Vladimir Putin
Political Leaders

Vladimir Putin – president of Russia

Vladimir Putin, in full Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, (born October 7, 1952, Leningrad, Russia, U.S.S.R. [now St. Petersburg, Russia]), Russian intelligence officer and politician who has served as president (1999–2008 and 2012– ) of Russia and as the country’s prime minister (1999 and 2008–12).

Early career

Putin studied law at Leningrad State University, where his tutor was Anatoly Sobchak, later one of the leading reform politicians of the perestroika period. Putin served 15 years as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB (Committee for State Security), including six years in Dresden, East Germany. In 1990 he retired from active KGB service with the rank of lieutenant colonel and returned to Russia to become prorector of Leningrad State University with responsibility for the institution’s external relations. Soon afterward Putin became an adviser to Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg. He quickly won Sobchak’s confidence and became known for his ability to get things done; by 1994 he had risen to the post of first deputy mayor.

In 1996 Putin moved to Moscow, where he joined the presidential staff as deputy to Pavel Borodin, the Kremlin’s chief administrator. Putin grew close to fellow Leningrader Anatoly Chubais and moved up in administrative positions. In July 1998 Pres. Boris Yeltsin made Putin director of the Federal Security Service (FSB; the KGB’s domestic successor), and shortly thereafter he became secretary of the influential Security Council. Yeltsin, who was searching for an heir to assume his mantle, appointed Putin prime minister in 1999.

Although he was virtually unknown, Putin’s public-approval ratings soared when he launched a well-organized military operation against secessionist rebels in Chechnya. Wearied by years of Yeltsin’s erratic behaviour, the Russian public appreciated Putin’s coolness and decisiveness under pressure. Putin’s support for a new electoral bloc, Unity, ensured its success in the December parliamentary elections.

First and second terms as president of Russia

On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin unexpectedly announced his resignation and named Putin acting president. Promising to rebuild a weakened Russia, the austere and reserved Putin easily won the March 2000 elections with about 53 percent of the vote. As president, he sought to end corruption and create a strongly regulated market economy.

Putin quickly reasserted control over Russia’s 89 regions and republics, dividing them into seven new federal districts, each headed by a representative appointed by the president. He also removed the right of regional governors to sit in the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament. Putin moved to reduce the power of Russia’s unpopular financiers and media tycoons—the so-called “oligarchs”—by closing several media outlets and launching criminal proceedings against numerous leading figures. He faced a difficult situation in Chechnya, particularly from rebels who staged terrorist attacks in Moscow and guerilla attacks on Russian troops from the region’s mountains; in 2002 Putin declared the military campaign over, but casualties remained high.

Putin strongly objected to U.S. Pres. George W. Bush’s decision in 2001 to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In response to the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, he pledged Russia’s assistance and cooperation in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorists and their allies, offering the use of Russia’s airspace for humanitarian deliveries and help in search-and-rescue operations. Nevertheless, Putin joined German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French Pres. Jacques Chirac in 2002–03 to oppose U.S. and British plans to use force to oust Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq.

Overseeing an economy that enjoyed growth after a prolonged recession in the 1990s, Putin was easily reelected in March 2004. In parliamentary elections in December 2007, Putin’s party, United Russia, won an overwhelming majority of seats. Though the fairness of the elections was questioned by international observers and by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the results nonetheless affirmed Putin’s power. With a constitutional provision forcing Putin to step down in 2008, he chose Dmitry Medvedev as his successor.

Putin as prime minister

Soon after Medvedev won the March 2008 presidential election by a landslide, Putin announced that he had accepted the position of chairman of the United Russia party. Confirming widespread expectations, Medvedev nominated Putin as the country’s prime minister within hours of taking office on May 7, 2008. Russia’s parliament confirmed the appointment the following day. Although Medvedev grew more assertive as his term progressed, Putin was still regarded as the main power within the Kremlin.

