STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT- News outlets in the US and UK are portraying the insurrection as an existential threat to Vladimir Putin,As news of the attempted armed coup by the Wagner private military company filtered out to the West, newspaper columnists and pundits rushed to predict the downfall of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, a military victory for Ukraine, and an uncertain end for Wagner chief Evgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin, often an open critic of the Russian Defense Ministry, claimed on Friday that the Russian military had shelled one of his group’s bases. He then ordered troops loyal to him to move towards Rostov-on-Don, a major urban and logistics hub in southern Russia. From there, he vowed to march on Moscow and remove military officials he claimed are corrupt.
Putin, on the other hand, vowed to take “decisive action” to end Prigozhin’s “criminal gamble,” while Russia’s top military commanders called on Wagner fighters to lay down their arms “before it is too late.”
Among American outlets, CNN offered the most dramatic analysis, painting Wagner as a “dark, mercenary Frankenstein…which has turned on its masters.” The broadcaster described Prigozhin’s attempt at a coup as “the most serious threat to [Putin’s] power in all the 23 years he’s run the nuclear state.”
CNN predicted that internal ructions in Russia will “alter the course of the war in Kiev’s favor,” despite Ukraine’s counteroffensive incurring up to 13,000 casualties, according to Russian figures.
Extrapolating on this scenario, CNN speculated that “Putin’s regime will ever go back to its previous heights of control from this moment,” and that “further turmoil and change is ahead.”
Britain’s Sky News was more measured, stating that as of Saturday morning, it was “not immediately possible to gauge the impact of the Wagner boss’s verbal detonation,” and that it remained to be seen how many of Prigozhin’s troops would stay loyal to their rebel boss. Nevertheless, Sky noted that the Wagner chief’s threats “will surely at a minimum be unnerving and could lead to wider instability.”
The New York Times
The US’ paper of record was similarly reserved. Attributing Prigozhin’s insurrection to Putin’s “tolerance” of the Wagner boss’ earlier criticisms of the Kremlin, the New York Times noted that “there was no sign that Mr. Putin’s hold on power was about to crumble.”
Noting that Putin’s closest associates all remain loyal to the Kremlin, the Times highlighted the fact that Prigozhin has “no real independent power base except the favor of the president.”
Britain’s national broadcaster downplayed the threat to Putin and the effect the attempted coup may have on the battlefield in Ukraine. “This is not a direct challenge to Russia’s war in Ukraine and Prigozhin has maintained he is not disputing the president’s leadership.” the BBC wrote. It is, however, “a defining moment for the Putin leadership and a wake-up call for Russians,” the broadcaster added.
The Financial Times
The Financial Times offered one of the most apocalyptic takes on the situation. “It is hard to believe that Putin can ultimately survive this kind of humiliation,” columnist Gideon Rachman wrote in an op-ed also carried by the Irish Times. “His prestige, his power, even his life, are now on the line.” Rachman did not cite any evidence to back up his claim that Putin’s life may be threatened.