Monday, June 26, 2023

The "revolt" in Russia: don't believe the experts, because there aren't any


As I write these words, as far as I know, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner Group, a Russian "private military company", is in what appears to be exile in Belarus, following his leadership of a "rebellion" by Wagner against Russia.  Whether it was a "rebellion", or a "demonstration", or a "popular uprising", is impossible to clarify at this point.  There's a huge amount of smoke, and very little clear view of the fire(s) causing it.

The important point to remember is an old saying in the intelligence community:

Those who know, aren't talking.
Those who are talking, don't know.

That's the bottom line right now.  There are innumerable "talking heads" on TV news broadcasts who are doing nothing more than offering a quasi-edumacated guesstimate as to what happened, what's going on now, and what may happen in future.  Nobody knows for sure.

That's been the case throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Neither side is honest or trustworthy;  both sides are as corrupt as hell;  and no "news" from either side is believable.  Blatantly partisan propaganda is universal;  honesty much less so.  I agree, Russia was/is the aggressor, violating several treaties in the process, and therefore deserves to lose, but that doesn't mean Ukraine is as white as the driven snow, either.  It was ranked as the second most corrupt state in Europe a few years ago.  Only after the Russian invasion were serious attempts made to "whitewash" Ukraine's endemic corruption.  Its government is no more honest and upright than Russia's.  Those who bleat about "Slava Ukraini!" might ask themselves what they're glorifying, and whether it's worth it.

(At the outbreak of this war, I asked what was the United States' compelling national security interest in UkraineNobody has yet answered that question comprehensively, except from their own biased, blinkered perspectives.  Perhaps we need to do so on a national level, one that can be supported by all Americans, before we get dragged even deeper into the mire over there.)

As for Wagner, it's become a byword for thuggishness and brutality in many countries.  To name just one example, its mercenaries are currently all but running the country of Mali in West Africa, where an ongoing struggle against Islamic fundamentalist terrorists has led to a military coup and the departure of Western forces in protest against institutionalized corruption there.  That hasn't stopped Wagner:  in fact, it's probably made it easier for it to operate there, and in other African countries, where its record is no less brutal.  Russian "military forces" in other nations (including Syria) are largely comprised of Wagner units, which have made it easier for Russia to withdraw more orthodox military forces to deploy them against Ukraine.  What will happen in those countries after Wagner's "revolt" is unknown, but I doubt the situation can continue as before.  I don't think Russia can spare enough competent troops and units to replace Wagner, given the scale of the conflict in Ukraine, so it may be we'll see Russian influence wane in several parts of the world as its forces are withdrawn.  Will Wagner cooperate, or will its local forces behave even more thuggishly and install themselves semi-permanently as local warlords?  I'd say that's more than a faint possibility - but I don't know.  Nobody does.

If I had to prognosticate about likely developments in the near future, I'd say Prigozhin has effectively committed suicide.  His "exile" in Belarus doesn't stop him controlling his forces elsewhere.  Sure, Russia has said that Wagner units will be sworn into the national army as regular forces, but how many of them will be willing to accept that?  What about those beyond Russia's borders - will they prefer to stay there as freebooters and mercenaries?  From their perspective, that might be an attractive option, and they might offer Prigozhin an opportunity to rebuild his organization internationally, to Russia's detriment.  Given all those factors, I suspect Prigozhin will encounter a 9mm. headache within a few weeks to a few months, or suffer a convenient "heart attack", or be the victim of an unfortunate auto or aircraft accident, or try to learn to fly (unsuccessfully) from the upper windows or roof of a suitably tall building.  If he doesn't experience something like that, I'll be very surprised.

There's a brief window of opportunity for Ukraine to capitalize on the confusion in Russia, but it's very brief.  Wagner's occupation of Rostov-on-Don (the military and logistics headquarters of Russia's campaign against Ukraine) must inevitably have disrupted command and control structures, logistics arrangements, etc (the latter further complicated by Ukrainian attacks on a major resupply route).  If Ukraine can burst through the front lines at points where Wagner units were withdrawn (or withdrew themselves), it has a brief window to exploit those breakdowns and make serious territorial gains before Russia can reorganize its forces.  Whether or not Ukraine's armed forces are in any condition to do so is unknown, and probably unknowable to outside observers right now.  They don't appear to have been making much headway with their offensive against the Russians.  Can that change under the present circumstances?  Maybe . . . but I wouldn't hold your breath while waiting.

