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All eyes are on Moscow — but no one knows what they’re looking at.
Are there more uprisings in the works? Will Vladimir Putin escalate his brutality in Ukraine to compensate? Are his nukes secure? Will everything somehow return to a tense, war-time status quo?
These types of questions have gripped conversations after a failed mutiny saw the Wagner Group’s mercenaries march within hours of Moscow before turning back.
While Putin and Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin continue to spin dueling narratives about the rebellion, one thing appears certain: the Russian leader’s veneer of invincibility has shattered.
That does not mean the end of the Putin regime is imminent. But a host of hard-to-imagine and even bizarre scenarios are now being teased out as everyone speculates over what comes next.
There are “more unknowns than knowns,” said a senior Central European diplomat, who like others was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.
POLITICO lays out a few of those knowns — and unknowns — about what will now unfold in the world’s largest country.
Putin’s next act: Repression? More war? Ousted?
Images of Wagner troops capturing a major military headquarters before marching toward Moscow with few consequences, only to turn around without even facing arrest, have prompted confused musings about what the strongman leader’s potential next move.
Often, it’s a crackdown.
“What I think naturally follows from this now is even more repression in Russia,” said Laurie Bristow, who served as British ambassador to Russia from 2016 until 2020.
That hasn’t yet happened, though. In fact, despite deriding the mutiny’s leaders as having betrayed Russia, Putin claims to be offering those involved a way out.
On Monday, he said Wagner soldiers would be free to join regular forces, go home or head to Belarus — heightening speculation that the Moscow regime’s once-dominant position of power is withering.
One Eastern European diplomat said their assessment is that Prigozhin was “used by a particular group of the Kremlin/FSB elite dissatisfied with the current leadership” in the defense ministry. And, the diplomat added, Putin could still change the terms of his deal with the Wagner boss at any moment.
That has just created more speculation about what the coming months will entail.
Edgars Rinkēvičs, Latvia’s foreign minister and president-elect, listed a host of options, from “Putin trying to put more repression in place back home” to the Russian leader “trying to maybe launch some offensive in Ukraine, trying to show to his own public that he’s in full control.”
And while most experts believe Putin will hold on to power, for now, there is recognition that the West needs to consider a scenario where he is replaced. Powerful figures within Putin’s orbit and the FSB intelligence service are likely already eyeing the unfolding events — and Putin’s muddled response — to spot any opportunity.
“Chaos always carries risks, but there will come a time when the position of Putin is eroded and he is replaced,” said a Western European diplomat.
Speaking on Tuesday night alongside a group of European leaders, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte insisted NATO allies do not want instability.
“I refute what Putin suggested yesterday, that we in the West want Russia to descend into domestic chaos,” Rutte said. “On the contrary, instability in Russia creates instability in Europe. So we are concerned. These developments are further proof that Putin’s war has achieved nothing but more instability — above all, it has inflicted intolerable suffering on the Ukrainian people.”
John Lough, a Russia specialist at Chatham House, said he believed Putin is unlikely to still be in power a year from now.
How that process unfolds — via coup or planned succession — would, of course, influence who comes next.
Emily Ferris, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a leading London-based security and foreign policy think tank, argued the next Russian leader will likely be “a placeholder that’s very similar to him — somebody that has the ear of the security services, has some sort of security background, is able to control the oligarchs.”
“The person that comes after that,” she added, “would be where the change comes from.”
Wagner’s next boss: Putin? Prigozhin? Belarus?
The mutinous Wagner Group is, remarkably, not dead yet. Who it’s working for, however, is unclear.
On Tuesday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed that Prigozhin had arrived in his country, where the Wagner boss said he will be allowed to keep operating his paramilitary firm.
The pledge befuddled many — why would Putin let a rogue force operate next door under the guise of a charismatic, traitorous leader? What is Belarus getting out of this arrangement?
Officials in the region are anxiously eyeing the situation as they try to sort it out.
Minsk has long been a close Moscow ally, and even let Russia launch attacks on Ukraine from within its borders. Earlier this month, Putin also said he had stationed a first batch of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Now, some of the Wagner fighters are apparently heading there.
