A Second Center of Power and Influence Appears in Russia

The nature quickly fills the vacuum, especially in extreme situations.
Now the gap seems to be the position of the head of Russia.
More openings are coming up in all 89 federal subjects of Russian Federation.

Collage by author from works of Government of the Russian Federation, CC BY 3.0 and Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent times Mr. Putin seems to have somehow removed himself from the governance of Russia. The impression is that he is not interested anymore in anything regarding the war in Ukraine. Actually, this can be understood - everything is going wrong, the "special military operation" (or simply “war”) in Ukraine has become a disaster for him and Russia. First there were retreats of the troops from Kyiv and Kharkiv, then 10-month battle for the small town of Bakhmut and now drones striked the elite suburbs of Moscow and Russian saboteurs, fighting on the side of Ukraine, conducted a few daring raids into Russia's border regions... And yet, much-publicized counteroffensive of the Ukrainians is coming …

Ignoring the important issues of the country by the head of state is unacceptable, and someone had to fill this vacuum. In Russia, this person is Mr. Prigozhin - Russian oligarch and owner of private mercenary company “Wagner”. I have once written about him and his likely presidential ambitions.

So-called "milbloggers" add a lot to the panic and turmoil in Russia, since some of them have audiences in the millions. For example, on May 11, the Ukrainians recaptured a small area near the town of Bakhmut and immediately a large wave of online panic erupted about the "start of Ukrainian counteroffensive”. Many "war correspondents" then had to retract their words.

In addition, since Mr. Putin completely isolated himself from society in his bunker and everything seems to be let loose, the Russian elites, especially in the regions of Russia, may lose their nerve and a large exodus of subjects of the Russian Federation from Russia may begin.

There were 83 subjects of the Russian Federation by 2008. In 2014, Mr. Putin annexed Ukrainian Crimea, and Russia had got two more federal subjects: Republic of Crimea and city of Sevastopol. In 2022, Mr. Putin partially seized four more Ukrainian regions during the current war and annexed them, too. Thus, the state of Russia now formally consists of 89 federal subjects, including 21 republics.

Each federal subject of Russia has its own constitution or charter, legislation, head, parliament, and constitutional court. Each federal subject of Russia will face big changes, merges/separations and get new government soon – after Russia’s collapse.

Changes in Russian perception of the war in Ukraine.

The main newsmaker and truth-seeker in Russia is Mr. Prigozhin now. In his video address on May 9 about the situation near Bakhmut, he harshly criticized the Russian military leadership and mentioned some "happy grandpa" who thought everything was fine, but might be just a fool. Mr. Prigozhin did not immediately specify whom exactly he was referring to, but everyone took this as an attack on Mr. Putin. You can't do that in Russia. All those, who afford to talk like that are in jails or have already been kicked out of the country, but Mr. Prigozhin is hard to be pinned down because of his army.

On May 20, Mr. Prigozhin announced that Bakhmut has finally been taken and Mr. Putin had to congratulate him on that. The Russians widely celebrated the capture of Bakhmut in their media, ignoring the apparent contradiction - the largest country and the "2nd army of the world" celebrated the capture of a small regional town of 70,000 people in Ukraine after 10 months of fierce fighting.

Mr. Prigozhin constantly makes a big mess of the Russian informational space. In a May 24 interview with Russian blogger K. Dolgov, he stated things that were unthinkable a few months ago - that the war of aggression went on in Ukraine, and "denazification" and "demilitarization" of Ukraine had brought the opposite effect. Mr. Dolgov posted then this interview on his Telegram channel. Mr. Prigozhin's statements are completely at odds with Mr. Putin's (Russia's) official opinion, and it is not surprising that Mr. Dolgov has been fired the next day from his position at Telega Online, a pro-Kremlin media project.

Mr. Prigozhin also outlined his current political credo in the same interview: “I love the motherland, I listen to (obey – I.C.) Putin, Shoigu should be fired, and we’ll keep on fighting”, i.e. he cannot yet openly challenge Mr. Putin.

The Russians are afraid of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, and this brings them back to reality from the optimistic picture created by the Kremlin media. I served as an officer in the Soviet Army long ago and we had a joke: "How do you beat the Soviet Union in a war? You have to declare war a month in advance. The officers will torture the soldiers with preparations and they won't be able to fight." The Ukrainians are doing just that now and postponing their highly anticipated counteroffensive for a while.