While some speculated that Medvedev might run for a second term, he announced in September 2011 that he and Putin would—pending a United Russia victory at the polls—trade positions. Widespread irregularities in parliamentary elections in December 2011 triggered a wave of popular protest, and Putin faced a surprisingly strong opposition movement in the presidential race. On March 4, 2012, however, Putin was elected to a third term as Russia’s president. In advance of his inauguration, Putin resigned as United Russia chairman, handing control of the party to Medvedev. He was inaugurated as president on May 7, 2012, and one of his first acts upon assuming office was to nominate Medvedev to serve as prime minister.

Third presidential term of Vladimir Putin

Putin’s first year back in office as president was characterized by a largely successful effort to stifle the protest movement. Opposition leaders were jailed, and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from abroad were labeled as “foreign agents.” Tensions with the United States flared in June 2013, when U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden sought refuge in Russia after revealing the existence of a number of secret NSA programs. Snowden was allowed to remain in Russia on the condition that, in the words of Putin, he stop “bringing harm to our American partners.” After chemical weapons attacks outside Damascus in August 2013, the U.S. made the case for military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. In an editorial published in The New York Times, Putin urged restraint, and U.S. and Russian officials brokered a deal whereby Syria’s chemical weapons supply would be destroyed.

Putin commemorated the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the post-Soviet constitution in December 2013 by ordering the release of some 25,000 individuals from Russian prisons. In a separate move, he granted a pardon to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil conglomerate who had been imprisoned for more than a decade on charges that many outside Russia claimed were politically motivated.

The Ukraine conflict and Syrian intervention

In February 2014, when the government of Ukrainian Pres. Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown after months of sustained protests, Yanukovych fled to Russia. Refusing to recognize the interim government in Kyiv as legitimate, Putin requested parliamentary approval to dispatch troops to Ukraine to safeguard Russian interests. By early March 2014 Russian troops and pro-Russian paramilitary groups had effectively taken control of Crimea, a Ukrainian autonomous republic whose population was predominantly ethnic Russian. In a popular referendum held on March 16, residents of the Crimea voted to join Russia, and Western governments introduced a series of travel bans and asset freezes against members of Putin’s inner circle. On March 18 Putin, stating that the Crimea had always been part of Russia, signed a treaty incorporating the peninsula into the Russian Federation. Over subsequent days still more of Putin’s political allies were targeted with economic sanctions by the U.S. and the EU. After ratification of the treaty by both houses of the Russian parliament, on March 21 Putin signed legislation that formalized the Russian annexation of Crimea.

In April 2014, groups of unidentified gunmen outfitted with Russian equipment seized government buildings throughout southeastern Ukraine, sparking an armed conflict with the government in Kyiv. Putin referred to the region as Novorossiya (“New Russia”), evoking claims from the imperial era, and, although all signs pointed to direct Russian involvement in the insurgency, Putin steadfastly denied having a hand in the fighting. On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, carrying 298 people, crashed in eastern Ukraine, and overwhelming evidence indicated that it had been shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-controlled territory. Western countries responded by tightening the sanctions regime, and those measures, combined with plummeting oil prices, sent the Russian economy into a tailspin. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) estimated that more than 1,000 Russian troops were actively fighting inside Ukraine when Russian and Ukrainian leaders met for cease-fire talks in Minsk, Belarus, on September 5. The cease-fire slowed, but did not stop, the violence, and pro-Russian rebels spent the next several months pushing back Ukrainian government forces.

On February 12, 2015, Putin met with other world leaders in Minsk to approve a 12-point peace plan aimed at ending the fighting in Ukraine. Although fighting slowed for a period, the conflict picked up again in the spring, and by September 2015 the United Nations (UN) estimated that some 8,000 people had been killed and 1.5 million had been displaced as a result of the fighting. On September 28, 2015, in an address before the UN General Assembly, Putin presented his vision of Russia as a world power, capable of projecting its influence abroad, while painting the United States and NATO as threats to global security. Two days later Russia became an active participant in the Syrian Civil War, when Russian aircraft struck targets near the cities of Homs and Hama. Although Russian defense officials stated that the air strikes were intended to target troops and matériel belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the actual focus of the attacks seemed to have been on opponents of Syrian president and Russian ally Bashar al-Assad.

