In a war that’s continually confounded expectations and brought us to the brink of World War III more than once, you’d think by now we would have lost the ability to be surprised by developments in Ukraine. And yet, life finds a way, as this past weekend saw the most serious challenge to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s rule and the stability of the Russian state more generally in his nearly two decades in power.
Last Friday, mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin launched what was, depending on who you ask, either a mutiny, a coup attempt, or a protest against the Russian government, after months of bubbling resentment at what he viewed as his soldiers’ mistreatment at the hands of an incompetent military leadership. Some commentators have expressed suspicion that Prigozhin’s real motivation was the Kremlin’s June announcement that his private military company, the Wagner Group, would be coming directly under the control of the Russian Ministry of Defense, leading Prigozhin to make a play to try and secure his moneymaker.
Whatever the exact truth, the result was alarming scenes of Wagner troops and tanks rolling unopposed into Russian cities, seizing military headquarters, shooting down Russian military helicopters, and announcing that they were making a beeline toward Moscow, with Prigozhin calling for the removal of Russia’s top military leaders. Though short-lived in the end, the Kremlin clearly took the threat seriously, barricading roads into the capital, mobilizing Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s troops to meet the rebellion, and putting out videotaped statements from military and other officials calling on Prigozhin to stop what he was doing and for Wagner troops not to follow.
The most obvious takeaway from all this is the self-defeating folly of war as a means to resolve national and geopolitical problems. Russian security, let alone the stability of Putin’s rule, would undoubtedly be in a better place today had he listened to his foreign minister and continued diplomatic efforts in late February 2022 — or even if he had simply done nothing at all. As it is, Putin has brought upon the Russian population — whose interests he’s meant to be serving — painful sanctions, global stigma, a stream of terrorist attacks, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and now, the threat of civil war and the possible violent overthrow of the government. A war supposedly launched for the sake of Russian national security has ended up the most damaging thing to it.
Ironically, Putin himself had once upon a time understood this, watching the unfolding US-made disaster in Iraq, which was born from the same arrogance and shortsightedness that drove his own war of choice last year, and at one point warning that “the use of force rarely brings the hoped-for results, and its consequences at times are more terrible than the original threat.” Yet he evidently failed to learn from this and is now trapped in his own self-made quagmire, one that, even if and when this war is mercifully over, will continue to be a festering problem for himself and whichever Russian leader follows. There’s a lesson here, too, for US elites, who continue to inch toward their own war with Iran while simultaneously threatening, absurdly, to attack Mexico — if they would dare to learn it.
Another lesson: the danger of private military outfits, another issue that’s hardly foreign to the US political landscape, where Blackwater’s Erik Prince has turned his hand in recent years to domestic political spying, alongside the increasingly common political meddling by a host of other former intelligence officials. It turns out that there’s a good reason for governments to have a monopoly on the use of violence, particularly if part of giving up that monopoly means letting the competition stockpile weapons and ammunition without check. But Wagner’s very existence in the first place can’t be separated from Moscow’s geopolitical hubris, since it was a way for the Russian elite to fulfill their great power pretensions, intervening way beyond Russian borders without leaving the Kremlin’s fingerprints on the scene or incurring the political costs of too many dead Russian troops.
Yet Putin is not the only one here dealing with a deadly case of buyer’s remorse, driven by a failure to think through the risks of foreign policy gambles and to consider the laws of unintended consequences. Since the start of the invasion, there’s been an outpouring of hopes and prayers from the US and European foreign policy establishments that Putin’s faltering war effort would mean the end of his rule — whether by triggering a palace coup, a popular uprising, or the collapse of the Russian state — and even the disintegration of Russia. Meanwhile, US defense secretary Lloyd Austin has said that the goal of US policy toward the war was “to see Russian weakened,” US officials have openly modeled their strategy on the US response to the USSR’s Afghanistan invasion (which helped trigger the Soviet Union’s collapse), and senior officials have both privately and publicly expressed hopes that the war would lead to regime change in Russia.