Mr. Prigozhin started the withdrawal of his mercenaries from Bakhmut on May 25 (perhaps, in part, to remain "the conqueror of Bakhmut" and not be responsible for the possible loss of the town in the event of a Ukrainian counteroffensive). Right after that he went on tour to several big cities in the Russian hinterland to present his nonpolitical (as he says) project "Wagner. The second front", although the trip looked like an election campaign. “Medusa” Media Project has summarized the results of this tour:
"In the last days of May Prigozhin gave three press conferences - in Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok and Novosibirsk. Among the theses that were put forward by the founder of PMCs (Private Military Company – I.C.), were the following: the war will be long, it is urgent to declare a general mobilization, to bring back the death penalty and introduce a planned economy. Prigozhin claims that his current activity should not be regarded as the beginning of a political career: according to him, he has no plans to create his own party or run for president."

The most significant example, as for me, of a change in minds of the Russians is the opinion of a representative of so-called "elite" of Russia, which was officially announced on June 1 at a foresight forum. Konstantin Zatulin, an experienced politician and the first deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee of CIS affairs, accurately echoed Mr. Prigozhin's words that Russia has failed to achieve its goals in Ukraine:
"What were our goals officially declared at the beginning of the military operation?" Mr. Zatulin asked. "You all remember—denazification, demilitarization, the neutrality of Ukraine and the protection of the inhabitants of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, who have suffered all this time. On which of these items have we achieved results to date? None."

Russia can no longer defend its border?

Russian Volunteer Corps and the “Freedom of Russia” Legion (both units are formed from Russian citizens - volunteers and former prisoners of war which fight on the side of Ukraine) conducted a daring combat raid on Russian territory on May 22, 2023. This was the second such raid, the first took place on March 2, 2023 in Bryansk region of Russia.

On May 22 saboteurs in a dozen of armored vehicles freely penetrated 42 kilometers deep into the Belgorod region, fought several battles there, lost two servicemen and came out back to Ukraine on May 23 as they say with trophy armored vehicles and weapons. The Russians belatedly sent against them assembled forces of motorized riflemen (around 3,200 fighters, 20 pieces of equipment), army special forces (around 1,000 people and 40 pieces of equipment) and subsequently reported that they had eliminated 70 Ukrainian "terrorists" and destroyed 4 military armored vehicles.

The truth is as always somewhere in the middle between the statements of the warring sides, but what is important here is that the Russians admitted that such a raid took place at all. That was a slap in the face to the "genius Putin”. It turned out that the Russian border is open - the raid participants said, that border guards and policemen fled, and the Russian army is apparently in southeastern Ukraine.

This incursion greatly lifted the spirits of the Ukrainians and upset the Russians. Russian Volunteer Corps and “Freedom of Russia” Legion promised to repeat such invasions in the near future.
Mr. Putin did not say a word about the raid. His press secretary D. Peskov said that Mr. Putin «had been informed about the incident».

Russian Volunteer Corps and “Freedom of Russia” Legion entered again to the Belgorod region of Russia on June 1 and began military operations there in several settlements.

Kremlin spokesman D. Peskov said again that Russian President was aware of the situation in Belgorod and criticized the international committee for failing to condemn Ukraine.

In contrast to Mr. Putin’s silence, Mr. Prigozhin lashed out at Russian Defense Ministry again and promised to send his mercenaries to protect the residents of Belgorod region without asking permission from the military.

The latest raid of the Russian saboteurs continues according to the governor of Russia's Belgorod region. One of the main goals of these raids is to force the Russians to divert some of their troops from southeastern Ukraine to defend other parts of Russian border.

The clash of reality and Putin's virtual reality.

Things have been going wrong for Russia since the very beginning of this war. This is how it should be when the virtual reality (or Big Lie) Mr. Putin has created for himself and his country collided with reality.

He started a war against the collective West to eliminate, in particular, the sole hegemony of the US in the world and show that Russia was also a great global power. This war with the West has been going on for over a year now for some reason, in Ukraine, and Mr. Putin couldn’t win it yet. Europe did not freeze this winter, and the price of natural gas had returned to its pre-war level. Russia is forced to supply its oil and oil products to India and China at discounted prices. As a consequence of all that, Russia's oil and gas revenues in January-April of this year decreased by about 2 times compared to the same period of last year. Western sanctions also get in the way.

A large number of Russians are dying in Ukraine (whom Mr. Putin does not care about), Ukrainians are dying, too (whom he does not care about either), but now the mastermind of this war - "genius Putin" himself - is in danger. None of the declared goals of the war have been achieved and even worse.

The hostile NATO bloc increased by two countries - Finland has already become a member and Sweden was on the way. The collective West united against aggressive Russia, began to arm Ukraine and recently removed almost all restrictions on the most effective weapons, including F-16s, long-range artillery and cruise missiles. On May 16, Russia launched a massive missile strike against Kyiv, including hypersonic "Kinzhal" missiles. Ukrainian air defense used the recently received US anti-ballistic missile system “Patriot” and effectively intercepted all (!) air targets, including 6 “Kinzhals”.

