On Saturday morning, says Rod Liddle in The Sun, I woke up to the news that a “coup against Vladimir Putin was under way”. Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries were marching to Moscow, said reporters, cheered all the way by ordinary Russians. Putin’s “days were numbered”, we were assured, and an internal power struggle would leave Ukraine free to reclaim its territory. But by teatime, “Prigozhin had given in and skedaddled to Belarus”. Putin, meanwhile, was still very much in charge, “flinging missiles about with great gusto”. It just shows how “wishful thinking” impacts Western reporting. For 18 months we’ve been told Putin is “virtually on his death bed”, stricken by cancer or Parkinson’s, and that even his own people want him gone. But as Saturday shows us, however much we wish otherwise, Russians still “support their awful, murderous leader”.
What’s more, says Anatol Lieven in The Guardian, Putin’s decision to pardon Prigozhin is “not a sign of weakness, but a shrewd move”. There was never any real chance of Russia’s regular army switching to support the Wagner boss, so Putin stood firm and denied Prigozhin’s demands until he was forced to surrender. The dictator had “nothing to gain by seeking violent revenge”: he knows there’s a “deep inhibition” against internal violence in Russia, fuelled by inherited memories of brutal conflict after the Bolshevik Revolution, and the “anarchy and economic misery” that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union. His understanding that ordinary Russians fear nothing more than “intrigues, squabbles and politicking” among elites allowed him to act with level-headed resolve. Putin knew there was more to gain from magnanimity – “he had, after all, won”.