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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
24 June 2023: Knives out, plus texts and tunes
Judging by the videos circulating on social media, Russia’s actual army seems to have sent itself on a wild goose chase in search of Russia’s non-actual army, in order to head off a non-coup that still sounds very much like a coup, except that it was announced on Telegram before anything had actually been done and that’s not how these things work. Or maybe they do now, who knows.
Either way, it would be the height of irony if little green men started taking over government buildings in cities around Russia, no?
What I’m thinking about
I don’t know what Evgeny Prigozhin thinks he’s doing.
As I tried to explain on Twitter as Friday descended ever deeper into the bizarre, it’s not that I can’t guess what’s going on: it’s that I refuse to guess. The purpose of analysis, after all, isn’t idle speculation; this isn’t a conversation about who I think will win Wimbledon. The purpose of analysis is to discern enough about cause and effect to arrive at applied solutions that, on balance, increase our probability of making the world a better place. Guessing does not increase that probability.
Since well before this war began — when it was only a matter of speculation and conjecture — I have been writing about the need for intellectual and analytical humility. Back in early January 2022, when so many people were trying to read Putin’s mind and guess at the intentioned purposes of his troops massing along the Ukrainian border, I wrote:
When something is unknowable, we have two options: we can guess, or we can accept that it is unknowable and shift our focus instead to the things we can actually observe and analyze. I prefer the latter.
So what is it we can actually observe? In a nutshell, the following:
Mid-evening on Friday, Prigozhin published what initially might have looked like one of his usual video tirades against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the military brass, but was in fact something quite extraordinary. In addition to the usual accusations of sub-par fighting skills, ceding position on the battlefield, and lying to Putin and the public about the state of the war, Prigozhin accused Shoigu et al of, essentially, treason. They had, he said, lied about the casus belli in order to trick Putin into going to war: there had been no provocation from Ukraine, no threat of an attack on Russia or the Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’. The entire story Putin sold to the Russian public to justify the war, he said, had been a work of fiction, designed to enrich and glorify Shoigu and a group of unnamed officers and oligarchs. But that wasn’t all: the military, he alleged, had bombed the basecamps of his Wagner Private Military Company earlier that day — and so Prigozhin announced an armed “march for justice” in order to remove Shoigu from office.
Within a couple of hours, the Ministry of Defense had denied Prigozhin’s allegations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reported that Putin was “aware of the situation and taking all necessary measures”, and the FSB filed criminal charges against Prigozhin for mutiny.
Shortly thereafter, riot police showed up at Prigozhin’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, and military armored personnel carriers appeared in Moscow and in Rostov-on-Don, where Shoigu is reportedly stationed.
At 1:30am Moscow time, Channel One cut into their regular programming — which I can’t imagine many people were watching — to broadcast a brief news bulletin, accusing Prigozhin of lying about the attack on Wagner’s base camps and communicating that he had been charged with mutiny. Around the same time, General Sergei Surovikin, deputy commander of operations in Ukraine, published a video address to Wagner fighters, calling on them to “turn around” before it was too late.
What does all of that tell us? Not a hell of a lot.
We have known for some time that there is no love lost between Prigozhin and Shoigu. The precise source of that animosity is unknowable, but we do know some of the contours: Prigozhin profits from a steady stream of war-related funding and would presumably like to profit more; Shoigu would presumably like Prigozhin to profit less. In many ways, this is a classic competition for rents, the likes of which have dominated the Russian political and economic scene for decades, and thus the kind of thing for which Putin and the rest of the system should be well prepared, and thus which should not be terribly destabilizing.
In two important ways, however, the competition between Prigozhin and Shoigu is very different from anything we’ve seen in Russia before. First, these rent seekers have a degree of firepower that would make the mafia bosses of the 1990s looks like schoolboys with slingshots. Second, the struggle is over control of the process that has become the cornerstone of Putin’s political rule: the war in Ukraine. None of the other sectors over which Russian elites have sparred in the past have been so critical to Putin’s own political survival.
All of that suggests high-stakes competition and, yes, the possibility of things spinning catastrophically out of control. From that perspective, Friday’s events were, if shocking, perhaps not terribly surprising. We knew this kind of thing could happen.
But the problem, for me at least, is this: we still don’t actually know what’s happening and why. We don’t know what Prigozhin’s calculations are, whether or not Shoigu’s position is shaky, or whether Putin’s is. Likewise, we don’t know whether the military actually bombed Wagner’s camps, or what other out-of-the-limelight interactions might have precipitated Prigozhin’s behavior. We can speculate, of course, and Twitter is awash with that at the moment: It’s a coup! It’s a feint! Prigozhin will die tonight! Putin died yesterday! And so on. Of course, one of these predictions is bound to come true — but there is no evidence-based way to make a reasoned analytical judgment about which prediction has the greatest chance of success.
My strong preference, then, is to embrace the uncertainty: because we cannot know where this is going or how it will end, we shouldn’t try. As I’ve been saying for a year and a half now, patience and humility are key. Plus a stiff drink.
What I’m reading
Once again, lots and lots to read this week.
Sticking with the Prigozhin story to start, one thing we do know, I think, is that he’s not lying when he says that the military have been feeding Putin bad data about the state of the war — although it seems likely that Putin is more in the driver’s seat than Prigozhin suggests. To wit, Kommersant had a fun piece on Thursday (by their Andrei Kolesnikov, not Carnegie’s) about how Shoigu and Security Council Chief Nikolai Patrushev magicked up the numbers that Putin had already “revealed” to the Russian public a week or so earlier.
Returning to last week’s theme of nuclear escalation, it is well worth your while to read Janice Gross Stein’s authoritative (and long) article on the theory and practice of nuclear deterrence in the context of this war, published this week. It is too nuanced and complex to summarize adequately here, but the article runs through what we don’t need to worry about, and what we do, across a range of plausible scenarios as this war progresses. Just read it.
Also worth reading are:
Two essays in Foreign Affairs this week:
One, by Michael Kimmage and Masha Lipman, on the generational damage that Putin’s war has done to the potential for a Russian rapprochement with the West;
And another, by Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, on the extent to which any prospect of a brighter future for Russia rests on Moscow losing its war in Ukraine.
A piece in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine by Filipp Dzyadko on a pirate radio broadcaster sentenced to prison in Russia for spreading anti-war messages. Despite the grim subject matter, it’s actually an uplifting piece — even if I think his conclusion about “tens of thousands of Russians” resisting Putin is a bit more than his evidence will bear.
The best piece of front-line war reporting I’ve read in a while came this week in Le Monde from Rémy Ourdan, writing from the trenches of Blahodatne. It is not uplifting, but it sheds more light on why this fight is so difficult than the dry situation reports on how many meters the front moved yesterday.
A trove of investigative reporting, including:
In iStories, a series of deep dives into the wealth and power of the Rotenberg family, based on a leaked data dump of more than 50,000 files;
And from Current Time, an investigation of Konstantin Malofeev’s business and sanctions-busting empire.
In Novaya Gazeta Europe, a column from longstanding opposition politician Leonid Gozman on the politics and profiteering of the Kremlin’s strategy to double-down on its anti-LGBT+ agenda.
And finally, a working paper by Athina Anastasiadou, Artem Volgin and Douglas Leasure using Yandex search data to map (though not really quantify) Russia’s outmigration since the war began, and confirming the hypothesis that Russia is suffering a genuine brain-drain. (Thanks to Alexei Bessudnov for flagging the piece.)
What I’m listening to
While we’re on the subject of the unknowable: