The world watches Wagner's rebellion in alarm - fearing chaos and even civil war

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2010

The dramatic mutiny - and possible coup attempt - unfolding inside Russia is sounding alarm bells across Western capitals. It remains unclear what Yevgeny Prigozhin's ultimate goal is. Is this an internal fight between his Wagner Group and Russia's generals? Or is it a no-holds-barred power grab - which would make it the most audacious attempt to seize the Kremlin since the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991? I witnessed that coup in the dying days of the USSR, and today there are similar concerns that Russia itself is on the edge of forces colliding in a manner that could quickly spiral out of control. This time, even more alarmingly, the struggle is not between aspiring democratic forces and communist elements, but between a mercenary leader and the Russian military elite. Both sides are heavily armed. If it is not contained, it could explode into violence across Russian cities.

The White House is watching this with grave concern. There is no "good guy" in this fight. Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen - rightly so - as a highly unpredictable figure whose origins are in the St Petersburg "mafia" - the group that climbed to power through extortion and by proximity to Vladimir Putin and his acolytes. He is a gangster. The primary worry in Washington is that Russia has forward-deployed nuclear missiles in the southern military district where Wagner troops now appear to be gaining control. If there is chaos - or just uncertainty - surrounding the military chain of command or over the custody of nuclear weapons, that is a matter of the gravest concern for the West. Ukrainian leaders may be cheering this internal fight within Russia, and perhaps that is their best chance of reclaiming occupied territory. But mutinies, coups and revolutions in Russia are often followed by terrible blood-letting. This is also being watched with alarm in many other countries beyond Ukraine, the US and Europe. China will see a key ally in turmoil. Beijing will deplore the very idea of a mutiny threatening an authoritarian leader - not least, for fear that such a threat may one day occur inside the People's Liberation Army. The Wagner Group is a mercenary outfit with tentacles all over Syria and central and southern Africa. It is unclear what the Russian paramilitaries in these countries will do. Will they head back to Russia? Or become guns-for-hire in some of the most unstable countries in the world? President Putin has taken Russia down a catastrophic path with his ill-judged war in Ukraine. The world sought to isolate and punish him, and the West armed Ukraine to the teeth. Now the international community has a terrifying new question to ponder: If Putin is toppled, could his successor be even more erratic and dangerous?

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