Silencing critics and actions in the West

On February 27, 2015, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down within sight of the Kremlin, just days after he had spoken out against Russian intervention in Ukraine. Nemtsov was only the latest Putin critic to be assassinated or to die under suspicious circumstances. In January 2016 a British public inquiry officially implicated Putin in the 2006 murder of former Federal Security Service (FSB; the successor to the KGB) officer Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko, who had spoken out against Russian government ties to organized crime both before and after his defection to the United Kingdom, was poisoned with polonium-210 while drinking tea in a London hotel bar. Britain ordered the extradition of the two men accused of carrying out the assassination, but both denied involvement and one—Andrey Lugovoy—had since been elected to the Duma and enjoyed parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Aleksey Navalny, an opposition activist who had first achieved prominence as a leader of the 2011 protest movement, was repeatedly imprisoned on what supporters characterized as politically motivated charges. Navalny finished second in the Moscow mayoral race in 2013, but his Progress Party was shut out of subsequent elections on procedural grounds. In the September 2016 legislative election, voter turnout was just 47.8 percent, the lowest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Voter apathy was attributed to Putin’s steady implementation of so-called “managed democracy,” a system whereby the basic structures and procedures of democracy were maintained but the outcome of elections was largely predetermined. Putin’s United Russia party claimed victory, but election observers documented numerous irregularities, including instances of ballot stuffing and repeat voting. Navalny’s party was prohibited from fielding any candidates because of its registration status, and Nemtsov’s PARNAS received less than 1 percent of the vote.

By 2016 Putin’s involvement had shifted the balance in power in Syria, and evidence emerged that Russia was conducting a wide-ranging hybrid warfare campaign intended to undermine the power and legitimacy of Western democracies. Many of the attacks blurred the line between cyberwarfare and cybercrime, while others recalled the direct Soviet interventionism of the Cold War era. Russian fighter jets routinely violated NATO airspace in the Baltic, and a pair of sophisticated cyberattacks on the Ukrainian power grid plunged hundreds of thousands of people into darkness. Ukrainian Pres. Petro Poroshenko reported that his country had been subjected to more than 6,000 cyber intrusions over a two-month period, with virtually every sector of Ukrainian society being targeted. Poroshenko stated that Ukrainian investigators had linked the cyberwar campaign to Russian security services. In Montenegro, where the pro-Western government was preparing for accession to NATO, authorities narrowly averted a plot to assassinate Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Ðjukanović and install a pro-Russian government. Montenegrin prosecutors uncovered a conspiracy that linked nationalist Serbs, pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine, and, allegedly, a pair of Russian intelligence agents who had orchestrated the planned coup.

In the months prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a series of high-profile hacking attacks targeted the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Computer security experts tied these attacks to Russian intelligence services, and in July 2016 thousands of private e-mails were published by WikiLeaks. Within days the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a probe into Russian efforts to influence the presidential election. It was later revealed that this investigation was also examining possible connections between those efforts and the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Trump joked that Russia had released the hacked e-mails because “Putin likes me” and later invited Russia to “find [Clinton’s] 30,000 e-mails that are missing.” In spite of these statements, Trump repeatedly dismissed the possibility that Putin was attempting to sway the election in his favour.

After Trump’s stunning victory in November 2016, renewed attention was focused on the cyberattacks and possible collusion between Trump’s campaign team and Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Putin had ordered a multipronged campaign to influence the election and undermine faith in American democratic systems. U.S. Pres. Barack Obama imposed economic sanctions on Russian intelligence services and expelled dozens of suspected Russian operatives, but President-elect Trump continued to reject the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies. Trump took office in January 2017 and additional investigations were opened by the U.S. Congress to examine the nature and extent of Russian meddling in the presidential election.

For his part, Putin denied the existence of any campaign to influence foreign elections. In May 2017, however, another cyberattack was attributed to Fancy Bear, the Russian government-linked group that had carried out the hack on the Democratic Party. France was holding the second round of its presidential election, and the finalists were centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. Le Pen had previously received financial support from a bank that had ties to the Kremlin, and she vowed to push for the end of the sanctions regime that had been enacted after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Just hours before a media blackout on campaign-related news coverage went into effect, a massive trove of internal communications dubbed “MacronLeaks” surfaced on the Internet. This effort came to naught, as Macron captured nearly twice as many votes as Le Pen and became president of France.

