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Mutiny in Russia: Nina Khrushcheva on How the Wagner Revolt Exposes Putin’s Weakness

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We speak with Nina Khrushcheva in Moscow after an extraordinary weekend that saw the most significant challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership since the beginning of his invasion of Ukraine 16 months ago. On Friday, the head of the powerful Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, accused the Russian military of attacking his forces and began a march on Moscow — but the revolt quickly fizzled out. By Saturday, Wagner troops had returned to base, and Prigozhin had agreed to exile in Belarus, while Putin denounced the episode as “treason.” Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School and the great-granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, says that while Putin has reasserted his control over the state for now, the episode “didn’t really show him in the strong light.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We begin today’s show in Russia, where the government is working to restore calm after a short-lived armed mutiny was launched Friday by the Wagner mercenary group. Wagner fighters stopped their advance on the outskirts of Moscow late Saturday after officials reached a deal that guaranteed their safety. They also withdrew from the southern Russian city of Rostov, which they had seized, and returned to their bases.

As part of the deal, Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin agreed to go into exile in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Putin. Lukashenko mediated the deal. The Kremlin also said the Wagner Group head and his fighters would avoid criminal charges despite the revolt — though today that’s now being called into question.

Today, state-controlled TV in Russia showed footage of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu meeting with Russian military officers in Ukraine, though it’s unclear when that footage was from. Also today on Russian TV, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin made the first public comments by a senior Russian official since the deal was made.

PRIME MINISTER MIKHAIL MISHUSTIN: [translated] Russia is going through an important time in its history. As the president noted, virtually the entire military, economic, information machine of the West is directed against us. … We need to make calculated, unified decisions to effectively achieve goals set by the leader of the state.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin made a brief national address Saturday and refrained from mentioning the Wagner Group leader by name but denounced his actions as treason.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] We will protect both our people and our statehood from any threats, including internal betrayal. What we are facing is precisely betrayal. Excessive ambitions and vested interests have led to treason — betrayal of the country, its people and the cause for which the soldiers and commanders of the Wagner Group had fought and died for, side by side with our other units.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly video address Saturday the revolt by Wagner mercenary troops in Russia had exposed chaos in the country. At one point, he switched to his native language of Russian to address Russians and Putin.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] I will say it in Russian: The man from the Kremlin is obviously very afraid and probably hiding somewhere, not showing himself. I am sure that he is no longer in Moscow. He calls somewhere and asks for something. He knows what he is afraid of, because he himself created the threat — all evil, all losses, all hatred, he himself who spreads it. …

What will we Ukrainians do? We will defend our country. We will defend our freedom. We will not be silent, and we will not be inactive. We know how to win, and it will happen. …

And what will you do? The longer your troops stay on Ukrainian land, the more devastation they will bring to Russia. The longer this person is in the Kremlin, the more disasters there will be.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Wagner Group rebellion revealed cracks in Putin’s power. He spoke on ABC News.

SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: So, I think this is clearly — we see cracks emerging. Where they go, if anywhere, when they get there, very hard to say. I don’t want to speculate on it. But I don’t think we’ve seen the final act. … This has been a devastating strategic failure for Putin across virtually every front — economic, military, geopolitical standing.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday the aborted rebellion demonstrates the scale of the Kremlin’s strategic mistake in waging war on Ukraine.

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: The events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter, and yet another demonstration of the big strategic mistake that President Putin made with his legal annexation — or, his illegal annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine. As Russia continues its assault, it is even more important to continue our support to Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin our coverage in Moscow, where we’re joined by Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at the New School, great-granddaughter of the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Her books include The Lost Khrushchev: Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind and In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.

Professor Khrushcheva, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, this is the first show we’ve done since the Wagner rebellion. We haven’t seen Prigozhin, though they said he’s going to go into exile in Belarus. We also haven’t seen Putin since he gave that speech on Saturday. And now there are all sorts of questions, that though the Kremlin said that all of the Wagner folks, including Prigozhin, would be granted — would have the charges dropped, that’s not clear right now. You’re in Moscow. You’ve walked the streets. What is the understanding of what happened among the Russian people?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, thank you, Amy.

There’s a little bit of a relief, although in Moscow, at least, there was very kind of almost confidence — not confidence, but certainty that it’s not going to go far enough, it’s going to be resolved very quickly, that it’s just so inconceivable, although what’s inconceivable in Russia nowadays is a stretch, but that Prigozhin is not going to take over the Kremlin, although now we’re learning, for example, that about billions and billions of rubles have been taken from the banks on Saturday when it was all going on. Then, the flights have been filled, and the prices, the airline prices, doubled or tripled. So, people were preparing for the worst. But when I walked around, even in the afternoon, when the Wagner troops were going and approaching Moscow, there was still sort of a disbelief that it can result in anything but resolution, which indeed happened by 10:00 on Saturday.

