By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Putin has justified his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine as an effort to restore the Tsarist Empire of Peter the Great, who was tsar of Russia from 1682 until his death in 1725. Tsarist regimes ruled Russia until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 gave birth to a communist Soviet Union. It lasted until 1991, when Boris Yeltzin became president of the Republic of Russia.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch who was a close confidant of Putin until he and his Wagner mercenaries began a march to Moscow to challenge Putin’s power. Prigoshen’s Mutiny Had Century-Old Echoes of Another Russian Debacle. In 1917 a similar march of General Lavr Kornilov to St. Petersburg precipitated the Bolshevik Revolution.
Ironically General Kornilov was a Russian nationalist who opposed the Bolsheviks and was killed in the revolution. Prigozhin is likely to face a fate similar to that of Uriah, an ancient Hittite military leader married to Bathsheba; but King David conspired to have Uriah killed in battle to satisfy his lust for Bathsheba, not a lust for political power. (see 2 Samuel 11: 6-22)
Putin is a ruthless autocrat accustomed to eliminating threats to his political power, and he is not likely to tolerate Prigozhin for long. “Prigozhin’s armed rebellion generated enormous chaos in a few short hours. The war has stretched Russian state capacity thin, and the revolt has stretched it still further, presenting Moscow with a new domestic challenge.”
“For years, Putin has devised ways to head off a liberal, urban revolution. But it turned out the greater threat was an illiberal revolution: a highly militarized populist uprising driven not by cosmopolitan reformers but by Russian nationalists. The top-down nationalism cultivated in the war could cut against the Putin regime, and Prigozhin may not be the last of his kind.”
Other than defending Ukraine, the West cannot become involved in Russia’s domestic affairs without doing more harm than good. American culture conflicts dramatically with Russian culture. Prigozhin’s attempted coup was aimed at Russian corruption, not individual rights. Russia is already a putative democracy and claims to be a Christian nation.
The Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin’s unprovoked Ukraine aggression to restore the ancient Russian empire, and the Russian people seem more interested in national power than with individual freedom. The volatile political environment in Russia should allow new initiatives to end Russian aggression in Ukraine; but patience is required.
The geopolitical environment in Russia has shifted, providing new opportunities and new dangers for the West. Care must be taken with U.S. and NATO strategies supporting Ukraine that might provoke a nuclear response by Putin, or provide Putin with public support in Russian elections next Spring. Those elections could end Putin’s ruthless 23 year regime.
On Prigoshin’s Mutiny Having Century-Old Echoes of Another Russian Debacle, see https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/28/world/europe/russia-rebellion-prigozhin-1917-kornilov.html.
“Before February 2022 President Vladimir Putin may have appeared to be an untouchable autocrat, but then in one stroke he showed his ineptitude by invading a country that posed no threat to Russia and by failing again and again in his military enterprise—the latest example being the short-lived armed rebellion the mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, which has just undermined Putin’s autocrat mystique. Putin abetted the rise of Prigozhin and ignored the warning signs about Wagner, Prigozhin’s out-of-control private military company. As the Russian military struggled in Ukraine, Prigozhin’s star rose when he exploited the last remaining uncensored political space in Russia—the social media app Telegram—to address the Russian public. For months, he had been openly plotting a coup: carrying out public spats with the leadership of Russia’s military forces, offering populist critiques of the war effort, and casting doubt on Putin’s official justifications for the war that Putin himself has articulated. And yet Moscow was nevertheless taken by surprise when Prigozhin asked his soldiers to rise up and join a rebellion against the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Whatever Prigozhin’s motives and intentions may be, his rebellion has exposed an acute vulnerability of Putin’s regime: its contempt for the common man. Putin was too clever to let the war affect Moscow and St. Petersburg or to let it adversely affect the elite populations of these cities. Yet his very cleverness imposed a war of choice on the country’s non-elite populations. They have been dragged into a horrific colonial struggle, and when Moscow has not been reckless with their lives, it has often been callous. Many soldiers still have no idea what they are fighting and dying for. Prigozhin came to speak for these men. He has no political movement behind him and no discernible ideology. But by directly contradicting government propaganda, he highlighted the miserable situation at the front and the visible aloofness of an out-of-touch Putin, who enjoys hearing from the Ministry of Defense about Russian military glory.
If Putin’s contempt and the anger of Russian soldiers converge and come to symbolize the country Putin rules, the Kremlin is in real trouble even without a coup in the works. Prigozhin’s mutiny may be the first major challenge to the Putin regime, but it will not be the last. His rebellion is likely to be followed by heightened repression in Russia. A nervous leader who inelegantly survived a domestic coup is more dangerous than a wartime autocrat who believes himself to be secure at home.
For the West, there is little to do apart from letting this political drama—which has some of the trappings of a farce—play out in Russia. The West has no interest in preserving the Putinist status quo, but neither should it seek a sudden toppling of the Putin regime. For the West, upheaval in Russia may matter mostly for what it signifies in Ukraine, where the potential for instability in Russia may open fresh military options. Apart from exploiting these options in tandem with Kyiv, the West can do little more than start bracing itself for instability within and beyond Russia’s borders. Is this the beginning of the End for Putin? Prigozhin’s Rebellion Ended Quickly, but It Spells Trouble for the Kremlin. See https://www.foreignaffairs.com/russian-federation/beginning-end-putin-prigozhin-rebellion?utm.
On Yevgeny Prigozhen, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yevgeny_Prigozhin.