Putin’s foreign moves appeared to produce significant dividends at home, as his popular approval rating consistently remained above 80 percent in spite of Russia’s sluggish economy and endemic government corruption. Low oil prices and Western sanctions compounded an already grim financial outlook as foreign investors remained reluctant to put their capital at risk in a land where personal ties to Putin were seen as more important than the rule of law. Even after Russia emerged from seven consecutive quarters of recession, both wages and consumer spending remained stagnant in 2017. These and other domestic problems seemed to do little to dent Putin’s image; among those expressing concern for such issues in opinion polls, blame was most often affixed to Putin’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev.

Fourth presidential term

Salisbury novichok attack and relationship with Trump

As the March 2018 presidential election approached, it seemed all but certain that Putin would win a fourth presidential term by a wide margin. Navalny, the face of the opposition, was barred from running, and the Communist candidate, Pavel Grudinin, faced incessant criticism from the state-run media. Two weeks before the election, Putin became the focus of a major international incident when Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who was convicted of spying for Britain only to be released to the United Kingdom as part of a prisoner swap, was found unconscious with his daughter in Salisbury, England. Investigators alleged that the pair had been exposed to a “novichok,” a complex nerve agent developed by the Soviets. British officials accused Putin of having ordered the attack, and British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled nearly two dozen Russian intelligence operatives who had been working in Britain under diplomatic cover.

The diplomatic row had not abated when Russians went to the polls on March 18, 2018. The date was, not coincidentally, the fourth anniversary of Russia’s forcible annexation of the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea, an event that marked a spike in Putin’s domestic popularity. As expected, Putin claimed an overwhelming majority of the vote in an election that independent monitoring agency Golos characterized as being rife with irregularities. Putin had wished for a higher turnout than in his 2012 election victory, and ballot stuffing was observed in numerous locations. Putin’s campaign characterized the result as an “incredible victory.”

On July 16, 2018, fresh from the success of Russia’s well-received hosting of the World Cup football championship, Putin held a summit meeting in Helsinki with Trump. The two had conducted discussions at the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Hamburg, Germany, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 2017, but the encounter in Finland marked their first formal one-on-one meeting. It came at the end of Trump’s trip to Europe in which he had ruffled relations with the United States’ traditional European allies. Although some observers questioned whether Trump would be able to hold his own in discussions with a counterpart as seasoned and cagey as Putin, Trump said that he thought his meeting with Putin would be the “easiest” of his trip.

After Putin kept Trump waiting by arriving late, the two met alone (with only translators present) for some two hours and then more briefly in the presence of advisers. In the press conference that followed, Putin once again denied any Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump then sent shock waves when, in response to a reporter’s question, he indicated that he trusted Putin’s denial more than the conclusions of his own intelligence organizations, which only days earlier had resulted in the U.S. Department of Justice’s indictment of 12 Russian intelligence agents for their meddling in the election. Moreover, given the opportunity to condemn transgressive Russian actions, Trump instead cast blame on the United States for its strained relationship with Russia. Trump also warmed to Putin’s offer to allow U.S. investigators to interview the Russian agents in return for Russian access to Americans of interest in Russian investigations.

Asked by an American reporter if he had favoured Trump in the election, Putin said that he had, because of Trump’s expressed desire for better relations with Russia. When questioned about whether Russia had kompromat (compromising information) on Trump, Putin pointed to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and talked about the impossibility of obtaining compromising material on each of the more than 500 “high-ranking, high-level” American businessmen said to have attended the conference. He also said that he had been unaware of Trump’s presence in Moscow during an earlier visit. Some press accounts of his answer, however, pointed out that Putin did not explicitly deny having Trump-related kompromat. The Russian press trumpeted the summit as a huge success for Putin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the outcome of the summit as “better than super.” The response in the United States was mostly shock, and a number of Republicans joined Democrats in strongly condemning Trump’s performance.