“We have to monitor very closely all the movements of Wagner Group,” Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur warned Tuesday when asked whether the arrival of Wagner personnel in Belarus poses a regional risk.
“It seems that there is much more to discover regarding the deal of Prigozhin and Lukashenka,” he said in a text message.
Asked about the presence of Wagner in Belarus, former U.S. Army Europe commanding general Ben Hodges said on Tuesday that this poses “not more risk for Ukraine … but potentially strengthens Lukashenko’s hand vs. his opposition and/or a future push by Russia.”
“I imagine,” Hodges added, “he’ll also look at this Wagner connection as a business opportunity for himself in Africa.”
Speaking in the Hague on Tuesday, Polish President Andrzej Duda said that Wagner’s presence in Belarus is “really serious and very concerning” and that in his view the move requires a “very tough answer of NATO.”
Wagner forces are already in several African countries, including Mali and the Central African Republic, helping prop up anti-Western governments in exchange for access to natural resources. And Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has vowed they will keep working there. But not everyone is convinced that work will always be for Moscow.
“Could Lukashenko be now smarter than Putin?” exclaimed a second Eastern European diplomat. “That would be the ultimate blow to Moscow!”
Moscow’s next chapter in Ukraine: Deflated troops? Fewer mercenaries? Dueling paramilitaries?
Officials are working through how Wagner’s failed mutiny will impact the battlefield in Ukraine — both in terms of how many Wagner members return to fighting in Ukraine and how their mutiny affects the regular Russian military’s thinking.
“One of the things that we should be watching very closely over the next few days is whether morale takes a dive in the Russian army,” said Bristow, the former British ambassador.
But, he added, “We should be very cautious not to think this means that Ukraine does not still face a long, hard fight.”
A senior Central European defense official underscored that if Wagner troops are no longer involved in Ukraine, it could change dynamics.
“Wagner Group was for many months the most effective fighting force on the Russian side in Ukraine,” the official said. “If the group is disbanded and will no longer be deployed in Ukraine, it will reduce Russia’s military offensive capacity.”
And it’s not all about Wagner: the weekend mutiny could also impact the calculus of oligarchs, companies and commanders within Russia who control their own armed groups.
Rinkēvičs, Latvia’s foreign minister and president-elect, underscored that there are multiple private military entities in Russia — and that even more could emerge amid Putin’s weakening position.
“It’s not only about regular army in Russia, not about FSB,” Rinkēvičs said in a phone interview, “but also how this situation can develop if more and more oligarchs, or private companies or people in power are going to form their own private, mercenary forces, everyone needs to take this seriously.”
The nukes’ next owner: The Russian state? A future mutineer?
Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal is one element that sets it apart from most other countries undergoing political tumult. Officials are more than happy to see Putin weakened — but they also want to see nuclear weapons in stable hands.
In fact, even at this frosty stage of the relationship with Moscow, Washington still appeared to be checking in with the Kremlin over the weekend about its nukes. Speaking on Monday, Lavrov said the American ambassador in Moscow had passed along a message “that the United States hopes that everything is fine with the nuclear weapons.”
But experts and officials say that they are confident nuclear weapons won’t fall into the wrong hands.
“It’s very hard to imagine a situation where the Russian state loses control of its nuclear arsenal,” said Bristow, the former British ambassador.
Others agree — but say that Russia’s nuclear arsenal could still play a role in a future power struggle.
“We’ve pretty good sight on what they do for security,” said William Alberque, a former director of NATO’s arms control center who now works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and has in the past visited Russian nuclear sites.
“I have very high confidence that their nuclear weapons remain secure and under the command of the 12th GUMO,” he said, referring to a directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense that manages Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
But the 12th GUMO itself, Alberque said, could become a kingmaker in a future Russian game of thrones. Should Putin lose power, his successors may court the powerful directorate’s leadership — and whoever wins their backing would be in pole position to win a succession fight.
“If there were chaos in Moscow,” Alberque said, “if there was one or more pretenders, I think the smartest one would say, ‘I just talked to the commander of 12th GUMO.’”
Paul McLearly and Tim Ross contributed reporting.