The fact is that Mr. Putin personally advertised “Kinzhal” missile as irresistible one, and had spent a lot of money at its creation. Now three scientists who developed “Kinzhal” have been arrested and accused of treason.

Clouds are gathering over Mr. Putin.

Things are going from bad to worse, and this is becoming clear to more and more Russians. Mr. Putin is stuck in Ukraine, cannot explain obvious military failures, cannot leave Ukraine without losing the face and the loss of face will lead to the loss of the throne.

Mr. Prigozhin was right by saying 2 months ago that it was urgent to end the war because it might be too late. Mr. Putin probably also understands this and uses any means to push the Ukrainians into peace talks on his own terms, of course. This includes the “grain agreement” which Mr. Putin extended for 2 months, the first phone call during the war from the head of China Xi Jinping to president Zelenskyy in the end of April and even the unexpected proposal of several African countries under the leadership of South Africa to broker peace talks.

Mr. Xi Jinping even sent his special representative for Eurasian affairs, Mr. Li Hui, to visit a few European capitals, Kyiv and Moscow with Chinese peace proposals. Those proposals recognize Russia's seized territories in southeastern Ukraine, which is something Mr. Putin can sell as a "victory" to his people. I think Mr. Putin asked Mr. Xi for that - both personal phone call and special representative with peaceful initiatives. Mr. Xi has showed by that, first, he was "in favor of peace" and, second, he might be able to do what President Biden cannot do – to reconcile the warring parties.

However, these are just diplomatic games. Mr. Putin persistently and peculiarly invites Ukraine to a dialogue on peace also through military actions and regular missile and drone attacks on civilian infrastructure. The most powerful drone attack since the beginning of the war has occurred on May, 28. Russia unleashed 59 Iranian “Shahed” drones on Kyiv, 58 of them were shot down.

And on June 6, the Russians blew up Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant dam which was in the territory under their control and thus created a threat of flooding over a large area of the Kherson region. Another purpose of this explosion is to stop or delay the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Now Russians and Ukrainians are blaming each other and evacuating thousands of locals.

All the above unexpectedly coincided in time right before Ukrainian anticipated counteroffensive. The Russians are really very much afraid of it and they are right. Any, even little strategic success of the Ukrainians can raise a dangerous wave of resentment in Russia and launch a centrifugal movement of regional elites - for example, the recapture of tormented Bakhmut or the seizure of Melitopol where the Russians can be cut off from the supply route to Crimea by land. However, the final blow, which will definitely bring an insight to all Russians and destroy Putin's empire, will be Ukraine's recapture of Crimea.

So is Mr. Putin a genius? No. Just no one wanted to mess with the bandit. Then the bandit made a mistake by starting to act, but he still had a chance not to lose.

It turns out that the collective West is brilliant and Mr. Putin is stupid since just the president of Russia has started all that. The West, doing nothing and consistently calling for peace, "provoked" Russia to start a full-scale war, which might end Mr. Putin’s endless rule. The West doesn’t fight itself, but is carefully pushing Mr. Putin and Russia to their proper place by the Ukrainian hands.

In March 2024 there will be presidential election in Russia and Mr. Putin has nothing to go there with. Yes, he can cancel the election, citing the state of emergency in the country. However, if Mr. Putin cannot dramatically change the course of the war in his favor (and the only means left for this is a nuclear strike), he will not win the election and need to flee the country beforehand.

Time changes the balance of power and something can change. The international coalition to support Ukraine can disintegrate at any moment since every country has its own problems. The pro-Republican US House of Representatives may stop giving Ukraine weapons and money (Mr. Putin must deeply regret not starting a war during the Trump presidency). The Ukrainians may get tired of war, missile strikes, and begin to demand peace on any terms from their leaders...
So, Mr. Putin keeps persuading Ukraine to make peace with the help of other countries and military actions. He is counting on and waiting for the wheel of fortune to turn favorably for him.

Of course, all normal people really want the evil (Mr. Putin) to be punished and the good (Ukraine) to win its just war on the battlefield against the huge aggressive empire. However, happy and fair end happens only in fairy tales. In life, you can see the real end of anything after many years, and it is often unclear what was actually "good" or "bad” along the way. For example, the USSR died (was that good?) in 1991, but reincarnated into Putin's Russia in the 2000s (was that bad?) and is still a threat (is it bad?) to its neighbors who had to know that and prepared themselves in a good way (like the Baltic countries) or in a bad way (like Ukraine).

Mr. Putin still has a chance not to lose.

P.S. Dear Reader! I am very much interested in your opinion on the subject of this article. Please, write a comment or ask a question if you want to clarify something.
Igor Chykalov
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