Finally, if this "revolt" was as serious as some are saying it was, it may have weakened Putin's position as Russia's warlord.  He's apparently (or so it seems) let Prigozhin get away scot-free with his rebellion (at least in the short term).  That might be taken by his internal rivals as a sign of weakness, indecisiveness, a lack of ability to respond forcefully and crush the rebellion rather than negotiate it away.  They'll be watching carefully.  Some of them may begin to think that it's time for a change of leadership.  Putin, of course, being an old KGB hand, will be well aware of that, and I daresay he'll have hit men and "direct action teams" standing by to remove any overly aggressive challenger . . . but those same hit men and teams might get a better offer from some of his rivals.  There's going to be a lot of tension in Moscow over the next few days and weeks.  Pass the popcorn.

However, in the end, nobody knows anything for sure.  The smoke is so thick one mostly can't see through it, and when one can, there are enough Potemkin villages in the area to confuse and mislead the most acute observer.  All we can be sure of is that somewhere under all that smoke, there's a fire.  What's burning?  We'll find out when the smoke clears - if there's anything left to see after the flames have done their work.


EDITED TO ADD:  Peter Zeihan offers his thoughts on what may happen next.  His first three videos on the subject, over the weekend, were speculation, as is this one:  but the last (below) may be better informed and therefore closer to reality.


Anonymous said...

"Those who bleat about "Slava Ukraini!" might ask themselves what they're glorifying, and whether it's worth it."

A country that was invaded by another country for no good reason, and has done a pretty good job of resisting said invasion. I will also point out that comparing the performance of the Ukrainian military between 2014 and 2022-2023 indicates that at least some kind of reform happened during that time--you should know better than most how corruption affects military effectiveness.

As to the bleating whiners who go "but they've gotten all this aid from NATO," friendly reminder that Iraq and Afghanistan were both equipped by the US with all sorts of fancy gear, and their performance against guys in converted trucks was abysmal. Western equipment is not an "I win" button. (Though it helps.)

Anonymous said...

For sure Prigozhin's beef was not about Russian military leadership. You don't go to war against the people that pay you for such a thing. I'm 90% that the actual problem was money. Wagner are mercenaries, probably Putin delayed some big$ transfer? Or Prigozhin got a better offer and it took Putin a day to counter-offer?
Anyway, the fact that all 'experts' were taken by surprise shows that existing NATO/CIA professionals are not professional at all. Just PR/woke BS, speculation and trying to make some money from msmedia.

Peter said...

@Anonymous at 9:13AM: Yes, but...

What about Ukraine's terrorist actions towards civilians in the Donbass and other border regions (well documented and proven beyond reasonable doubt)?

What about Ukrainian theft of Russian gas shipments to Europe, from a pipeline built through Ukrainian territory?

There's more than enough nastiness to go around, on both sides. As I said above, both sides are guilty, and there's precious little to choose between them. I support neither.

J. C. Salomon said...

From another source (I don’t know how well-informed he is in general, but I know one of his sources and she at least is reliable for that part of the world):

“After spending a couple of days talking to people who are genuine Russia specialists, here's my update on the Russia situation:

“None of them know, either.

“This 'coup' is confusing in a dozen different ways, so thoroughly confusing that one of the scenarios all the experts are taking as a for-reals possibility is, "what if this was a disinformation campaign they fucked up so badly they disinformed _themselves_?"

“It's a real possibility. Putin likes to play up his judo black belt but you never see him sparring with anyone except judoka who are in his pocket, to the point most international judo observers suspect Putin's judo skills are mostly the result of other people around him making him look good. Similarly, he's long prided himself on his mastery of the Great Game, but the reality is he's surrounded himself with political amateurs and naifs. Nobody ever went to Sergei Shoigu looking for nuanced and wise mentorship, and Prigozhin isn't exactly famed for his sonnets.

