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Russian ex-PM: Wagner destroyed 'myth' of Putin 'stability'

July 1, 2023

Russian former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told DW he believes that Wagner and Yevgeny Prigozhin's mutiny had weakened President Vladimir Putin, and would have even left "the ruling elite" with tough questions.

Russian opposition figure, former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia. Archive image.
Mikhail Kasyanov was Vladimir Putin's first prime minister, from 2000 to 2004Image: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/picture alliance

Russia's prime minister from 2000 to 2004, Mikhail Kasyanov, told DW on Friday that he believed the Wagner mutiny had weakened President Vladimir Putin considerably inside Russia. 

"The main impact is very easy and very simple," Kasyanov said. "Just the stability with Mr. Putin."

For 20 years, Kasyanov said, Russian propaganda had sought to assure people "that the main basis for Putin's rule is stability and potential prosperity." 

The rebellion staged by Russian private military company Wagner and its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, at the weekend, and Putin's response to it, had shattered this image, he said.

"Prigozhin managed to destroy this myth, this image of stability," said Kasyanov.

Kasyanov: 'Putin is much weaker than before'

Recap of Wagner's mystery mutiny

Late on June 23, Prigozhin's Wagner forces alleged that they had been attacked by Russian forces. Early the next day, they occupied the major southern military hub of Rostov-on-Don and started moving rapidly northwards toward Moscow. 

After several tense hours, with only minimal resistance that did not slow the private army's progress, Prigozhin suddenly called off the advance as dusk neared, claiming he had decided to avoid bloodshed.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko appears to have helped broker a deal whereby Prigozhin would move to Belarus, and he and the Wagner Group would not face criminal investigation.

A woman walks near the closed Red Square in Moscow, Russia June 25, 2023.
Although the mutiny ultimately petered out as rapidly as it began, Moscow had begun barricading core areas like Red Square and establishing a defensive perimeterImage: Evgenia Novozhenina/REUTERS

Even days later, many open questions remain for foreign observers: about the terms and sustainability of the deal, why the apparent mutiny or coup attempt started and then stopped so abruptly, what Wagner's role might be going forwardwhat impact the events might have on fighting in Ukraine, where Wagner forces have been heavily involved and how it might affect Russian politics

Russia's 'ruling elite' started 'reconsidering their attitude'

Kasyanov said that even if Putin's most senior government officials, like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, might try to argue that the Russian regime would emerge stronger from its weekend scare, "the Russian regime, in opposite, just now seems to be more weak — and people started to understand it, especially in the ruling elite." 

The most important change, Kasyanov argued, might prove to be in the attitudes of members of governments at the national or local level in Russia.

"They understand that Putin is not any longer a moderator or protector of their interests. That's why they started reconsidering their attitude to him," he said. 

Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves food to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, during dinner at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, Nov. 11, 2011.
In the early 2000s, the Kremlin contracted Prigozhin's catering company to become a food supplier Image: Misha Japaridze/AP/picture alliance

Putin 'dangerous, and, right now, weakening'

Kasyanov is now the leader of the opposition People's Freedom Party and is often in Latvia. He said the Putin of today was a "completely different person" to the man he had worked with more than two decades ago. 

During his tenure, he said Putin in his first presidential term had promised to support all reforms his Cabinet proposed — and stuck to his word. He described him as someone who was trying "to understand how to operate with the state." 

But now, there was "no comparison at all," Kasyanov said. Putin was now looking more like his KGB agent persona before entering politics.

"KGB agent, right now he is a natural one. In my time, he pretended to be devoted to democratic principles. Now, we see a real Putin — dangerous, and, right now, weakening," said Kasyanov.

He said the government's portrayal of Putin as a kind of czar or emperor, and as the type of strong ruler Russia had historically needed or resorted to, was growing more unpopular and being met with more skepticism, particularly among more middle-class people in larger cities. 

'Settlement between two bandits' to hurt at home, and in Ukraine

Asked whether the mutiny would have an impact on the fighting in Ukraine, given how for a brief window on June 24 it looked like the fighting might move from Zaporizhzhia to the outskirts of Moscow without Ukraine's military firing a single shot, Kasyanov said he still believed it would "of course" have some slightly less pronounced effect, just "not necessarily huge and visible tomorrow, but in general terms." 

"I think the morale of these officers on the battlefield, Russian officers, just decreased," Kasyanov said, adding that it had not been high in the first place.

But he said the terms of the weekend truce, and the people who brokered it, after Wagner inflicted casualties on the Russian military, would not sit well with commanders or troops. 

"Right now they see that there was a settlement between two bandits," Kasyanov said, seemingly meaning Belarus' Lukashenko to be the second bandit after Prigozhin, given that he was the mediator.

DW's Russian caricaturist Sergey Elkin composed an image of a giant Alexander Lukashenko cradling and protecting an infant Vladimir Putin
DW's Russian caricaturist Sergey Elkin composed an image of a giant Alexander Lukashenko cradling and protecting an infant Vladimir PutinImage: DW

"No single state institution was involved. No Interior Ministry, no FSB [Russia's principal intelligence and security agency], no Defense Ministry, nor any other agencies. There was commitment between two people just to give money and to give freedom. And this was settled," he said. 

To the same token, Kasyanov argued the deal undermined Putin's credibility at home.

"The whole criminal case was opened in the morning and closed in the evening," he said. "That is — people understand this — that is not a state. No law has an application in Russia at this time." 

Edited by: Louis Oelofse

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Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam