One refuses to believe it. One does not even want to consider it, but everything suggests that Vladimir Putin is no longer in control. President, he still is, in title at least, but could a head of state in charge really let pass, without giving any reaction, an insult directed at a minister of defence to whom he is notoriously close and at the chief of the armed forces to whom he has personally entrusted the conduct of the Ukrainian operations?

The answer is clearly “no”. Vladimir Putin is drawing back, by not even distancing himself, not even through his spokesman, from the way Yevgeny Prigozhin has just called Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov “bastards” because they would not deliver the “fucking ammunition” that he was supposedly lacking in Bakhmut. If this had been a simple act of anger on the part of this former delinquent whom he had made his protégé, the president could have ignored an offence and shown himself indulgent, but the head of the Wagner group went to the mat three times in a row, every time with more violence and rudeness. Worse still, while the charges against Shoigou and Gerassimov are now a ritual, Prigozhin took the liberty a month ago, without using swear words but with unprecedented audacity, to lecture the president.

“The best option for the government and for the Russian people,” he told the president openly, would be to declare victory by saying that the objectives are achieved and the war is over. This was no less than contradicting Putin’s narrative about the “Nazism” in power in Kiev and the war of aggression that the West would wage against Russia through Ukrainians. This was no less than saying that the overthrow of Ukrainian power and the restoration of a Russian protectorate over Ukraine were out of reach. This was no less, in a word, than saying that Vladimir Putin had lost his war and, as if that were not enough, this man who had made his fortune by obtaining the exclusive supply of military canteens had gone on to proclaim that the next Ukrainian counter-offensive would turn into a disaster for Russia.

This was no longer insubordination. It was high treason, because announcing to the nation the defeat of its army was tantamount to breaking the morale of the troops and shattering the country’s confidence in its president. An opposition hero, Vladimir Kara Murza, has just been sentenced to 25 years in prison for much less but Prigozhin?

For the moment, nothing, no prison or poison. Quite the contrary: a promise of weapons, and an idea, which is often put forward, according to which Vladimir Putin would be using him to put the blame for Russia’s military failure on the general staff. But this idea does not hold water. If this were the case, thi president would admit that he does not dare to attack the generals directly, what is more, he would be feeding their animosity without having even removed them from the command. More than admitting his weakness, this would be to increase it tenfold and take the risk, even to fuel it, of being overthrown by a military coup.

Vladimir Putin is not that stupid and we have to accept the reality of the facts. This president is so weakened by the impasse in which he has put himself that the adventurer that is Prigozhin is no longer afraid of anticipating a vacancy of power and precipitating it by taking a side. Yevgeny Prigozhin sees himself as a successor. He wants to be able to say soon to Russia: “I told you so” and by letting him do so, Vladimir Putin shows the degree of impotence he has already reached.

Originally published on 8 May, 2023 on Bernard Guetta’s website (also available in French, German, and Hungarian)