The Russian leader looked visibly uncomfortable during his latest speech
Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed Russia for the second time in the past three days late on the evening of 26th June, his hand uncomfortably forced to respond to the historic events of the weekend.
Regular national broadcasts were at the core of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s successful response to a coup against him in 2016, but the substance of Putin’s approach remains a stark contrast in leadership. The Russian President’s latest speech came as the shooting has stopped, but there was still no direct naming of Prigozhin and he offered only an insinuation that outside forces were in part to blame.
Something is clearly wrong. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine appears not be to working, even at the highest level. Renowned for its ability to conjure up “evidence” to support the regime’s line rapidly, even if sometimes in a slapdash way, there is as of yet no narrative being formed about a new external foe. For Putin to acknowledge that an internal enemy has arisen is without precedent since he raised the drawbridges in the aftermath of his first invasion of Ukraine. It was far easier for him to jail dissidents or hound the opposition into exile, and otherwise pretend they didn’t exist — activist Alexei Navalny’s name went almost entirely unmentioned by Kremlin functionaries even after his 2020 Novichok poisoning, return from medical treatment in Germany and subsequent jailing, and never by Putin himself.
But Putin has acknowledged an internal enemy, even if he claims it is now defeated, by labelling Prigozhin’s rebellion one that aimed “for our society to be split, cloaked in bloody strife”. He did at least claim that Prigozhin’s actions failed because society “steadfastly rejected their actions” and yet state television had broadcast images of locals in Rostov celebrating with the Wagner chief 48 hours earlier. Putin clearly did not enjoy having to make the address. And while the President does often prevaricate and bide his time following key events, his response here was baffling.
He reiterated his decision to provide amnesty for the fighters involved or to allow them to go into exile in Belarus. The only reasonable explanation here is that Belarus has not truly been sovereign since Putin used it to stage direct attacks at the beginning of the full-scale invasion last February. Putin could theoretically keep Prigozhin confined there, “disappear” him, or eliminate him without issue. But the Wagner chief himself declared just hours earlier that his organisation would continue to exist, breaking his own silence before Putin did his.
The Russian leader has acknowledged a threat, but not offered a credible plan to deal with it. He looks weak, and yet he will only look weaker if he reverses course after doubling down on his apparently newfound ability to forgive.
Putin’s system, and potentially the President himself, appears not just to be malfunctioning but dysfunctional. His speech gave no insight into why this may be, but it will raise further questions as to what happens next. Perhaps Putin’s visible discomfort shows that even he does not know the answer to these questions. And that is a dangerous position for him to have found himself in.