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Russian elites trembled as Wagner rebellion took hold

GUY FAULCONBRIDGE, DARYA KORSUNSKAYA and GLEB STOLYAROV

AS one of the most brutal mercenary forces marched on Moscow, some among Russia’s elite trembled in fear that the world’s biggest nuclear power was teetering on the brink of what President Vladimir Putin said could have been a civil war.

With Putin facing the biggest public challenge of his 23 years as paramount leader, some private jets sped out of Moscow, according to flight tracking data and one source with knowledge of the matter.

One fear was that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group, if he entered Moscow, would try to take over the economy, triggering yet another redistribution of ownership in Russia, the world’s biggest supplier of natural resources.

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When Prigozhin’s men turned back just over 200 km (150 miles) from Moscow, a different fear set in that Putin, furious in his humiliation, would tighten the screws even further and take revenge against those considered not sufficiently loyal.

“A new reality has dawned in Russia,” a senior Russian source told Reuters on condition of anonymity when asked what had happened.

“And why do you use the past tense? What foundation do you have to say that anything has finished?” said the source. “The events of Saturday have shown that armed men can at any moment bend the whole country to their will.”

Another senior source in Moscow, who requested anonymity, said fear triumphed in the tumultuous hours of Saturday and that many rushed to make plans to get their families out of Moscow.

That source said that it was clear that Putin’s authority had been damaged but that it was far too early to make any sweeping conclusions from events which the source said did not appear to make full sense.

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“The speed and gravity of whatever this was has completely shocked everyone, including in the Kremlin,” the source said.

In interviews with Reuters, about a dozen members of the Russian elite related their jitters as the mutiny unfolded, the biggest internal challenge to the Russian state since the 1991 coup bid against Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet Union crumbled.

Their trepidation and reactions give an insight into the depths of the fissures inside Putin’s Russia after 16 months of war in Ukraine that shows no sign of ending any time soon.

“Anyone with anything to lose was extremely tense,” said a source with knowledge of the thinking at the top levels of the Russian business and political elites, which often overlap.

TURMOIL

As the mutiny unfolded, Putin, who has dominated Russia since the last day of 1999, gave an address to the nation at 10 a.m. Moscow time from the Kremlin on June 24 vowing to crush the mutiny and warning that Russia could tip towards turmoil.

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The former KGB spy used the dreaded Russian word “smuta” which means unrest, turmoil or trouble and is associated in Russian minds with the so-called “time of troubles” which preceded the rise of the Romanov dynasty in 1613.

Putin said the armed mutiny was treason and compared it to the chaos that ushered in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and then years of civil war.

As Putin spoke, the rouble was tumbling towards 100 per U.S. dollar for those lucky enough to be able to find dollars to buy. The rouble was trading at 84 per U.S. dollar on Thursday. It is currently trading at around 86 per dollar.

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Russians started to withdraw significant amounts of roubles and seek foreign currency in 15 regions across Russia.

On average the demand for foreign currency and cash rose about 30% but in southern regions near the mutiny and in large cities, demand rocketed up by 70-80%, according to an update by First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov.

Air ticket prices from Moscow were also soaring for trips to destinations such as Belgrade, Istanbul and Dubai.

Tickets for direct flights to Belgrade are sold out. One-way tickets to Belgrade via Sochi soared in price to 63,700 roubles ($742). Tickets to Istanbul quadrupled in price.

Jets linked to at least two major business figures and at least one senior government official flew out of Moscow on June 24, according to flight tracking data. Reuters was unable to determine who flew out on the jets.

Russian parliamentary deputy Dmitry Gusev has written to Russia’s air transport agency demanding that it publish the names of famous businessmen and politicians who flew out of Russia on June 24.

‘HEADS WILL ROLL’

Just hours later a deal was clinched to allow Prigozhin and some of his fighters to go to neighbouring Belarus.

Russia had, it seemed, stared into the abyss.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko used criminal slang to say he had persuaded Putin on Saturday not to “wipe out” Prigozhin, who flew to Belarus on Tuesday.

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Prigozhin said he never intended to overthrow Russia’s leaders but had marched to save his group and settle scores with Putin’s top military brass, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov.

Prigozhin, though, boasted about the speed of the march of his men towards Moscow, covering 780 km in just one day, saying it showed the extent of the security problems in Russia.

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Viktor Zolotov, a close Putin ally and director of the National Guard, said that the mutineers were able to advance so fast towards Moscow because forces loyal to the state had focused on bolstering the defences of the capital.

Zolotov, who served as head of the presidential bodyguard from 2000 to 2013 and was sometimes seen carrying an automatic weapon to protect Putin on dangerous trips, said his men would have stood to the death.

But within the elite, there is now a fear that Putin will seek to assert his position and remove those he felt did not profess their loyalty with enough ardour.

“Heads will roll,” said another senior source. “They will look at who kept silent, who did not speak in support of unity and of the president.”

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By The African Mirror

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