Putin embraced the turmoil. Now he is shaking up his leadership.

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President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia always seemed to thrive on chaos. Then he threatened to consume him.

In recent months, as mercenary chief Yevgeny V. Prigozhin intensified his feud with the Russian military, Mr. Putin did not publicly reveal any discomfort with his rants. The silence fostered the kind of political ambiguity that has long been a trademark of Putin’s government: tolerating, even encouraging, conflict among the elite because it kept potential rivals in check, while emphasizing that final authority always rested with the president himself.

The key test of the Russian leader was loyalty, a fact that Mr. Prigozhin showed he understood, even amid his recent criticism of the military leadership: “I listen to Putin,” he said in May. However, on Saturday, after more than 20 years of taking advantage of his personal ties to Mr. Putin, Mr. Prigozhin cast aside the last shreds of that loyalty and plunged Russia into its biggest political crisis in three decades, when his forces seized control of the key. military facilities in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don and threatened to enter Moscow.

The specter of a pitched battle for Moscow appeared averted — at least for now — on Saturday night, after Mr Prigozhin said he was turning around his troops marching towards the Russian capital.

But at no time since he was appointed Acting President on December 31, 1999, Mr. Putin had faced such a dramatic challenge. And it came from a man who, like much of the Russian elite, owes his power and status to the Russian president’s informal and personal style.

“Putin underestimated” the threat posed by Mr. Prigozhin, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “He thought I was totally dependent and loyal.”

The patience of Mr. Putin with the outbursts of Mr. Prigozhin this year may have served his political purposes, but he made officials stunned by Mr. Prigozhin against Russia’s top officials concluded that he enjoyed the president’s tacit support, analysts said. He also further encouraged Mr. Prigozhin, who although launching his armed rebellion insisted that “this is not a coup” and that “presidential authority” would remain in place.

Confusion over Mr. Putin’s personal views only ended on Saturday morning, when the president delivered a five-minute address to the nation in which he described Mr. Prigozhin — without naming him — as a traitor and vowed to stifle the uprising that the paramilitary leader had had. it began. But the damage had already been done.

Throughout Saturday’s drama, there were no immediate signs that Mr. Putin’s power was about to collapse, with no one in the Russian elite publicly siding with Mr. Prigozhin. Other powerful men at the nodes of Putin’s informal power structure, including Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the southern Russian region of Chechnya, which controls its own paramilitary force, expressed support for the president on Saturday.

Surely, amid the rapid developments, there was no way of knowing whether Mr. Prigozhin might have gotten some behind-the-scenes support. It was also unclear what would come of the deal he struck with President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, whose government announced late Saturday that it had negotiated a deal to defuse the crisis.

The events were a surprising consequence of the informal power structure that Mr. Putin built during his 23 years at the head of Russia. For more than two decades, the system helped Mr. Putin secure his unparalleled authority, ensuring that he personally held the keys to wealth and influence in modern Russia.

People who know Mr. Putin say the president has always been comfortable with this personalized system, because it allowed him to entrust key tasks to a trusted inner circle while preventing the rise of rival cliques that could undermine him. And he ensured that the institutions of the state, from the courts to the Parliament, through the media and the multiple security services, remained mere instruments in internecine power games mediated by Mr. Putin, rather than sources of influence in their own right.

Shortly after taking power, Putin used brute force to crush the “oligarch” business tycoons who overwhelmingly dominated President Boris N. Yeltsin in the 1990s. It then allowed competition between rival groups to escalate, even encouraging security agencies with overlapping responsibilities; for example, an Investigative Committee, an Attorney General and a Federal Security Service are involved in the investigation of crimes.

In the war-torn region of Chechnya, Mr. Kadyrov built a private fiefdom while professing loyalty to no official but Putin himself.

A Russian business magnate, reflecting on the rise of Mr. Prigozhin, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Putin in his rule was always “divide and conquer”. As another put it, referring to Russia’s rival police authorities: “You never know who’s going to arrest you.”

The strategy of Mr. Putin extended beyond Russia to foreign policy; he preferred to keep the world guessing about his intentions, as when his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 surprised friends and foes alike.

But for those who navigated this system, the rewards were incredible. A childhood judo sparring partner of Mr. Putin became a construction billionaire and built Mr. Putin to Crimea. Fellow veterans of the KGB now supervise those in Russia military industrial complex and his oil sector. A friend from St. Petersburg in the 90s is in charge Control of Russia’s biggest private media assets and the bank is said to be at the nexus of Mr Putin’s financial dealings.

And then there was Mr. Prigozhin, who did said who met Mr. Putin in 2000 as a restaurateur in St. Petersburg. He parlayed those personal ties into lucrative government contracts and billed himself as a ruthless, all-around Kremlin problem-solver.

In 2016, as the Kremlin tried to swing the US presidential election to Donald J. Trump, Mr. Prigozhin jumped into the fray with a “troll factory” on the Internet, waging “information war against the United States.” As Russia sought to expand its reach into Syria and Africa, Mr. Prigozhin deployed his growing Wagnerian mercenary force to these regions, allowing the Kremlin to project power while minimizing Russian military boots on the ground.

In Ukraine, as Mr. Prigozhin, Wagner’s troops were only called in after Putin’s initial invasion plan failed. For much of the first year of the war, Mr. Prigozhin appeared above the law, roaming Russian prisons to recruit thousands of convicts to bolster his forces.

Earlier this year, the Kremlin appeared to be taking some steps to limit Mr. Prigozhin. Television commentators were ordered to avoid mentioning him on air, and he lost his ability to recruit convicts.

But Mr. Putin appeared hesitant about his own support for Mr. Prigozhin. In May, he congratulated Wagner’s mercenaries for their role in capturing the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, in a statement. published on the Kremlin website. Weeks later, he supported the Defense Ministry’s push for mercenaries to sign service contracts with the Russian military by July 1, a demand that angered Mr. Prigozhin.

Many believed the president saw good reason not to permanently halt Mr. Prigozhin on social networks against the Ministry of Defense, which he called inept, corrupt and indifferent to the lives of soldiers. Some analysts say Mr Putin saw him as a useful figurehead: a check against the risk of a military leader becoming too popular.

Mr Putin “needs someone quite weak and compromised” to represent the military politically, because in Russia, “even the most disastrous wars produce very popular generals”, said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian intelligence expert and senior member of the Center for the Analysis of European politics. “His plan was to keep Prigozhin talking, but he miscalculated.”

As a result, when Mr. Putin scrambled to quell a rebellion that he warned on Saturday could lead to “anarchy and fratricide”, Mr. Prigozhin appeared as the creation of the Russian president himself.

Mr. Prigozhin “had no real independent power base except for the favor of the president,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian military and security services. “In any case, this undermines Putin’s credibility and legitimacy.”

Neil MacFarquhar and Valerie Hopkins contributed to the report.

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