When Vladimir Putin delivered a speech just days after surviving the greatest challenge to his leadership in 23 years, he sought to strike a defiant tone. The Russian President described the armed convoy of thousands of Russian soldiers led by Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin as a “mutiny” designed to foment domestic turmoil, and its organizers as plotters who “betrayed their country and their people.” But to the surprise of even the most astute Kremlinologists, Putin did not reveal plans for punishment or retribution. Instead, he described the majority of those involved as misled patriots and said that Prigozhin and his men would be free to go into exile in Belarus, Russia’s vassal state next door.
This is not the traditional Putin playbook, according to the prominent Kremlin critic Bill Browder. He would know better than most. The London-based financier has spent more than a decade exposing corruption and human rights abuses in Russia, culminating in the creation of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which has enabled the U.S. and other countries to freeze the assets and ban visas of human-rights violators in Russia. Browder has personally faced the ire of Moscow—which declared him a threat to Russian national security in 2005—and he has seen his friends and colleagues jailed and even killed for their activism. Most recently, Browder’s close friend, the prominent Russian dissident and Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, was sentenced to 25 years in a penal colony on charges of treason. His real crime: being the political prisoner Putin fears most.
Speaking to TIME by phone, Browder discusses how the failed Wagner mutiny has affected Putin’s image both within and beyond Russia and what the future holds for Russia’s longest-serving leader.
TIME: Prigozhin was able to get within 124 miles of Moscow before he ultimately decided to turn his forces around. What does this tell us about Putin’s image in Russia before the mutiny began? Was he quite as omnipotent an autocrat as observers believed?
Bill Browder: Putin has tried to create this image of a strong man in total control, and there’s really been no way to test that from outside of Russia because opinion polls are completely meaningless and any type of airing of opinions is totally forbidden. So we and many people in Russia have been operating on this false impression that he’s somehow been firmly in control. And then all of a sudden on Saturday, what we see is that a relatively small group of armed marauders were able to cross into Russian territory totally unopposed, go into Rostov (where they were not only unopposed, but people came out on the street to welcome them), and then they took over one of the most important strategic military bases in the country. That just shows that the image that Putin has been trying to project is a complete fraud. As Prigozhin made his way toward Voronezh, the same thing happened there. And then he got on the highway to Moscow. And the only reason why he didn’t complete his journey was that 8,000 men can’t take over a country of 141 million people unless they have co-conspirators, and I believe that he probably thought he did and it was probably pre-arranged and those people got cold feet when the situation escalated to that point.
This is a monumental challenge to Putin—something that he hasn’t seen since the days he began his presidency. Unless he’s able to reinsert the impression that he’s this ruthless strongman, he will lose his power and lose his life.
After all that, Putin appears to have let Prigozhin go—despite having done far worse to critics who have done far less. Why do you think that is?
Putin has jailed Vladimir Kara-Murza for 25 years for giving a few speeches about human rights abuses in Russia. To have an actual rebellious traitor and to let him off is completely out of character. Why would Putin be so lenient?
There’s two reasons. One is that Prigozhin is the most capable fighter in all of Russia. He’s a killer, he’s ruthless, and he has every capacity to cause unheard-of hardships for Putin and everybody around him. Putin should be just as afraid of Prigozhin as Prigozhin should be of Putin.
The second thing is that Prigozhin continues to be a key man in Russia. Russia is so full of incompetency that the one person who emerged who was competent at military operations was Yevgeny Prigozhin. He was the one person that the Ukrainians respected on the battlefield and he runs 17 other military operations in Africa on behalf of the Kremlin or with his mercenary group. And so Prigozhin is both too ruthless to arrest and also too important to the overall foreign policy of Russia.
How has this incident undermined Putin’s image within Russia?
His image has been totally destroyed. Russia is like a prison yard. It’s all based on brutality and respect. Putin was able to establish himself as the chief criminal in the prison yard by being so ruthless at the very beginning of his presidency, and that ruthlessness and that brutality allowed him to stay in power in a country in which it’s very difficult to do that. The fact that he was rumored to have gotten on his plane and fled Moscow, the fact that Prigozhin was unopposed, the fact that he let Prigozhin off the hook afterwards—it makes Putin look like a truly weak leader in a country where weakness is despised. There’s no way that this won’t invite more challenges now because Putin’s strength is diminished.
With all that in mind, what do you think the future holds for Putin?
Well, it’s hard to say. There are so many different factors that play in. Taking Prigozhin out of the military equation in Ukraine is going to give Ukrainians a great military advantage. The fact that Russian territory is undefended means that they have to disperse their military assets to protect more of Russia. The fact that every Ukrainian gain creates more infighting in Russia, that’s very helpful for the Ukrainians to have their victory.
The door has now been open for anyone to challenge Putin—not just Prigozhin. If somebody can step into Putin’s shoes at some point, the riches are beyond imagination. So there’s a huge incentive for a lot of people to do that. Putin still has an opportunity to redeem himself, but in doing so he’s going to have to embark on an almighty purge that we haven’t seen since Stalin’s time. And I think that that’s what he’s going to do, but whether he succeeds in that is another question.
Prigozhin is now in Belarus, as per the terms of the deal that ultimately prompted him to turn his march on Moscow around. Will he be safe there? Or should we expect him to face the fate of past Putin opponents?
Everyone is talking about Prigozhin needing to worry. I think Putin probably needs to worry more about Prigozhin than vice versa. Prigozhin is a trained, cold-blooded killer. Putin is a guy who hides in his bunker.
This interview has been edited for style and length.
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