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Don’t rule out a Russian withdrawal

Putin with Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. Alexey Druzhinin/Getty

Analysts are struggling to see how the war in Ukraine will end, says Timothy Snyder in his Substack newsletter. Many can’t look beyond the terrifying possibility of a Russian nuclear strike. But I think there’s another, more “plausible” scenario: that Russia’s battlefield defeats will precipitate an internal power struggle, leading to the swift withdrawal of Moscow’s forces from Ukraine. It may even be starting to happen already. In recent weeks two prominent political figures – Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the feared Wagner mercenary group – have openly and “brutally” criticised the Russian high command for failures in Ukraine. Crucially, both men effectively control their own private armies, with fighters deployed in the war.

If Kadyrov or Prigozhin get even the slightest inkling that Putin is losing his grip on power, everything changes. They would want to get their men out of Ukraine and back to Russia, either to protect their interests or to “make a play for Moscow”. The same logic applies to the Russian army itself: ambitious commanders would “pull back while they still have units to command”. None of this would necessarily result in armed conflict breaking out in Russia. But it would leave Vladimir Putin with no choice but to pull his troops out of Ukraine – keeping the army on side, and in close proximity, would be essential “for his own political survival”.