the president’s grip on power may suddenly slip | Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Crucially, both have avoided direct criticism of Putin. That could serve the Kremlin’s interests — to blame the military and deflect anger away from Putin, exile Russian and Western analysts say. And Putin has not held back from criticizing the Defense Ministry – last week he accused it of mishandling his mobilization order and drafting students.

Notably, the Kremlin has not reprimanded either Prigozhin or Kadyrov, who last week gleefully announced that he had been promoted to the rank of colonel general. After Kadyrov’s call for escalation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov mildly remarked to reporters in Moscow that “the regional heads have the right to express their views.”

Be careful who you criticize

There is some suspicion that it is useful for Putin to have Kadyrov and Prigozhin call for ever more extreme action to keep Western leaders concerned with the unspoken subtext, be careful what you wish for – a Russia without Putin may mean a Russia of Kadyrov and Kadyrov. Prigozhin. Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to Alexei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader, describes Prigozhin as “the most dangerous criminal in Putin’s entourage.”

Still, anyone attacking the top brass is skating on thin ice. It is only a short step from attacking Russia’s generals and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for the catastrophic defeats to criticizing the man who appointed them: Putin. Last month, Peskov warned that while “critical views are currently within the bounds of the law . . . the line is very, very fine.”

Meduza’s news page recently reported rising stars Alexey Dyumin, the governor of Tula, and Dmitry Mironov, former head of the Yaroslavl region and assistant to Putin, quietly support Kadyrov and Prigozhin.

The war has “started a public race for successors,” noted Russian journalist Andrey Pertsev. “In recent years, political maneuvering in Russia was kept in the shadows, but in this new era, loud proclamations and high-visibility political gestures are once again the norm,” he wrote in a recent analysis for the Carnegie Endowment.

Former president and former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, once eager to portray himself as a Western-leaning modernizer, has veered to the right, issuing blood-curdling threats denouncing NATO. The chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, has also pushed himself more to the fore. The same goes for First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko, a former prime minister and bland official who usually shuns the limelight. He has started walking around Donbas in khaki.

Waiting in the wings

Other key players have been quiet and conspicuously absent in public.

These include the director of Russia’s domestic FSB intelligence agency Alexander Bortnikov and Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard and one of the country’s most powerful siloviki, or “strongman” security officials. The National Guard consists of hundreds of thousands of troops, including special police units and rapid reaction forces. Zolotov and Putin worked together in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, but Zolotov is also known to be close to Kadyrov. Why they have stayed out of the limelight is not clear; some analysts wonder if they are “keeping their powder dry.”

Earlier this year, Ukrainian intelligence claimed the FSB spymaster could be part of a group planning a coup.

But some analysts are skeptical that Putin’s grip on power is slipping away. “I think there is an element of wishful thinking,” says Emily Ferris, a Russian specialist at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute. “That would be prudent. But I don’t really know to what extent they are able to make plans,” Putin has “always encouraged rivalry” — a divide-and-conquer strategy, she adds.

Nevertheless, there are signs of an internal power struggle underway with two main alliances forming: a “war party” led by Kadyrov and Prigozhin and an opposing faction made up of the security agencies, Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, Khodorkovsky says. Last week, Alexey Slobodenyuk, a Prigozhin aide and propagandist, was pulled from his car by a National Guard special unit and detained, according to Russian reports.

If Putin’s war continues to go badly for Russia, Khodorkovsky sees two possible scenarios. In the first, the rival cabals band together and pressure Putin to resign, allowing the system he created to survive him, promising him immunity and the preservation of his wealth. In that case, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, a hardline former director of the Federal Taxation Service, would replace Putin. “But then there would be a fight over who controls him,” says Khodorkovsky.

Another scenario is that there is a clash between the “war party” and their opponents in security and defense agencies, which are far more fragmented and demoralized.

Can Putin ride out the consequences of his war? Khodorkovsky remains uncertain, but adds: “I’ve always thought of Putin as a very pragmatic person. I don’t think that way anymore. He trusts his feelings more and more.”

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