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Putin retains power after aborted revolt. But for how long?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine unleashed chaos across the region. Now the turmoil has come to Russia itself. And even for a leader known for crushing dissent and enforcing consensus, Putin can't hide it from his people.

JOHN SIPHER: I think there's been incompetence and dysfunction in Ukraine now. We see incompetence, weakness and dysfunction at home.

DETROW: John Sipher once ran Russia operations for the CIA and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center. He told NPR that Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin's rebellion has left Putin with some tough choices.

SIPHER: You know, if he lets Prigozhin go, he looks weak. One minute he's calling him a scum traitor and Prigozhin shot down Russian helicopters. The next minute, he's gone. But if he tries to kill Prigozhin, that's dangerous too, because Prigozhin has shown himself to have some real populist appeal. He has this strong narrative that the Russian leaders are fat cats with yachts and children in Europe, and they're sending Russian boys to be slaughtered in Ukraine.

DETROW: Indeed, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Putin's, claims that he talked Putin out of killing Prigozhin. Here's NPR's Charles Maynes.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Lukashenko says he told Putin, OK, we can kill him, no problem, but it's a bad idea. And Lukashenko said there wouldn't be any negotiations. And Wagner's fighters would strike back. And even though Russia would win in the end, thousands of civilians would die.

DETROW: While Sipher sees dysfunction in the Russian military, he also sees a danger.

SIPHER: Vladimir Putin sees Russia as himself, and so he sees threats to himself as threats to Russia.

DETROW: A week on from an aborted uprising, Vladimir Putin is still standing, but for how long? Last weekend's events marked the greatest challenge to Putin's rule since he came to power 23 years ago. And on Friday, a U.S. official confirmed to NPR that a top Russian general with ties to Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led the brief revolt, has been detained. It's not clear if General Sergey Surovikin supported the uprising, but the ties between the general and Prigozhin go back years.

GULNAZ SHARAFUTDINOVA: We also know that these two individuals see themselves as being in the thick of the war and the struggle. And they see the elites in Moscow, you know, to be more corrupt, to be not really fighting for their motherlands. And so that creates a certain potential proximity of how they view things.

DETROW: That's Gulnaz Sharafutdinova. She's director of the Russian Institute at King's College London. My colleague Mary Louise Kelly spoke with her and started off by asking her take on how wounded Putin is.

SHARAFUTDINOVA: That's the very big question, right? I like to compare what happened to sort of, like, a glitch in the matrix. This might be for American audiences. They remember that black cat and the glitch in the matrix that reveals that there is a matrix, right? And we saw that glitch in Russia - you know, things that have been under the radar, things that have not been shown to the population in their own immediacy that is the real conflicts that exist among the elites. All of the sudden, it was on display.

And no wonder now the Russian media system, media managers would be doing a lot to try to diminish the importance of what has happened. And there will be many people who might not even believe that this was a real mutiny, a real challenge to the authority. But many will believe that. And we see in terms of the laughter that's emerging, in terms of the ridiculing patterns and the anecdotes that emerge in the Russian social media, we see that people are reacting. And, you know, the very common reaction was that, oh, the emperor is naked.

So from that perspective, the leader who has been very successful in managing conflicts and being an arbiter among different interest groups all of the sudden didn't manage well this time, and that does demonstrate weakness on his part. And that does reveal the reality, the fragility of power, the fragility of the government and their authority. And it cannot not hurt - no wonder that there are - will try to patch it up.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: What do we know of how ordinary Russians view all this? What do they make of what's happening?

SHARAFUTDINOVA: The very early reactions were focused on various types of conspiracies. Many people had hard time believing that Putin could be challenged in such an open way, so it was a reality that was hard to confront. So various types of conspiracy theories that this was conspired by Putin himself to somehow increase or improve his hold on power were very prominent and popular. And I think they will remain.

But at the same time, the other side of the story is the, I mentioned, ridicule and laughter and the social media creativity that goes on with regards to bringing out various types of clips from films and movies that would make fun of the situation. So it's between laughter and disbelief. And there is, of course, a wide range between that.

KELLY: You know, I remember being in Russia to cover the last presidential election in 2018, and among the many people we interviewed, one young man who told me he loved Vladimir Putin, and when I asked him why, he explained it's gotten really hard to find a parking space at my apartment building. And what he meant was that under Putin, a lot more people could afford to buy a car, that quality of life had gone up. Does that hold as you look at Russia in 2023, which finds itself, as I know you have written, in an economically precarious and internationally isolated position?

SHARAFUTDINOVA: Yes, absolutely. The truth about Russia's growth and the percolation of that growth down to the grassroots was true up until 2013 or so, starting from 2013, and certainly after 2014 and the sanctions and the reaction of the Russian economy to sanctions, it has been a downward trend. They tried to maintain some degree of stability, but in terms of economic growth, that's not there. What the state and what the government is trying to do is to focus on government subsidies and social support and social benefits. So they are trying to fight poverty by addressing the families with children, et cetera. But we are not talking about new cars. We're not talking about new housing. We are talking about, you know, whether there is bread on the table.

KELLY: So do we have any insight into what President Putin is thinking, what his next move may be?

SHARAFUTDINOVA: We are all watching out for how the consequences of these events will play out. You know, people are expecting repressions. You know, some of the revengeful acts might take some time. But this is something that we will be looking out for. And it is hard to say what exactly, you know, will be decided at the moment. I think there is some lag in terms of digestion that will happen and, you know, soul searching within the government, within the security services and sort of looking around and then taking some action. So we are all on the watch out for those.

KELLY: Yeah. Has he signaled in any way that this mutiny might cause him to rethink his war in Ukraine?

SHARAFUTDINOVA: No, that we haven't seen. What we have seen is the attempt to patch up this open sort of challenge that was revealed and to patch it up with rhetoric of popular unification behind the president, the army, saving, you know, the government and the country. And yet again, the message of the West, the evil West that's trying to fragment Russia that is out there looking for Russia's weaknesses. So all those messages, to a certain extent, have been there and they are being used again. But at this time, you know, we see this as a Band-Aid that's being put on the events.

KELLY: One question to leave you with, and it's this - I saw one former U.S. diplomat, Elizabeth Shackleford, quoted on recent events. And she said her central question now is, is Putin's biggest battle not with the West, but with his own people now? What do you think?

SHARAFUTDINOVA: I would say that Putin's biggest battle is on the front lines in Ukraine, and the outcomes of that battle and the perceived loss or success in that battle will determine his relationships with both the people and the elites in Russia.

DETROW: That's Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, who teaches Russian politics and is the director of the Russia Institute at King's College London. She's also the author of the book "The Red Mirror: Putin's Leadership and Russia's Insecure Identity." She spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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