For anyone wondering how Russia might change after this weekend’s aborted coup, it would be worth keeping an eye on Viktor Zolotov, President Vladimir Putin’s longtime bodyguard, who emerged on Tuesday as one of the few apparent winners in the regime’s near-death experience. .
A typically gray and surly figure in the Kremlin entourage, Zolotov, who heads the Russian National Guard, stepped out of Putin’s shadow on Tuesday to take credit for defending Moscow from the Wagner Group, the private army that marched across Russia this weekend. week. After meeting Putin on Monday and Tuesday, Zolotov outlined how his branch of the military, with more than 300,000 strong personnel, would benefit from the rebellion. His troops would soon receive an arsenal of advanced weaponry, he said, including tanks, to protect against similar threats to the Putin government.
Whether any of the Kremlin clans can win from the Wagner Group rebellion remains to be seen. His leader, Evgeny Prigozhin, reportedly went into exile and his mercenaries ordered to disband. His rivals in the Russian military have been humiliated by the fiasco, while Putin has struggled to save face and regain control of power. But Zolotov, the consummate loyalist, appears to be taking a victory lap and publicly seeking the upper hand.
It could be within your reach. In a speech in the Kremlin on Tuesday, Putin thanked the forces under Zolotov’s command for defending the capital alongside police and other security forces. “You saved the Motherland from turmoil and effectively stopped a civil war,” Putin told a gathering of troops and officers, including Zolotov and other top commanders.
All of them, from the defense minister to the nation’s top spies, have been silent in recent days, looking meek and exhausted in a meeting with Putin on Monday. The only one wearing a military uniform at that meeting was Zolotov, who has since become the most outspoken of Russia’s top brass. On Tuesday, he was the first senior official to blame the mutiny on the US and its European allies, offering a familiar hoax for state propaganda channels to broadcast: “The rebellion,” Zolotov told them, “was inspired by West”.
Among Putin’s henchmen, Zolotov’s background stands in stark contrast to that of Prigozhin, the brazen mutineer who ordered his men to advance on Moscow over the weekend. Prigozhin, a convicted robber and former hot dog vendor, worked his way into Putin’s circle through a series of trade deals and his willingness to do the dirty work of the state around the world, whether it be interfering in US elections or supporting dictators in Africa and the Middle East. This. A creature of the establishment and a general in the Russian army, Zolotov has spent most of his career inside the Kremlin walls, beginning as President Boris Yeltsin’s bodyguard in 1991 and continuing in that role under Putin.
Vladimir Putin speaks with Viktor Zolotov during their meeting in Moscow on August 30, 2022.
Mikhail Klimentyev—Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images
He first came to public prominence in Russia in 2016, when Putin created the Russian National Guard and appointed Zolotov as its commander. The force, which reports directly to Putin, was designed to quell popular uprisings and internal threats to the regime, a task Zolotov gladly took on. In one of his rare public appearances in 2018, he threatened to turn Russia’s most prominent dissident, Alexei Navalny, into a “juicy piece of meat.”
During the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, Zolotov’s forces mainly played an auxiliary role, drawing up the rear behind the elite commandos and airborne troops tasked with the conquest of Kiev. When that mission failed, Zolotov was not blamed as much as the spy chiefs and generals who planned and executed the invasion. Putin continued to praise the Russian National Guard even as the rest of his army began to withdraw from the kyiv region. “The whole country is proud of each of you,” Putin told them in late March 2022, marking a national holiday held in honor of Zolotov’s forces.
Since then, many of Russia’s top generals and spy chiefs have feuded with one another, struggling to regain momentum in the war and evade responsibility for Russia’s catastrophic losses on the battlefield. One of these disputes resulted in Prigozhin’s mutiny over the weekend, and it ended badly for both him and his rivals within the Russian army.
But to Zolotov, it seems like an opportunity and a sign of the direction Russia might take. Threatened in Moscow and frustrated in Ukraine, Putin could turn to the man who has been by his side from the start, the one responsible for preventing internal threats to the regime. To Putin, that might seem like a logical move as he steps back from the brink of civil war. For the rest of the Russian elite, it could herald the start of a purge, one that Zolotov would be more than happy to carry out with the forces under his command.
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