Protesting Too Much

ROSTOV-ON-DON - RUSSIA - JUNE 24: Head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin left the Southern Military District headquarters on June 24, 2023 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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If you haven’t read it yet, I want to make sure you saw Josh Kovensky’s look at key questions surrounding the Wagner Mutiny. Josh is both a Russian speaker and worked for about three years as a reporter in Ukraine. So, as usual, he brings a wealth of contextual knowledge and insight to making sense of these developments. I wanted to add a few observations to my Sunday afternoon piece on the emerging after-action reports about the Mutiny.

First, in that post I highlighted accounts from two expert observers — Michael Kofman and Tatiana Stanovaya. Both accounts have generally been confirmed, at least in their outlines. But one point that seemed a bit off in Stanovaya’s analysis was the certainty that Prigozhin and his mercenaries would be annihilated when they arrived in Moscow. That didn’t seem quite right, or even entirely consistent with the rest of her analysis. It certainly seems like one likely outcome. But it didn’t seem to comport with the uncertainty of the situation.

One key fact that seems to have pushed Prigozhin to back down or seek a compromise was that regular army units weren’t flocking to his side. But they also weren’t stopping him. We can only infer so much from the limited picture we have. But the small number of regular army personnel in the country seemed inclined to just see what happened. That uncertainty is likely what made both sides go for a draw.

What’s had my attention since is the government’s effort to reassert its authority and fashion a story of the Mutiny which is consistent with that aim. Putin gave his first post-Mutiny speech yesterday. And it was one in which he seemed visibly angry — and in a way that communicated weakness rather than strength. It’s hardly surprising he was angry. He’d been humiliated by one of his erstwhile cronies and he’d been forced to take it. This has been followed by other appearances honoring troops and leaders who defended the country against the traitorous rebellion.

But this still can’t be reconciled with the fact that the authors and executors of the traitorous rebellion literally all got a pass, at least for now. We all know the line, if you come at the king, don’t miss. But Prigozhin came at the king, missed and he’s fine. That’s an unstable and dangerous situation for everyone involved — king and challenger alike.

One other piece of the story is that the Russian government is now explaining Wagner’s unimpeded lightning drive toward Moscow as all part of the government’s plan. They weren’t trying to stop their drive to Moscow because they were focused on wiping them out when they arrived. But of course that’s not a very good explanation. Governments that are in full control of their military and security services and haven’t stripped themselves bare of the resources to defend themselves don’t have to make those choices.

Everything about Putin’s current effort to put last weekend behind him suggest a lot of protesting too much. Any effort to create a heroic narrative about the people who put the rebellion down simply doesn’t add up as long as it mostly wasn’t put down and the people who led it were given a pass. Either that pass gets withdrawn or Putin probably has a real problem on his hands, even if one that might take some time to play out.

All of that is why the smartest observers — who you should listen to more than me and whose voices you can find in this twitter list and this one — seem clear that this isn’t over.

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