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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
2 July 2023: Of putches and power, plus texts and tunes
First things first: an apology. This newsletter is supposed to arrive on Saturday morning, sometimes Sunday morning, but certainly not Sunday evening. After all, what’s the point of a weekend roundup when the weekend’s all but gone?
Normally, I collect my thoughts and write bits and pieces of this newsletter over the course of the week. This week, for obvious reasons, didn’t quite work out that way, and so it has taken me a bit more time to draw this together over the weekend. Again, apologies!
What I’m thinking about
This week began with one unproductive debate and ended with another. Color me frustrated.
The first debate was about whether we should be calling the thing that happened last weekend — you know, the mutiny-uprising-putsch thing spearheaded by mercenary ch(i)ef Evgeny Prigozhin that didn’t quite work out — a coup attempt. I’ll start with the ‘not-a-coup’ camp, because it’s smaller and more interesting. Perhaps the most cogent voice in the not-a-coup camp was Jeremy Morris, the political anthropologist at Aarhus University in Denmark whose work I frequently reference. In a blog post and a piece in openDemocracy, Jeremy argued that this was essentially an instance of more or less normal intra-elite competition that got out of control. The military analyst Rob Lee similarly called it a “factional dispute”.
The gist of the argument that Jeremy, Rob and a handful of others, mostly academics, are making is that Prigozhin didn’t actually behave in a way that would suggest he was aiming to decapitate the system. The fact that his criticism was aimed at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu rather than President Vladimir Putin is besides the point here. More important is that he telegraphed his intentions ahead of time, did not appear to have much in the way of allies, and had no evident plan for what to do when and if he and his troops made it to Moscow. From that perspective, this looked and felt much more like a January 6th-style amateur insurgency — the proverbial dog who caught (or very nearly caught) the car — than a genuine coup attempt.
The ‘of-course-it-was-a-coup’ camp consists of virtually every anglophone pundit, which is rarely a good thing. It also, however, consists of people like Lawry Freedman and, probably, me. The argument here goes rests on two pillars. One is that Shoigu is not simply a factional boss in the Russian system (though he may be that, too): he is defense minister, and defense minister of a country at war, to boot. There is thus no way to attempt to remove him from office without effectively telling the president who appointed him that he has no authority. Even if said president remained in office, any successful execution of that gambit would have amounted to a coup by most definitions. Second, the fact that Prigozhin’s attempt at whatever he was attempting to do was inept does not mean it wasn’t an attempt. He was clearly trying to do something, and if that something amounted for all intents and purposes to a coup, then he was attempting a coup. Lots of people attempt with great seriousness things they have no business trying to do; I mean, look at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The reason I find this argument so frustrating, though, is that it’s more or less entirely irrelevant. What matters now is what happens next, and what happens next doesn’t depend on what Prigozhin was or was not trying to do: it depends, among other things, on what Putin thinks Prigozhin was trying to do. So the operative question becomes, does Putin think it was a coup? That is, of course, another one of those unknowable things I keep harping on about, and so my own advice would ordinarily be to ignore that question, too. In this case, though, I’m tempted to stick with it, for two reasons. One, I mean, how could Putin not see tanks and troops headed up the highway towards Moscow as a coup attempt? And two, as time progresses we will be able to collect data — in the form of the things Putin does and does not do — that will give us some purchase on his thinking.
And that leads me to the week’s second unproductive debate, which is about whether this whole thing has made Putin weaker or stronger. Here, too, the sides are unevenly matched. In fact, I’m struggling to find too many people out there who think that the past week or so has strengthened Putin. At most, you’ll find people arguing that it hasn’t weakened him as fundamentally as you might think. (The loudest voice in that camp is probably Anatol Lieven, athough there are other, more nuanced people arguing that we simply don’t know.) The ‘Putin-has-been-weakened’ takes, however, are much easier to find:
iStories editor-in-chief Roman Anin similarly argues that “the era of Putin is over”, the fatal blow struck by Putin’s own executioner;
Russian journalists and chroniclers of elite politics and the secret services Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write in Meduza that the decision of most of the Russian elite to ride the fence last weekend may have doomed Prigozhin’s uprising to failure, but it also bodes ill for Putin’s future;
Stanford political scientist Michael McFaul writes in the Journal of Democracy that Prigozhin’s uprising seemingly confirms Mike’s earlier argument that the war would undo the elite consensus that had cemented Putin’s rule theretofore;
Writing in The Atlantic, Stanford (again) political scientist Kathryn Stoner argues that the greatest sign of Putin’s weakness is not that Prigozhin rose up, but that he was let go — evidence that Putin is afraid of further unrest in the military; and
Mikhail Zygar, the Russian journalist and ex-editor of Dozhd, wrote in the New York Times that, “For many members of the ruling elite, it is now clear that Mr. Putin has ceased to be the guarantor of stability he was for so long.” (Am I allowed to note that this repeats an argument I made last Sunday? Great minds, I suppose.)
There is, to be fair, a lot of convincing argumentation and evidence in all of this writing, and I agree — to a point. As I argued last week (and tried to summarize in this podcast), the events of the past week raise a series of challenges that Putin did not face before, or at least didn’t face with the same urgency. So yes, that might be interpreted as a kind of weakening. But I’m uneasy with the question of weakening vs strengthening, because it treats power as an asset that can be stockpiled, as something that you either do or do not have enough of. And because I don’t think that’s how power works, I think this debate, too, is missing the point.
