30 Jun 2023
Something is rotten in the state of Russia
While the Yevgeny Prigozhin affair, in which the leader of the Wagner Group’s mercenary forces mutinied and began to march on Moscow, apparently ended peacefully, it has left numerous unanswered questions in its wake.
It has also exposed much of the rot in the Russian state structure. It is an axiom in political science that toleration of private purveyors of violence like mercenaries erodes a state’s authority and its status as the sole, legitimate user of violence. But Russian President Vladimir Putin not only blessed the creation of the Wagner Group but also relied on it for key foreign policy moves in Syria, Africa and now in Ukraine. Using Wagner saved money from the state budget while bringing in fabulous profits from these countries and doing so without recourse to the state budget.
And in Ukraine, Wagner not only apparently fought better than did the regular Russian army, it also was allowed to recruit not just civilians but also prisoners, thus easing Russia’s manpower problems.
Indeed, the experiment in private armies was such a success that other major actors such as Gazprom, the state’s gas company, have now organized them and sent them to Ukraine among other missions, compounding the erosion of the state’s legitimacy.
Other examples of the corrosion of the Russian state abound. The Wagner Group captured the command headquarters for the war in Ukraine at Rostov-on-Don without a shot, which was cheered by residents there and in the neighboring city, Voronezh.
Photographs show its trucks hurtling up the M4 highway to Moscow with no traffic or opposition in sight. They stopped only 125 miles south of the city. Along their 800-mile journey, they also shot down planes and helicopters, indicating the extent of their armament.
These events show not only that Russia had insufficient reserves to defend domestic security but that it could not be sure that its forces in Moscow were reliable. Certainly, the defenses along the road to Moscow or in the city itself were insufficient. These facts left Putin with no choice but to negotiate.
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It is therefore no surprise that Putin invoked the metaphor of the February Revolution in 1917, when the army refused to fire on demonstrators or advance on the then-capital, St. Petersburg, leaving the czar with no choice but to abdicate.
The analogy to the February Revolution holds up, because it too was preceded by a long period of increasing elite disaffection, which in today’s case Prigozhin’s mutiny revealed.
Indeed, he even distributed an audio tape debunking all Putin’s reasons for invading Ukraine, effectively proclaiming that Russia’s losses had been for naught or for the sole purpose of enriching his rivals in the Ministry of Defense.
It is not difficult to imagine what the impact of this message will be even if the public is not prepared to rise of its own accord. In any case, few analysts believe in the possibility of a spontaneous popular uprising, and the history of revolutions strongly indicates that a long but seemingly quiet process of elite disaffection is necessary for successful revolutions to take place.
This amazing episode is therefore like a canary in Russia’s coal mine. It indicates the disaffection of key members of the elite and in the soldiery. It also exposes a lack of public support for Putin even if it suggested support for the more aggressive prosecution of the war that Prigozhin espoused. It revealed the dangers of private military forces even if Wagner itself will now be demobilized, according to the terms of the agreement reached June 24.
Anything is now possible in Russia. Putin and his system’s stability have been demonstrably weakened, possibly fatally. Some analysts, including Peter Zwack, formerly the Army’s attaché to Moscow, claimed that this mutiny has mortally wounded Putin and his system.
Admittedly we cannot be sure exactly how and when the collapse of this state system will happen. But this episode may have undermined many of the support structures of the Russian state and initiated a process, not unlike earlier ones in Russian history, that combines economic stagnation, elite disaffection, a disintegrating state and military defeat.
Prigozhin’s mutiny is merely the beginning of this process, even if we cannot be sure how and when this system collapses. But obviously we can be sure that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, there is something rotten in the state of Russia, and it is increasingly visible not only to us but to Russians too.