Constitutional change and the poisoning of Navalny

Although Russia remained something of a pariah on the global stage—its athletes were barred from international competition due to a massive state-sponsored doping scheme, it was suspended indefinitely from the G8, and it was the target of a raft of economic sanctions—Putin’s personal stature was undiminished. With Britain struggling to conclude an exit deal with the European Union, German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the twilight of her tenure as de facto leader of Europe, and governments in Poland and Hungary exhibiting increasingly authoritarian practices, Putin faced a West that seemed unable to find its direction. Against this backdrop, he boasted of a robust expansion of Russian military power, particularly in the field of hypersonic weapons. Speaking about the historic arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, in December 2019 Putin remarked, “Today, we have a situation that is unique in modern history: they’re trying to catch up to us.”

In January 2020 Putin announced his intention to modify the Russian constitution in a way that would scrap term limits for presidents, paving the way for him to remain in office indefinitely. Medvedev promptly resigned as prime minister, stating that a new government would give Putin “the opportunity to make the decisions he needs to make.” The proposed constitutional changes were speedily approved by the Russian legislature, but Putin scheduled a national referendum on the matter, a move that critics described as little more than political theatre. That vote was originally scheduled for April, but it was postponed until July due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the result was an overwhelming affirmation of Putin’s agenda, but opposition groups noted that there was no independent monitoring of the election process.

On August 20 Navalny became seriously ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk, and tests later confirmed that he had been exposed to a novichok. Navalny was flown to Germany to recover, and the following month opposition candidates performed surprisingly well in local elections held in the area where Navalny had been campaigning. The Kremlin denied involvement in the poisoning, but such protestations had become increasingly implausible, as the attack on Navalny represented only the most recent in a long series of attempts on the lives of Putin’s critics.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine

In late 2021 Putin ordered a massive buildup of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border; additional units were dispatched to Belarus, ostensibly to engage in joint exercises with the Belarusian military. Western governments raised concerns about what appeared to be an imminent Russian invasion, but Putin denied that he had any such plans. By February 2022 as many as 190,000 Russian troops were poised to strike into Ukraine from forward bases in Russia, Russian-occupied Crimea, Belarus, and the Russian-backed separatist enclave of Transdniestria in Moldova. In addition, amphibious units were deployed to the Black Sea under the guise of previously scheduled naval exercises. On February 21 Putin recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, effectively voiding the 2015 Minsk peace agreement. In the early morning hours of February 24 Putin announced the beginning of a “special military operation,” and explosions could be heard in cities across Ukraine. Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky said that his country would defend itself, and Western leaders condemned the unprovoked attack, promising swift and severe sanctions against Russia.

Putin and his military advisers had assumed that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would conclude in a matter of days with the toppling of the democratically elected government in Kyiv and the installation of a pro-Moscow regime. Almost from the outset, however, deficiencies in Russia’s military became apparent, and advances along numerous axes stalled in the face of determined Ukrainian resistance. Colossal logistical failures hampered the attack on Kyiv, and an attempted encirclement of Kharkiv faltered, despite that city’s close proximity (20 miles [32 km]) to the Russian border. By the end of March Russian troops had been driven back from Kyiv, and the following month Ukrainian forces sank the missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

In liberated areas there was widespread evidence of war crimes committed by Russian soldiers. Reports of looting and sexual violence were commonplace, and in cities such as Bucha, Izyum, and Kherson the bodies of hundreds of civilians were found piled in mass graves. In Mariupol as many as 600 people were killed when a Russian air strike targeted a theatre that had been serving as the city’s main bomb shelter. The building held no military value, and the word “CHILDREN” was painted on the pavement outside in massive Cyrillic letters that were visible in satellite imagery. As battlefield victories became more elusive and Ukraine began reclaiming territory, Russian commanders stepped up their attacks on civilian infrastructure in a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. When Russian troops finally captured Mariupol after a three-month siege, the port city had been reduced to a smoking ruin.