Traditional political science approaches equate power to coercion — to the ability to force people to do things they otherwise would not want to do. If that’s your analytical starting point, then the stockpile approach to power makes sense: whoever has more power is able to force more people to do more things, and vice versa. But in actual practice, even in settings where we recognize some people as powerful and others as powerless, we don’t see a lot of actual forcing going on. Rather, in most cases we see people behaving according to their assumptions about where power lies, without actually contesting that power. Most of the time, then, power lies more in habit than in coercion, and a person is powerful because people have come to believe that person is powerful and have yet to run into a convincing reason to question that belief.1
In a moment of crisis, however, when those beliefs are most likely to be called into question, something else occurs — but it’s still not coercion. Before anyone fights anyone else, people need to decide to fight. Here, I go back to the work of the sociologist Ivan Ermakoff, whom I’ve quoted in this newsletter before. He writes:
The members of a group seek to align their behavioral stance with another’s by tacitly coordinating their expectations about themselves. The process implies a reflective mode of experience: actors try to assess the future knowing that this assessment will be inconsequential if it is at odds with the other group members’ expectations. Coordination takes place through this inference process.
Let me explain. For Prigozhin, marching from Rostov to Moscow would have been an entirely futile idea unless he knew he had a reasonable number of people willing to march with him. He could, of course, try to ascertain this by asking people, but he’s probably smart enough to know that there might be a gap between what people say and what people do. And so he looks around and reads his environment to gauge the ways in which everyone else is looking around and reading their environment. The action that emerges depends on how those readings align.
Once Prigozhin starts marching, a similar process takes hold in the Russian elite: they read one another and form a sense of what others are likely to do, how others perceive the risks and opportunities that the future holds, how they respond to factual and emotional stimuli as each new piece of information comes in. This is the dynamic that led them to sit on the fence, as Andrei and Irina wrote.
So, where’s the power in this? In a contingent process like the one Ermakoff describes, power resides in the ability to shape the ways in which people read their environment and the visions of the future they are and are not able to formulate. In the end, Prigozhin’s uprising did not create among the Russian elite (or anyone else) a sense of a future without Putin — and so Putin persists. As we learn more, that might tell us something about how the Russian elite see themselves and their future, and that is valuable information. But it does not really tell us anything about how powerful Putin is, because, again, power in a contingent situation is not held in inventory. The fact that the readings and interpretations of the Russian elite swung Putin’s way this time does not reduce the likelihood of them swinging his way next time, nor does it increase his ability to command the dynamics of contingency next time. Why? Because in an episode such as what we just witnessed, it is not Putin who keeps himself in power: it is the elite who keep him there, and they do so on their own behalf.
The question we should be asking, then, is not whether Putin is more or less powerful, but whether the Prigozhin episode has, as Grozovsky suggests, opened the door for more such episodes in the future. The more such episodes occur, the more opportunities there are for the contingent interpretations that people make of their surroundings and their futures to begin to shift — sometimes subtly, sometimes radically.
What I’m reading
To start the week, it was back to the library for me — and specifically to the literature on coups, failed coups, and their aftermaths. I’m not done reading yet, but at first blush, the literature is decidedly … mixed. (Of course it is.)
Unsurprisingly, there is a fair amount of evidence that authoritarian regimes that survive a coup are likely to increase levels of repression. Thus, in a study of 70 such episodes from 1976 to 2016, Lacin Idil Oztig and Murat Donduran found that regimes increased restrictions on civil liberties in order to head off not just coups, but any kind of uprising. And yet a study of coups from 1950 to 2008 by Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell shows that coups, including unsuccessful coups, are key generators of democratic openings, prompting autocratic leaders to enact liberalizing reforms in order to appease challengers.
Similarly unsurprisingly, Malcolm Easton and Randolph Siverson find that authoritarian leaders who take advantage of a coup attempt to launch purges of the ruling elite significantly extend their longevity in power — although a study by Joan Timoneda, Abel Escribà-Folch and John Chin found that failed coups on the whole do not prompt autocratic leaders to centralize power further around themselves.
Narrowing the scope down to neo-patrimonial regimes (the regime type most commonly ascribed to Russia), Jason Brownlee finds that such regimes are generally able to re-stabilize themselves after a failed coup and prevent regime change in the longer term. Finally, when regimes are concerned about military coups, Jonathan Powell finds that they tend to pursue one of two “coup-proofing” strategies — to “spoil” the military with resources to keep it loyal, or to build counter-balancing forces in order to hem in the military — and that both strategies are more or less equally effective.
I’ll keep reading.
In the meantime, a handful of other pieces from the week:
Andrei Pertsev had a piece in Meduza on Thursday, reporting that the Kremlin’s internal polling suggests that Putin’s approval ratings have fallen by between 9-14 percentage points since Prigozhin’s adventure;
Sticking with approval ratings, the Levada Center reported, also on Thursday, that in the days after the uprising 29 percent of respondents said they supported Prigozhin — but that’s half what it was two weeks earlier;
On Wednesday, Meduza published an unsigned long-read on the hearts and minds of Wagner fighters after the uprising and found a diversity of opinions;
On Tuesday, the FT continued its excellent investigate work on sanctions-busting, this time reporting on the role of the oil traders Vitol and Gunvor (surprise surprise); and
If you care to dive into intra-opposition politics, take a look at the brief declaration of the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, probably the best organized anti-war movement operating inside Russia, calling out other parts of Russia’s opposition for their tacit or, in some cases, explicit support of Prigozhin.
What I’m listening to
I’ve shared music with you before by Sylvan Esso, the Durham-based electronic pop duo of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, and I’ve long been a fan of Meath’s folk-based vocal work with Mountain Man. But I’ve never seen the two strains of Meath’s musicality come together quite like this. Hope you enjoy it.