Prigozhin’s coup attempt seems to have violently shaken awake at least some of those pining for this outcome, as the reality of what serious Russian destabilization would mean came frighteningly close to fruition. In the wake of the episode, Edgars Rinkevics — current foreign minister and incoming president of Latvia, one of the collection of Eastern European states that had reportedly been most resistant to an early ceasefire if it meant inflicting less damage to Russia — told the Washington Post that “if there is chaos in Moscow,” it brings up “the same question people were asking back in 1991” when the Soviet Union dissolved: “Who controls the nuclear football?”
A senior NATO official likewise told the outlet that the country’s massive nuclear stockpile means that “we don’t want a Russia that is too weak” or “a failed state.” At G7 talks, while members discussed the possible disastrous scenarios ahead, officials stated that “we are not in the business of regime change,” that “the message to those getting carried away is that nobody wins from civil war in Russia,” and that someone more hardline than Putin could take power in Russia, with one concluding that “we are not in agreement on the outcomes of what will happen if Ukraine wins this war and what that will do to Russia.” Since the weekend, US intelligence analysts, officials, and commentators all registered alarm at the Russian nuclear arsenal falling under the control of rogue actors or extremists, including some who had just days earlier appeared to cheer the coup on.
What’s particularly striking about all this is that not long ago, to express any of these concerns and suggest that the highest priority should be to avoid such disaster was deemed unacceptable, appeasement, and giving in to nuclear blackmail.
But special mention is owed to the commentariat, which, with notable exceptions, has performed abysmally throughout this war, scraping what might be new lows over the weekend. A dearth of reliable information and an event unfolding in real time didn’t stop the usual pundits from scrambling to make sweeping pronouncements that didn’t come to pass, from declaring the imminent collapse of the Russian government and Putin’s presidency, to the all but certain turning of the tide in the war and even its end, sprinkled with the usual amateur Kremlinology and premature declarations of who won and who lost.
Maybe most shameful was the sight of numerous prominent voices actively cheering on the prospect of Wagner succeeding in their coup — even though, as we’ve been told throughout the war, they’re not just vicious war criminals who have been demanding that Putin escalate the war and domestic repression, but are comprised partly of Nazis and other extremists.
As Prigozhin and his men advanced on Moscow, former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul criticized these “better-the-devil-you-know hot takes I’m seeing” as he shared an earlier post he’d written asserting that even if a right-wing coup came to Russia, “I’m not convinced that it would be worse than having Putin in the Kremlin,” but that “things eventually might get better.” Financier and prominent Putin critic Bill Browder assured people that “there’s a chance if [Prigozhin] wins, the war would end,” while that would be “impossible” with Putin. The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, who just last month told her readers that “even the worst successor imaginable, even the bloodiest general or most rabid propagandist, will immediately be preferable to Putin,” giddily floated the prospect of revolution. A variety of liberal commentators openly celebrated what was at minimum the possibility of violent, destabilizing conflict in a country with the world’s largest nuclear stockpile.
It vividly illustrated one of the problems of this war on the Western side. Engulfed in a war fever that went into overdrive last year, US and European discourse has become dominated by a single-minded fixation on schadenfreude and vengeance toward the figure of Putin, at the expense of just about any other consideration, including the risks of nuclear disaster and destabilization. In the process, one of the chief lessons of Iraq and other US misadventures — that no matter how vile, authoritarian, and prone to foreign aggression a leader is, the consequences of toppling them from power are dangerously unpredictable — seems to have been lost in a jingoistic amnesia.
It’s an amnesia that’s shared, ironically, by both Putin and his fiercest adversaries in the West as they each point the finger at the other. The hope is that, together with a robust peace movement making demands of our political leadership to finally bring this war to a close, this episode might trigger a jolt of remembering for them all. But don’t get too complacent: if there’s one thing this conflict has taught us, it’s how fast, easy, and comforting it is to forget.