What the Hell Is Happening in Russia Right Now?
Don't call it a coup...
For the past 48 hours I was participating in a classic Beltway think tank exercise of gaming out the state of the country a generation from now and what steps could be taken to ensure a better outcome. Of course, one of the things we discussed was the myriad shocks and wild cards that could knock the best-laid plans off track. It was around this moment that I began to see the first news reports that Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin had made the switch from “malcontent Russian paramilitary leader” to “armed rebel threatening to take Russian territory and oust Russia’s top military leadership.”
Prigozhin has been lobbing insults at Russia’s military leadership for many weeks, mocking Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defense, as lazy, and describing the chief of the general staff as prone to “paranoid tantrums.” On Friday, he broke with the official narrative and directly blamed them, and their oligarch friends, for launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Ukraine did not provoke Russia on February 24, he said: Instead, Russian elites had been pillaging the territories of Donbas they’ve occupied since 2014, and became greedy for more. His message was clear: The Russian military launched a pointless war, ran it incompetently, and killed tens of thousands of Russian soldiers unnecessarily.
The “evil brought by the military leadership of the country must be stopped,” Prigozhin declared. He warned the Russian generals not to resist: “Everyone who will try to resist, we will consider them a danger and destroy them immediately, including any checkpoints on our way. And any aviation we see above our heads.”
Putin and the Russian government responded with alacrity. Official Russian news outlets branded Progizhin a criminal and started Beria-ing his online presence. Various military commanders, including Wagner-friendly general Sergei Surovikin, were put on television ordering Wagner troops to stand down. Putin addressed the nation articulating the same message and warning “inescapable punishment” for Progozhin.
At the same time, Putin acknowledged that the situation in Rostov-on-Don was “challenging” and “the operations of the civilian and military authorities there are effectively blocked.”1 As I’m typing this, there’s pretty clear evidence that Prigozhin’s Wagner Group have taken control of both Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh. An extraordinary video shows Prigozhin acting pretty cozy with Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister in Rostov. To say that this kind of conflict would pose some logistical complications for Russian operations in Ukraine would be an understatement.
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So what the hell is going on? I think Prigozhin’s behavior can best be explained by good-old-fashioned prospect theory. He has been feuding with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and earlier this month Putin made it clear to Russian military bloggers that the time had come for Wagner Group forces to be put under control of the Russian military. After that negative shock, Progizhin appears to be gambling for resurrection.
The background condition for all of this is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been going very badly, thereby forcing Putin to have to rely on someone like Prigozhin in the first place. Putin has leaned on Prigozhin’s forces to avoid another partial mobilization. It was the Wagner group that bore the brunt of the losses in the Bakhmut offensive. The accumulated losses on the Russian side may have sown enough dissension within the Russian military to enable Prigozhin to actually cut deals with local commanders. As Applebaum notes, “Prigozihin got to Rostov and Voronezh in less than 11 hours, helped along by commanders and soldiers who appeared to be waiting for him to arrive.”
Stathis Kalyvas knows more about civil wars than almost everyone else on the planet. He tweeted: “What is going on in Russia is no military coup. Coups tend to be launched at the center seeking to generate cascades of compliance. This is an armed rebellion launched from a peripheral stronghold. Hard to see how it could succeed short of mass defections in the Russian military.” Kalyvas is correct, but if the military commanders in those peripheral regions are going along with Prigozhin that is a sign that the conflict could last longer than anyone is expecting. The very fact that Progozhin is still alive and that Putin has had to acknowledge on television that the Russian government no longer controls Rostov is pretty extraordinary.
There is a natural tendency for Americans to look at this kind of situation and wishcast a “good guys beating the bad guys” kind of scenario where Putin’s downfall is a real possibility and would be an objectively good thing for the world. I refuse to rule out the possibility of Putin’s fall from power; as far-fetched as it sounds, it’s no less crazy than rebel Russian forces acquiring control of two major Russian cities inside of 24 hours. I am much more skeptical of the latter, however. In an exceptionally well-timed Foreign Affairs article, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz throw a lot of cold water on the notion that a post-Putin Russia is any easier to deal with than Putin’s Russia:
Authoritarian regimes most often survive in the wake of the departure of longtime leaders such as Putin; were Putin to die in office or be removed by insiders, the regime would most likely endure intact. In such a case, the contours of Russian foreign policy would stay largely the same, with the Kremlin locked in a period of protracted confrontation with the West….
Successors of deceased autocrats also tend to keep waging their predecessors’ wars even when such wars are going badly. The political scientist Sarah Croco has found that successors who come from within the regime are likely to continue the conflicts they inherit, given that they would be seen as culpable for a wartime defeat. In other words, even if Putin’s successor does not share the same wartime aims, this leader will be concerned that any settlement that looks like defeat would abruptly bring his tenure to an end. Beyond figuring out how to end the war, Putin’s successor will be saddled with a long list of vexing problems, including how to settle the status of illegally annexed territories such as Crimea, whether to pay Ukraine wartime reparations, and whether to accept accountability for war crimes committed in Ukraine. As such, should Putin die in office, Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe will likely remain complicated, at best.
This is clearly one of those stories that will be developing over the next couple of hours, days, and maybe weeks. The tricky part will be parsing information from rumor. Applebaum is on point here:
Because Russia no longer has anything resembling “mainstream media”—there is only state propaganda, plus some media in exile—there are no good sources of information right now. All of us now live in a world of information chaos, but this is a more profound sort of vacuum, since so many people are pretending to say things they don’t believe. To understand what is going on (or to guess at it) you have to follow a series of unreliable Russian Telegram accounts, or else read the Western and Ukrainian open-source intelligence bloggers who are reliable but farther from the action.
My political science gut tells me that Progozhin’s movement will collapse like a house of cards if the Russian military applies actual force against it. That said, a lot of people have overestimated the competency of the Russian military in the last 18 months.