Mikhail Khodorkovsky on the stark lessons from Russia’s wild weekend
YEVGENY PRIGOZHINS attempted coup was, despite its failure, a seismic moment for Russia, laying bare President Vladmir Putins vulnerability. As the mutiny unfolded, I suggested that Russias democratic anti-war opposition should welcome the opportunity that it presented, not because Mr Prigozhin is our friend or allya thug and war criminal, he is anything butbut because Mr Putins fall can only be brought about by force. This was only the second time that Mr Putin has faced a truly revolutionary moment, the first being the mass protests of 2011-13. Yet back then, the democratic opposition was unable to capitalise. We need to wake up to the fact that the fall of the Putin regime and the creation of a better Russia will not come about through the ballot box or other peaceful means but will require armed insurrection. We can either be prepared for that or sidelined and eventually steamrollered by it. Only an armed populace can topple this dictatorship. The nature of the attempted coup was not entirely unpredictable. Indeed, I have previously highlighted the risk to Mr Putin of the emergence of many thousands of aggrieved individuals in Russia, who now, as a result of his criminal invasion of Ukraine, have weapons, training and experience in using them. If and when Ukraines army penetrated the front, I argued, a horde of fighters retreating into Russia would threaten the regime in the way that the rollback of troops from the front in the first world war precipitated the Bolshevik takeover. Had Mr Prigozhin succeeded, it is fanciful to think his coup would have brought about democratisation, the freeing of political prisoners and the calling of free and fair elections. If we in the democratic opposition wish to attain those goals then we must not only support the toppling of the regime but also be ready to assert our democratic interests through force when it falls. Our freedom at this stage will not be won by preparing for elections. What the coup attempt made clear, however, is that Mr Putin is a lame duck whose days are numbered. It has dealt a potentially fatal blow to the legitimacy of his regime, in the eyes of both the Russian elites and society at large. He has been exposed as a weak leader, unable to control his inner circle and security forces and retreating into isolation when under threat. Far from being the master manipulator of divisions among those beneath him, he risks being toppled by forces he unleashed but can no longer control. For the general population, the ease with which Mr Prigozhins mercenaries took over Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia that serves as a key logistical staging-post for Russian forces in Ukraine, put paid to the idea that Mr Putin enjoys overwhelming public support. Russian elites, meanwhile, can no longer look to him as a guarantor of their status, stability and prosperity. The president can no longer control his troops, and the population no longer believes the myths he peddles about his unnecessary, criminal war. Mr Prigozhin understood Mr Putins weakness, the parlous state of his war machine and the decimated morale of his troops. He wouldnt have mutinied if he didnt think he had a serious chance of success. We glimpsed how the regimes inevitable fall is likely to come about and the forces that will seek to take overso called national patriots led by another thug. The democratic anti-war opposition and our natural allies in the West need to prepare for the regimes collapse and cannot meekly allow the bandit currently in charge of Russias nuclear arsenal to be replaced by another. The West should bet big on Russias democratic opposition and grant it agency, so that when the regime implodes we are capable of seizing the moment. Western powers should recognise our opposition institutions, such as the Russian Action Committee, as legitimate representatives of Russian society, enabling us to better compete with the militarised national patriots in the Prigozhin mould. Simultaneously, there must be no let-up in the Wests support for Ukraine. It must continue to arm the Ukrainians to spur them on to victory. Mr Putins forces are in disarray and Ukraine must be fully backed to press home the advantage. Within Russia, however, it is time to recognise that Mr Putins failure of a war has made his downfall inevitable. If the West wishes ever to see a Russia capable of being a responsible actor in the world, it needs to give its backing to the democratic anti-war opposition. The Russian opposition, meanwhile, needs to prepare for what comes next and the cold, hard reality that the next Russian revolution will not be of the velvet variety. The regime and the forces that will topple it will be armed. We may abhor Mr Prigozhin, but we cannot ignore that he has demonstrated the potential for successful sabotage against Mr Putins noxious regime. Regime change is coming. Exactly when is impossible to say. But one thing is certain: we must be ready for it. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was formerly a political prisoner and chief executive of Yukos, a Russian oil company. He is the author of The Russia Conundrum: How the West Fell for Putins Power Gambitand How to Fix It (2022).