If Putin had hoped to divide the West and reassert Russia’s dominance in the “near abroad” countries of the former Soviet Union, the plan backfired spectacularly. On June 23 the European Union formally granted candidate status to Ukraine, thus completing a narrative arc that had begun with the overthrow of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government in 2014. NATO was energized by the clear threat to Europe’s collective security, and Finland and Sweden, two countries with a long history of neutrality, signed accession treaties to the alliance on July 5. Poland, which historically had a difficult relationship with its neighbour to the east, welcomed Ukrainian refugees by the millions. The United States sent billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, and Western leaders traveled to Kyiv to demonstrate their continued support for Zelensky and Ukraine. Putin, conversely, was increasingly isolated as Russia became the most heavily economically sanctioned country in history.

As his war effort foundered, Putin shuffled commanders and finally outsourced a portion of the fighting to Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercenary company. Prigozhin filled Wagner’s ranks with inmates recruited from Russia’s prisons, and Prigozhin’s convict army was soon carrying out sanguinary attacks in the Donbas. Staggering losses from Ukrainian counteroffensives led Putin to declare a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 troops on September 21. Although defense officials had pledged that only combat veterans would be called up, there was widespread evidence that men with no military experience were being drafted. Protests erupted across Russia, and hundreds of thousands of military-age men fled the country. Poorly equipped and given virtually no training, some of these conscripts were killed in action within two weeks of receiving their draft notices. Even Putin’s most enthusiastic supporters in state media voiced their disapproval of the partial mobilization, but doing so carried a very real risk. Putin had passed a law making criticism of the war effort a crime that carried a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, and officials and oligarchs who drew Putin’s ire often suffered suspicious deaths, with a wholly improbable number falling from windows. After a year of war, Russia’s international standing was greatly diminished, its economy was reeling from sanctions, and its leader appeared more vulnerable than at any previous time in his nearly quarter century in power.

Putin’s mobilization did little to change the military situation in Ukraine, and Russia’s winter and spring offensives went nowhere. Wagner forces intensified their focus on the city of Bakhmut in an effort to deliver some kind of victory for the Kremlin. For months, poorly equipped Wagner convict troops conducted bloody human wave attacks while trying to encircle Ukrainian forces, but Ukrainian defenses held. In May 2023 the Ukrainians withdrew from the ruins of Bakhmut, and Prigozhin declared victory; it was estimated that Russian casualties in the battle exceeded 100,000, with more than 20,000 killed in action. Still, it was Russia’s first battlefield success in nearly a year, and Prigozhin’s stock rose accordingly.

Infighting between Prigozhin and the Russian military establishment reached a dramatic climax in late June, when Prigozhin “declared war” on the Russian defense ministry and crossed back into Russia at the head of an armoured column composed of some 25,000 Wagner mercenaries. On June 24 the Wagner force downed more than half a dozen Russian aircraft and proceeded to occupy the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. Prigozhin’s column then headed north, encountering no meaningful resistance as it passed through Voronezh, before it finally halted just 120 miles (roughly 200 km) south of Moscow. Prigozhin then abruptly ordered his men to return to their positions in Ukraine while Belarusian Pres. Alexander Lukashenko announced that he had brokered an agreement between Prigozhin and the Kremlin. In exchange for Wagner halting its mutiny, the mercenaries would be granted amnesty and offered military contracts; Prigozhin would live in exile in Belarus.

Putin’s whereabouts during the rebellion were subject to much speculation, as his presidential jet was tracked leaving Moscow while Prigozhin was still on the march. A spokesperson insisted that Putin was “working at the Kremlin,” but what is beyond dispute is that Putin kept a surprisingly low profile during one of the most tumultuous days in recent Russian history. His public statements, when they finally did come, appeared desperate and contradictory. He excoriated Prigozhin as a traitor, but Putin’s security services made no immediate move to apprehend him. He praised the Wagner fighters as patriots, despite the fact that the mercenaries had killed dozens of Russian service members during their advance on Moscow. Putin also lauded the Russian army for preventing “a civil war,” even though the regular Russian military appeared wholly unequipped to halt the rebellion.


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