FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

The Putin regime in Russia is a menace to the rest of humanity while in power. It could be an even greater menace as it dissembles.

There is consensus that last weekend’s bizarre events in southern Russia, where the Wagner private army took over a strategic city before agreeing to stand down, is the beginning of the closing chapter of the Putin regime. Putin will never recover from this embarrassment. His grip on power will henceforth be seen as tenuous.

Putin’s remarks condemning the rebellion was laced with the usual bluster. But he allowed Yevgeny Prigozhin to slip into neighboring Belarus. Moscow’s security agency announced it would drop any charges against him. The 40,000-odd Wagner fighters are invited to integrate into the regular Russian army – the very organization Wagner denounced as incompetent and corrupt.

According to the latest reports, Prigozhin and his senior staff have landed in Minsk aboard their private jets. The man has a vastly shortened life expectancy, however.

In his latest remarks, Putin confirmed the Wagner mercenary outfit has been funded by the Russian defense establishment. Over the last year alone, Wagner received about $1 billion in subsidies from Moscow.

This outright admission by the Russian president strips whatever deniability the Russian government tried hard to maintain for years. Although Russian law bans private military groupings, the Putin regime fostered groups such as Wagner and the various Chechen militias. These private militias furthered Moscow’s policies abroad such as propping up the brutal Assad regime in Syria.

Wagner has a presence in Libya’s unending civil war. From their Libyan bases, Wagner has intervened in the civil war in Sudan on the side of the paramilitary groups challenging the country’s army.

In addition, Wagner has a presence in Mali and in other places in central Africa. They barter their mercenary muscle for control of gold and diamond mines, commodities the oligarchy in Moscow lusts for to blunt the effects of global economic sanctions. If the Wagner group is dissolved, there will be consequences for African regimes reliant on their brutality.

Lest we forget, Wagner played a vital role in the months-long bloody battle for Bakmut in eastern Ukraine. For this role, Wagner was allowed to recruit convicts in Russian prisons – adding a whole new dimension to the abusive use of prison labor. Thousands of these recruits died in fruitless assaults on Ukrainian positions.

As his fighters moved to control the city of Rostov-on-Don, Prigozhin ranted against Moscow’s justification for its “special military operation” in Ukraine. The warlord claimed that the invasion of Ukraine was inspired by the greed of Russian oligarchs seeking to control the resources of a neighboring country. He knows enough to speak the truth.

Prigozhin, after all, is an ultimate insider. It was Putin that rescued him from selling hotdogs on the streets of Petrograd and rewarded with fat contracts to perform an assortment of chores for the tyrant. He was allowed to build the powerful Wagner organization to serve as Putin’s private army, performing foreign missions for the Kremlin as much as acting as a counterweight to the power of the regular army. Wagner complemented the 200,000-man military force set up solely to protect Putin.

The Putin regime is a mafia thinly disguised as a government. The fabulously rich oligarchs, with all their super yachts and costly real estate all over the world, owe their wealth to Putin alone. The moment they displease the ultimate godfather, they are jailed or killed.

The cabal Putin collected around himself controls nearly every major business and economic sector in Russia. Most of them acquired formerly state-owned enterprises dirt-cheap and grew their companies exporting their country’s vast natural resources.

Like all mafia organizations, Putin’s oligarchs are controlled from the top by sheer violence. They are as much subject to repression as the rest of this tightly policed society, although they enjoy the unimaginable perks of loyalty.

Putin critic Alexei Navalny survived poisoning and is now in jail for exposing the corruption of Putin and his gang. He will not likely survive his imprisonment.

Like all mafia organizations assembled on the basis of personal loyalty, the Putin regime cannot survive the demise (political or literal) of its leader. It will likely break down in the chaos of infighting. This will happen sooner or later.

The corrosion or implosion of the Putin regime can happen quickly or in painfully slow motion. The factional struggle for succession could be brief or protracted. But all these will affect the supply and pricing of vital commodities such as grain, fertilizers and hydrocarbons Russia supplies the rest of the world.

Recall how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threw energy and grain prices into a frenzy. That could happen all over again at the first sign of the dissembling of effective rule in Russia. The next economic shock could result from disintegration of the Putin regime.

Philippine foreign policy clearly has no role to play in helping ease whatever political transition will occur in Russia. That is purely their internal matter.

But we do have the responsibility to de-risk in the face of further tumult in Russia. We depend on the stability of international grain and energy prices. Both could be severely affected by regime meltdown in Moscow.

Part of the food inflation we now experience is due to the spike in fertilizer prices. Most of the supply of urea comes from Russia.

Fortunately, Russia is not a major trading partner. That is at least an upside.

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