Putin’s War Comes Home

Putin’s War Comes Home

Though the Wagner mutiny was short-lived, it shows how Russia could collapse.

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Vladimir Putin styles himself as a student of history, frequently justifying his actions with lectures on the lessons and legacies of the past. He defended his invasion of Ukraine not just with references to recent disputes Russia had with its neighbor but also claims of proprietorship dating back to the time of the czars, and complaints about the alleged national betrayals of Vladimir Lenin and Nikita Khrushchev. When faced with a mutiny of mercenaries led by the Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, Putin instinctively started talking about the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Putin spoke on Russian television for a little over five minutes on Saturday morning. The brevity of his speech was matched by its belatedness. When Putin spoke, the mutiny was already 12 hours old, Prigozhin’s forces held the military command at Rostov-on-Don (the nerve center of the Russian war effort in Ukraine), and Wagner troops were making brisk progress toward Moscow, a city preparing for siege. Putin was nowhere to be seen during all this, although two Russian generals did make speeches on television urging Wagner forces to stand down.

In this tense moment, Putin used a substantial portion of his five minutes to remind Russians of the trauma of 1917. Putin described Prigozhin’s actions as a “stab in the back” (a historically resonant phrase echoing Hitler’s false and conspiratorial account of the German surrender in World War I). The Russian autocrat compared this latest betrayal to “the blow that was dealt to Russia in 1917 when the country was fighting in World War I, but its victory was stolen. Intrigues, bickering, and politicking behind the back of the army and the people turned out to be the greatest catastrophe, the destruction of the army and the state, loss of huge territories, resulting in a tragedy and a civil war.”

As a historian, Putin deserves a failing grade for having his causality exactly backward: It wasn’t the internal strife that lost Russia the war and led to revolution. Rather, it was losing the war (or rather a series of wars) that undermined the legitimacy of the czarist government, producing the internal strife that led to the Russian Revolution.

Wars have way of backfiring, especially on the losing side. Americans are familiar with this pattern, having seen how the failed imperial misadventures in Vietnam and the Middle East have fueled domestic strife. Putin’s czarist predecessors knew this pattern well. The poor showing of the czar’s forces in the Russo-Japanese War led to the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905—a precursor to the successful revolution that erupted after the First World War started to bleed Russia dry.

The Wagner mutiny is yet another case of war coming home. That’s obviously the reading of history that Putin was trying to avoid, although his very invocation of 1917 can be seen as the inadvertent confessions of a guilty mind.

Later that day, Prigozhin halted the Wagner Group’s march on Moscow, although they were within 200 kilometers of the Russian capital. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had intervened and brokered a truce between Putin and Prigozhin. The terms of the deal remain murky, but it appears that criminal charges against Prigozhin have been dropped and he’ll be allowed to move to Belarus. There are rumblings that Prigozhin’s main demands—the removal of Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu from command of the war effort—might yet be met.

Because Russia is an autocracy engaged in a war, there’s much we don’t know about the mutiny and its aftermath. There are few independent and foreign journalists still in Russia. And the American intelligence community, despite vast resources, was by all evidence caught flat-footed.

Among the list of unanswered questions: We don’t know about the whereabouts of Putin during the mutiny (did he stay in Moscow or did he flee?) nor about Prigozhin after the mutiny. We don’t know whether the proposed merger of the Wagner Group with the regular military will happen. We don’t know whether Wagner (a largely self-financed enterprise) will be able to keep the loot it derives from its foreign policy adventurism (gold, diamonds, and strategic minerals from Africa). We don’t even know how real the mutiny was. Could it just have been a shakedown for money—or even (as some suggest) a Putin-engineered scheme to flush out enemies? That last possibility is unlikely, considering how bad the mutiny made Putin look. But given the extreme secrecy of Putin’s regime, it’s hard to rule out any possibility.

Even as the mutiny failed, it made starkly clear just how shaky Putin’s hold on power is.

As German foreign policy analyst Ulrich Speck notes, “Whatever the deal is that Putin and Prigozhin have struck: It’s clear now that the repercussions of an unsuccessful war are destabilizing Russia and threatening Putin’s rule—and that everybody could see that.”

During his long tenure, Putin has demoralized the Russian population and marginalized (sometimes with violent repression or imprisonment) his political opposition. The real base of Putin’s rule is the military, but he has deliberately kept it factionalized—precisely in order to prevent it from forming an independent political force that could turn against him. Part of this strategy of factionalizing has been the heavy use of mercenary groups (euphemistically known as “private military contractors”). The Wagner Group is the largest and most well-known of these mercenaries, but many other such groups make up the armor of the Russian state.

Political scientist Ilya Matveev, who teaches at the University of California–Berkeley, called attention to several facts about the mutiny that show a civil war in Russia is a real possibility. Matveev pointed to a video showing Prigozhin negotiating with Deputy Minister of Defense Yunus-bek Yevkurov, as well as with a high-level officer. Matveev also noted that Wagner troops kept discipline with a command structure that had Prigozhin as leader, and that civilians in Rostov-on-Don cheered on the mutineers. Finally, consider the fact that Putin was forced to negotiate with Prigozhin—whom he had described as a “traitor” not long before.

All of this, Matveev suggests, means “a free-for-all across the country is totally possible. Putin said many times that Russia’s very existence hangs in the balance—apparently it’s true, thanks to his own actions and the system he has built in the last 23 years.” Putin’s state, Matveev suggests, “is brittle like a porcelain cup.”

Critics of Putin are used to worrying about how he has too much power, which allows him to both suppress civil rights at home and launch imperial adventures abroad. But this type of autocratic power is often brittle; it can shatter easily.

In the wake of Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny, it’s now possible to see one path toward an end to the Ukraine war. The spectacle of Putin’s humiliation could open the door for other mercenaries to try their luck—not to mention warlords like Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Currently, Kadyrov is a Putin ally—a crucial one who was brought in stave off the mutiny. But Prigozhin was also a Putin ally until a few days ago. As the Russian state weakens, warlords like Kadyrov may be tempted to take their own shot at power.

If Russia is consumed by internal strife, the invasion of Ukraine will end with a Russian retreat. But this solution to Ukraine’s problem opens up a whole new set of nightmares for the rest of the world. Russia could descend into chaos, civil war, and perhaps even a prolonged period of rule by local warlords. Given that Russia remains a nuclear-armed state, a period of internal strife could lead to the use of the most terrifying weapons humanity has created.

Yet some in the West apparently welcome chaos in Russia and want to egg it on. Writing in The Atlantic before the mutiny, Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg argued, “Yet even the worst successor imaginable, even the bloodiest general or most rabid propagandist, will immediately be preferable to Putin, because he will be weaker than Putin.” This is extremely shortsighted, since there are many ways that a weaker Russian leader, or a weakened Russia ruled by competing warlords, could do much more damage to the world.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the immense sums spent on the CIA, the NSA, and all the other intelligence agencies, the United States was caught completely off-guard by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which led to foolish policies (shock therapy, supporting the rule of the clownish Boris Yeltsin) that continue to haunt Russia and the world.

Will American policy-makers be any better prepared if a new civil war breaks out in Russia?

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