The United States hoped that with the sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs, together with military and economic support for Ukraine, sooner or later the cracks around the omnipotent power of an imperialist-minded Putin would come to light.
Pentagon officials had been speculating that part of Putin's leadership, fed up with the war and its consequences, might stage a coup d'état or even that the Russians themselves might take to the streets in violent hordes that would end up dismantling the autocracy they have over them.
We had even been speculating for months that Putin would be betrayed and assassinated.... What we did not imagine was that the tug of war between Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, and Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister, would end with the former Putin's former bachelor getting so hot under the collar, clouded by what he denounced as the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the military commanders around Putin, always pointing to Shoigu as the one responsible for the Wagner mercenaries not receiving the weapons and military equipment they needed to advance with the seizure of the Ukrainian cities.
The resistance this winter of the brave Ukrainian troops to this bloody siege has been quite significant, at the cost of thousands of men killed in action. And in this interplay of military forces, Bajmut is a turning point.
It has already become one of the longest battles since the invasion began and has taken place in a city of 41.6 square kilometres which before the war had almost 78,000 inhabitants and which became a necessary territory for the Russians to dominate because of its location in the Donbas and also because of its industrial characteristics as one of the main sparkling wine producing cities in Eastern Europe.
After the failed seizure of Kiev by Russian troops at the beginning of the invasion, the voices of military strategists, many NATO members, were astonished by all the logistical, weapons and chain-of-command problems in the Russian army. As one of the victorious armies in World War II and then feared after acquiring nuclear bomb technology, to speak of Russian troops was to speak of one of the most powerful armies in the world.
The invasion has exposed all its weaknesses. A few days ago, Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, publicly mocked the Kremlin's mistakes in leading its troops and went so far as to underline its ability to fail.
You don't have to be a military expert to realise the internal tensions between the factions surrounding this invasion: one that is more hardline and wants a more forceful Putin capable of activating the nuclear button; and another, equally nationalistic, but perhaps more restrained on military matters.
On the subject
In this vein, it was unthinkable that Prigozhin's animosity towards Shoigu would lead to a bizarre mutiny that Putin has pointed to as an attempt to unleash a civil war. Russians killing each other.
With the Kremlin's opacity, we have learned that Russian pilots were killed in the mutiny, but we do not know how many were killed or how it happened. Except that Prigozhin was 300 kilometres from reaching Moscow.
The negotiations are also most bizarre: Prigozhin was allowed to leave intact to go into exile in Belarus; no charges, no death penalty and even the mercenaries who took part in the rebellion were pardoned. In the end, Prigozhin has revealed himself as a prodigal son would to his father who has given him everything, but everything, to such an extent that a nobody ended up as an oligarch with multiple businesses and a militia of thousands of men at his service.
Yes, it is strange. Everything around Putin is, what stopped Prigozhin from taking Moscow? Where is the family of the former Wagner leader and his bank accounts, where is his money? Why stage a rebellion with your men, with your tanks and your guns, if you are not going to carry it through?
Knowing Putin, his ex-cook is a dead man, even if he is in Belarus, and the harassment will reach his family, his business, his assets, his money. The Kremlin has already ordered an investigation into the accounts following Putin's open reproach: "Wagner has been paid more than a billion dollars from the Russian coffers".
Will it be a self-coup? Putin will close his circle of trust even tighter and will carry out, without pretext, the purges and persecutions he deems appropriate. If he had doubts before, after the mutiny he will be clearer about which military officers are with him and which are against him. Putin will be more powerful.
If it was not a self-coup, a trap by Putin for Prigozhin (and not the other way around), we might expect some other military faction, backed by Russian oligarchs affected by sanctions and confiscated assets in Europe and elsewhere, to try with more success another kind of Operation Valkyrie (it was an attempt by the military leadership against Hitler) against the Russian dictator. If it was a self-coup, we'll see a major purge of military commanders and more oligarchs killed in bizarre conditions. A coup plotter is not allowed to escape with his life, but someone you have surprised by setting a trap is. Putin has got rid of the scorpion he created; he has finally disbanded the Wagner group and offered the mercenaries to join the Russian army.
Putin is always Machiavellian: throughout his political career he has made masterstrokes, as he did with Chechnya, and he is not exactly discreet. Not to forget that in 2024 there will be elections in Russia and he wants to stay in power.