Will the Russian Federation Survive Until 2024?
That is the question — if it doesn’t land one in a labor camp.
In 1970, the Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik wrote an essay with a heretical title: “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” That earned him derision in the West. From the East, he won a five-year stay in an Arctic labor camp.
Today’s heretical question might be: Will the Russian Federation survive until 2024? For below Russia’s impassive surface, new forces are in motion, ones that could threaten Vladimir Putin’s hold on power.
If the center loses hold it would threaten the integrity of a sprawling, transcontinental nation of 83 regions and ethnic republics. As Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine looks increasingly bleak to Kremlin insiders, at least five military formations are emerging as private armies, increasingly autonomous of the Russian Army.
Their leaders, moreover, seem to be positioning for a future fight for political spoils. To rein in these independent forces, Mr. Putin’s long-time defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, last week ordered all the groups to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry.
Yevgeny Prighozin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, responded: “Wagner will not sign any contracts with Shoigu.” Earlier, Prigozhin declared that his fighters had taken the long-contested Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and were withdrawing to hand control to the Russian Army.
Russian soldiers, though, reportedly fired on Wagner units as they withdrew. This prompted Wagner soldiers to kidnap the local Russian commander, beating him up and forcing him to record a “confession.” After his release, the commander, Colonel Roman Vinivitin, said Wagner soldiers imitated his execution three times, stole Russian military equipment, kidnapped Russian soldiers, and tortured and raped several.
This week, Mr. Prigozhin is making a campaign-style tour of Russian cities, touting his “victory” at Bakhmut. One of his stops was Ulyanovsk, birthplace of Lenin, whose birth name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov.
After repatriating his soldiers to Russia, Mr. Prigozhin suggested that the defense of Bakhmut be assigned to Akhmat, effectively the personal guard of the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. Mr. Kadyrov, though, ducked moving his troops into Bakhmut, a city that Mr. Prigozhin called “a meat grinder.”
Until now, Mr. Kadyrov’s Chechens have suffered low casualties, overseeing occupied territories in Ukraine, and serving as “barrier” troops, ordered to shoot retreating Russian soldiers. Instead, Mr. Kadyrov’s Akhmat landed a comparatively easy job of patrolling Belgorod, Russia, repelling cross border attacks by units composed of Russian exiles.
Three other Russian armed groups in Ukraine enjoy varying autonomy from Russia’s Defense Ministry. Energy giant Gazprom, the largest company in Russia, fields two armies: Potok, or Stream, and Fakel, or Torch. Recruited largely from Gazprom’s security force, these guards-turned-soldiers enjoy full company benefits. Redut, or Fortress, is owned by Gennady Timchenko, who ranks eighth on Forbes’ Russian billionaire list.
The leaders of all the groups swear fealty to Mr. Putin. It’s clear, though, that they are positioning themselves for a scramble for power in a post-Putin Russia. Mr. Putin’s armor and image of political invincibility — cultivated during 23 years in power — now is tarnished and dented.
On Friday, Ukraine shot down six Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. For years, Mr. Putin personally touted Kinzhal, or Dagger, missiles as untouchable, the most advanced in the world.
Last month, a drone hit a Kremlin roof behind the annual Victory Day parade reviewing stand, a videotaped nighttime explosion that told Russians that their President no longer controls the skies. Several analysts believe the surprise appearance of Central Asian presidents alongside Mr. Putin on the May 9 reviewing stand was a form of international insurance against a second drone attack.
In Moscow and across the country, key parade components were missing. These were the “Immortal Regiments” — Russians carrying portraits of their fathers and grandfathers who served and often died in World War II.
The Kremlin evidently feared that May 9 “Victory” Parades would be taken over by widows and orphans carrying portraits of loved ones killed in Ukraine.