Snyder’s & other aftermath analyses

26 06 2023

After about 24 hours of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s 24-hour abortive mutiny (judging by the major media, we haven’t even figured out what to call it yet), I posted the following list of uncertainties, intended to answer the common question “WTF is going on in Russia?”, on social media:

  • 1) If this was an attempted coup, it didn’t end convincingly.
  • 2) If this was an egomaniacal outburst within a long simmering battle of wills, it was bizarrely theatrical and not very smart.
  • 3) If this was a spectacular false-flag operation, it didn’t go according to plan (and it’s not very evident who was in the know and who wasn’t, except that most or all of the Russian media was not).
  • 4) If this was simply another day in the workings of an authoritarian kleptocratic-mafia state, it was a spectacularly entertaining one.
  • 5) If this was the beginning of the implosion of Putinist Russia, all bets are off on what that implosion will look like. (But, honestly, I can’t wait to see.)
  • 6) If this was a dress rehearsal, the real performance will be wild.

Since then, a consensus seems to be emerging among Russia observers (in the West) that, if we don’t know what exactly to call it yet (“armed rebellion,” “march on Moscow,” “abortive coup,” et al.), we know it was not a good thing for the Putin regime.

It revealed, and proclaimed, military weakness, as well as genuine brittleness at the top, challenged longstanding narratives of the “special military operation,” and showed the inability of state media to do much of anything when they aren’t given precise instructions. Its ending was anti-climactic — as the Columbia Journalism Review put it, “Putin, a man who punishes journalists and peaceful domestic opponents as if they were traitors, had apparently agreed to give an actual traitor no punishment at all. If only for now.” But it left wide open the possibility that this was no ending, just a temporary stopping point. As CJR puts it, “most observers seem to agree that the last shoe has yet to drop in this story.”

Outside of some circuitous (and rather touch-and-go) Twitter threads, the most useful analyses I’ve seen include the Institute for the Study of War‘s June 24 and June 25 assessments, and Timothy Snyder’s Substack piece “Prigozhin’s march on Moscow: Ten lessons from a mutiny.” Snyder summarizes the background beautifully:

Both the Russian state itself and Prigozhin’s mercenary firm Wagner are extractive regimes with large public relations and military arms. 

The Putin regime exists, and the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are relatively wealthy, thanks to the colonial exploitation of hydrocarbon resources in Siberia.  The wealth is held by a very few people, and the Russian population is treated to a regular spectacle of otherwise pointless war — Ukraine, Syria, Ukraine again — to distract attention from this basic state of affairs, and to convince them that there is some kind of external enemy that justifies it (hint: there really isn’t). 

Wagner functioned as a kind of intensification of the Russian state, doing the dirtiest work beyond Russia, not only in Syria and Ukraine but also in Africa.  It was subsidized by the Russian state, but made its real money by extracting mineral resources on its own, especially in Africa.  Unlike most of its other ventures, Wagner’s war in Ukraine was a losing proposition.  Prigozhin leveraged the desperation of Russia’s propaganda for a victory by taking credit for victory at Bakhmut.  That minor city was completely destroyed and abandoned by the time Wagner took it, at the cost of tens of thousands of Russian lives. 

But because it was the only gain in Russia’s horrifyingly costly but strategically senseless 2023 offensive, Bakhmut had to be portrayed by Putin’s media as some kind of Stalingrad or Berlin.  Prigozhin took advantage of this. He was able to direct the false glory to himself even as he then withdrew Wagner from Ukraine.  Meanwhile he criticized the military commanders of the Russian Federation in increasingly vulgar terms, thereby preventing the Russian state (and Putin) from gaining much from the bloody spectacle of invaded Ukraine.  In sum: Wagner was able to make the Putin regime work for it.

Snyder disputes the “realist” explanations for Russia’s war on Ukraine in ways that add to what’s already been said on this blog (e.g., here), and offers another kind of realism — one that sees Russia as a protection racket:

You can think of the Russian state as a protection racket.  No one is really safe, but everyone has to accept “protection” in the knowledge that this is less risky than rebellion.  A protection racket is always vulnerable to another protection racket.  In marching from Rostov-on-Don to Moscow, Prigozhin was breaking one protection racket and proposing another.  On this logic, we can imagine Prigozhin’s proposal to Putin as follows: I am deploying the greater force, and I am now demanding protection money from you.  If you want to continue your own protection racket, pay me off before I reach Moscow.

Read the whole thing here.



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