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Five days since the revolt in Russia, Putin is still standing — But for how long?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Five days and counting since the revolt in Russia, and Vladimir Putin is still standing. But for how long? The events of this past weekend mark the greatest challenge to Putin's rule since he came to power 23 years ago. And now a U.S. official has confirmed to NPR that a top Russian general with ties to Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has been detained. It is not clear if General Sergey Surovikin supported the uprising, but the ties between the general and Prigozhin go back years.

GULNAZ SHARAFUTDINOVA: We also know that these two individuals see themselves as being in the thick of the war and the struggle. And they see the elites in Moscow, you know, to be more corrupt, to be not really fighting for their motherlands. And so that creates a certain potential proximity of how they view things.

KELLY: That is Gulnaz Sharafutdinova. She's director of the Russia Institute at King's College London. When I spoke with her today, I asked her take on how wounded Putin is.

SHARAFUTDINOVA: That's the very big question, right? I like to compare what happened to sort of, like, a glitch in the matrix. This might be for American audiences. They remember that black cat and the glitch in the matrix that reveals that there is a matrix, right? And we saw that glitch in Russia - you know, things that have been under the radar, things that have not been shown to the population in their own immediacy that is the real conflicts that exist among the elites. All of the sudden, it was on display.

And no wonder now the Russian media managers would be doing a lot to try to diminish the importance of what has happened. And there will be many people who might not even believe that this was a real mutiny, a real challenge to the authority, but many will believe that. And we see - in terms of the laughter that's emerging, in terms of the ridiculing patterns and the anecdotes that emerge in the Russian social media, we see that people are reacting. And, you know, the very common reaction was that, oh, the emperor is naked. So from that perspective, the leader who has been very successful in managing conflicts and being an arbiter among different interest groups all of the sudden didn't manage well this time, and that does demonstrate weakness on his part. And it cannot not hurt - no wonder that they are - will try to patch it up.

KELLY: What do we know of how ordinary Russians view all this? What do they make of what's happening?

SHARAFUTDINOVA: The very early reactions were focused on various types of conspiracies. Many people had hard time believing that Putin could be challenged in such an open way, so it was a reality that was hard to confront. So various types of conspiracy theories that this was conspired by Putin himself to somehow increase or improve his hold on power were very prominent and popular. And I think they will remain. But at the same time, the other side of the story is the, I mentioned, ridicule and laughter and the social media creativity that goes on with regards to bringing out various types of clips from films and movies that would make fun of the situation. So it's between laughter and disbelief. And there is, of course, a wide range between that.

KELLY: So do we have any insight into what President Putin is thinking, what his next move may be?

SHARAFUTDINOVA: You know, people are expecting repressions. You know, some of the revengeful acts might take some time, but this is something that we will be looking out for. And it is hard to say what exactly, you know, will be decided at the moment. I think there is some lag in terms of digestion that will happen and soul-searching within the government, within the security services and sort of looking around and then taking some action. So we are all on the watch-out for those.

KELLY: Yeah. Has he signaled in any way that this mutiny might cause him to rethink his war in Ukraine?

SHARAFUTDINOVA: No. That we haven't seen. What we have seen is the attempt to patch up this open sort of challenge that was revealed and to patch it up with rhetoric of popular unification behind the president, the army saving, you know, the government and the country and, yet again, the message of the West - the evil West that's trying to fragment Russia that is out there looking for Russia's weaknesses. So all those messages, to a certain extent, have been there, and they are being used again. But at this time, you know, we see this as a Band-Aid that's being put on the events.

KELLY: One question to leave you with, and it's this. I saw one former U.S. diplomat, Elizabeth Shackelford, quoted on recent events. And she said her central question now is, is Putin's biggest battle not with the West but with his own people now? What do you think?

SHARAFUTDINOVA: I would say that Putin's biggest battle is on the frontlines in Ukraine, and the outcomes of that battle and the perceived loss or success in that battle will determine his relationships with both the people and the elites in Russia.

KELLY: Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, professor of Russian politics at King's College in London and author of the book "The Red Mirror: Putin's Leadership And Russia's Insecure Identity." Thank you so much.

SHARAFUTDINOVA: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Raney
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.