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Vladimir Putin’s dismal fate is increasingly plain for all to see

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 3/30/2023 Robert Clark
Vladimir Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Unknown Soldier's Grave © Provided by The Telegraph Vladimir Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Unknown Soldier's Grave

Vladimir Putin is a “wimp” who “doesn’t give a f--- about the people”. So runs a leaked recording of a phone conversation purported to be between Iosif Prigozhin, a Russian music producer, and the billionaire Farkhad Akhmedov. While personal disdain from one-time allies may sting, it’s the apparent political predictions in the call that will keep Putin awake at night.

“There will be fascism there, that’s what’s going to happen... a military dictatorship”, a voice identified as Akhmedov says, seemingly of Russia’s future. Such views, if common, will have disastrous implications for Putin’s legitimacy – and potentially his continued hold on power.

The Russian autocrat is nothing without his coterie of billionaire allies, many of whom he has empowered through decades of systemic corruption. These oligarchs appear to be increasingly dissatisfied with his ruinous handling of the war in Ukraine, which has left a quarter of a million Russians dead or wounded and wiped billions off the Russian stock exchange. The oligarchs know that, at some point, they might face a choice between watching as their finances continue to be hit by sanctions and their yachts and mansions are seized across Europe, or pulling their political support and backing a successor.

In this context, the revelation that Russian elites might already have begun to think about a “post-Putin” Russia is fascinating. It is an indication of just how worried the Kremlin is that pro-Putin state media and propaganda outfits have remained quiet on the matter. Prigozhin, for his part, claimed the leak was fake before adding that there were “some real things here”.

Putin’s legitimacy is suffering domestically after a disastrous winter on the battlefield which has seen mounting Russian losses with no tactical or operational victories to show for them. Some intelligence analysts whisper that they would be unsurprised to wake up one morning to find Putin “hospitalised”, “incapacitated”, or just plain disappeared, with a great deal of speculation that Defence Minister and long-time Putin ally Sergei Shoigu could be in line to replace him.

Despite his calamitous handling of the war, Shoigu understands better than many in the Kremlin the military situation facing Russian forces; low on manpower and morale, rolling out 70 year-old platforms, with renewed Ukrainian offensives on the near-horizon. He might be well-placed to carry out a delicate balancing act.

Putin’s successor will need to balance the Russian people’s desire for continuity with an end to the sacrifices in blood and treasure which are bleeding Russia dry in Ukraine. This could entail a diplomatic settlement that may look very close to defeat. Kyiv would probably have the military and diplomatic upper hand in negotiations, and will refuse to make concessions over the status of Crimea and other occupied regions.

To get here, the West needs to continue to provide the arms and armaments that sustain Kyiv’s war, while being ready to deal with a new Russian leadership at any moment. As much as the leaked tapes might reveal the dissent within “billionaire Moscow”, it is ultimately defeat on the battlefield that will bring Putin’s barbarous war against Ukraine and Europe to an end – and with it his own rule.

Robert Clark is director of the defence and security unit at the think tank Civitas. Prior to this he served in the British Army

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