Putin supposedly has won. He would have won much better if, indeed, as you mentioned, after that very fiery speech and very angry speech, because Prigozhin was his creation — Prigozhin exists because Putin fed him, allowed him to be, allowed this military mercenary groups to be — to be formed. If Putin, on that Saturday, Saturday night, when Alexander Lukashenko said, “We resolved it. I helped. I am so great,” then Prigozhin came out and said, “We resolved it,” when Putin himself would have come out and explained to the Russians and to everybody how that treason that he so firmly hated in the morning on Saturday then being resolved — because it really was a military mutiny, and yet somehow they’re going to be pardoned, and Putin is absolutely silent. It’s not that the pardon is in question, but the attorney general office is saying that “we are still working on it.” It’s still not clear how soon the charges could be dropped. So, I don’t think it’s a question. It’s whether they are continuing to have some sort of negotiation. And it would be very interesting to hear when Prigozhin, in fact, gets to Belarus, if he does, in fact, get to Belarus in one piece.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about the significance of the place where the rebellion took over, a city of over a million people, Rostov, which is really the central command of the war on Ukraine, and the fact that the Russian people — and did you see this on Russian television or in social media — and there is a question about will Putin allow all this social media to continue — the cheering of Prigozhin by the people, people taking selfies with him? This is before we no longer saw him.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, yes, it was Rostov-on-Don. It’s very south, very close to Ukraine. And so, the speculation — we don’t know, but supposedly and most likely they’ve been some kind of — it wasn’t just Prigozhin walking, but it was a coordinated — some coordinated effort, including probably with the people in the army, because he was able to, in fact, have a meeting with two higher-ups in the Russian army. His great concern and kind of great hatred is for Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, and these are the people that work with Shoigu. And suddenly they were there in the headquarters, and he was kind of humiliating them, being present. And I think it seems to me that Prigozhin and others, there was a little bit of a hope — and it clearly didn’t work out the way they wanted it — that at least some in the Russian army, in the Russian command, very disillusioned with the way the war in Ukraine is going on, would probably be more supportive. That didn’t work out. So, the original idea was there. That’s why they were not shot on. The Prigozhinites were not shot on. But then, clearly, the move was fizzled out.

So, the question is how, really, and now for the future, how really strong the support for Putin will remain, and how, really, many factions that probably are in the Russian army or are in the Russian elites — how much they will continue to gel together behind the Kremlin leader. The negotiations were going on, obviously, right from the beginning. And in some ways, Prigozhin miscalculated, which left him weak. But also, if Putin came out a victor, it also didn’t really show him in the strong light, either. So, it ends as Zelensky, President Zelensky, correctly pointed out: It ends to more discombobulation among the Russian elite and also the future of Russia and the future of the war in Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, as not only a professor of international affairs, Nina Khrushcheva, but as the great-granddaughter of Khrushchev, you certainly know Russia’s history well. Is this a quashed rebellion, or is this the beginning of cracks in the Putin edifice? Go back to 1991. Go back to other failed coups and what happened next.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, that’s a fascinating question, because it is — I mean, it is a squashed — quashed rebellion, in a sense. But it’s also — and I would even disagree with Antony Blinken that it’s the beginning, because we’ve seen, right from the beginning of the war, almost a year and a half ago, that there is really not much coherency in Putin’s entourage. Yes, they kind of have to say they support it, but it’s very unequal. Sometimes the voices for, sometimes voices again — some against, sometimes voices of more reason and whatnot, they appear. So, that solidity that Putin was able to display until 2022 has been really waning away for the whole year-plus. So this is just another moment of this kind of falling apart in cracks.

I think the interesting part of this rebellion — and I cannot really speak to history here, because, basically, what we’re seeing is Putin’s right-wing government is a militancy, and nationalism is part of its agenda. Prigozhin is a bloody nationalism, bloody militancy. Almost complete fascism is part of its agenda. So, we really haven’t — because before, as you mentioned, '91, it was the liberals against the reformers against the nonreformers against the hard-liners. Most coups have been like that. This is, we have one kind of blatant fascism or latent or less bloody nationalism versus extreme bloody nationalism. And that's something that I cannot remember, as least in recent Russian history, ever happening.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the voice of Prigozhin. On Saturday, the Wagner chief said in a recording, that was on Telegram, he had ordered his fighters, who had been advancing on Moscow, to turn around and return to their bases in order to avoid spilling Russian blood.

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN: [translated] They wanted to disband the Wagner military company. We embarked on a march of justice on June 23rd. In 24 hours, we got to within 200 kilometers of Moscow. In this time, we did not spill a single drop of our fighters’ blood. Now the moment has come when blood could be spilled. Understanding that Russian blood would be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, he had called it a “march of justice.” But what really changed for him to turn around? Did anything unpredictable happen? I mean, in fact, wasn’t it the opposite? He met no resistance, just these cheers. And again, I want to get to: Has new information been revealed to the Russian people, seeing a top former Russian Putin ally, called Putin’s chef — right? — they really grew up in their political career in St. Petersburg together — attacking the whole Russian approach to Ukraine and talking about the unnecessary deaths of Russian soldiers?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, yes, but then, he is looking and asking for more unnecessary death of Russian soldiers, because he is looking for a complete mobilization, complete militarization. He actually is accusing Putin, accusing the Kremlin, accusing minister of defense that the war is not going warry enough, it should be more war. So, this is all — in many ways, like Putin, he is very, very skilled with rhetoric that is actually incredibly contradictory, because he was asking to spill more Russian blood.

And one of the — another thing about the cheers, I wouldn’t really overestimate the cheers. Yes, I mean, if we see — we see pictures from Rostov-on-Don. For people, it was more entertainment. For people, it was the heroes of the war in Ukraine going against other heroes of the war in Ukraine, because Shoigu is a hero and Prigozhin is a hero. So it was more the sign of Russian absurdity. And I don’t know if you saw that, the Prigozhin — one of the Prigozhin tanks got stuck in a gate going into circus. And it was like, well, that’s kind of a symbol of what Russia is all about. So, that’s — I mean, the cheering is the cheering of more to the absurdity, because the people I talked to in Moscow, they were saying, “Well, whatever Putin is, my god, this is a bunch of rapists and murderers. We certainly don’t want to be ruled by people like those.” And so, for them, you know, the worst choice is still a better choice, so Putin is the better choice for them.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Nina Khrushcheva in Moscow.

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