“Be careful looking for subtlety and hidden meaning and political savoir-faire in this coup attempt. It might not exist. But if you insist, also consider the possibility this is the result of multiple people deciding to put on their thinking caps at once.

“We just don't know yet.”

boron said...

"I agree, Russia was/is the aggressor, violating several treaties in the process..."
be very cautious here. Vladimir Vladimirovich is not a fool, depressive, madman, or demented.
another minor point:
what little fingers have been stirring the kettle (for a very long time? in what parts of the globe?
who exactly is making money?

Gerry said...

The Wagner Group are good old mercs and mercs fight for money or loot.
IMHO some money changed hands and the trouble went away for now.

What is interesting to me is the local Russian troops rarely engaged with the Wagner bunch during the whole episode. It speaks of a lack of allegiance to Moscow's C&C.

As for the Ukraine, as my associates in the Middle East would say, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

HMS Defiant said...

It’s like even the people who know better have completely forgotten that the only way to crush your enemies is brutality on industrial scale. It worked like that since the dawn of history. Only morons believe you can “win the hearts and minds of your enemies” and prevail. Just look at the Japanese and Germans. They were brutally crushed, not mollycoddled.

Beans said...

What if this was a coup by Putin? How many anti-Putin military leaders, politicians and bureaucrats have been identified?

We'll know in a few weeks as mass disappearances, suicides by impossible means, accidents, yada yada happen.

Steve Sky said...

i'd point out that the United States doesn't have a compelling interest in the Ukraine, but the Bidens & Uniparty sure do as a money laundry. And if the Ukraine is lost, the money being laundered, including US taxpayer money being laundered right back to the "Big Guy" & Uniparty would suddenly come to a stop.

Also note that while the MSM was hyperventilating for an entire week over a sub, $6.1 Billion in an "accounting error" was transferred to Wagner's group. But look -- (squirrel) sub.

BCE has some speculation as to what is happening and I find his last page scenario quite plausable.

Anonymous said...

There should be quote marks in there around "terrorist."

Sorry, but Kiev is a much, much lighter shade of gray than Moscow.

Think of it as Trump vs. Clinton.

Anonymous said...

You have some interesting points.
This appears similar to the "attempted coup" in Turkey several years ago that seemed designed to help Erdogan.

Remember that Wagner has been on the outside with Moscow for several months; the way he has been effectively rewarded here could mean that he is back in Putin's good graces to some extent.

Francis Turner said...

The US has no direct compelling interest. The people with the compelling interest are the Poles and other E Europeans who see Putin trying the old Soviet salami tactics and want him stopped before he attacks them. This is no doubt why those countries have given Ukraine enormous amounts of their weapons (in proportion to their totals that is)

Some background on Wagner in Africa is here -

I doubt the African bits of Wagner will be absorbed into the Russian Army. I suspect the leadership and cadre of the Ukraine based parts will fly oout to join them, probably accompanies by Prigozhin

Dan said...

Now that he is in Belarus... he can bring his troops in and stage right across the border from Kiev. MUCH closer than they were a couple weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

All I'll say is our Democrats need to take notes, cuz Wagner demonstrated what an "insurrection" looks like, not the Jan. 6th debacle....

TCK said...

"A country that was invaded by another country for no good reason"

If stopping ethnic cleansing was a good enough reason for NATO to devastate a nation, then its good enough justification for Russia to do the same.

Trumpeter said...

YOU and , unfortunately, I funded, organized, empowered and directed a eight year war against civilians of Russian heritage in Eastern Ukraine. Including 6" artillery shells deliberately directed against stores, offices, schools and most egregiously, white phosphorus artillery against homes at night.

14,000 were killed! Again, in Your and My names.

Ukraine was all set to use the massive forifications we designed and paid for as a base to kill or drive out all Russian heritage people in the Donbas and Lugansk regions.

If this is beyond your ability to understand, you will get and deserve war. Sadly you want to drag the rest of us with you.

boron said...

@ Trumpeter:
Perfectly stated, but...
I think "the people who know these sort or things?" (I usually call them "the professors", but I wish English had a simple sarcasm mark) are concerned that Vladimir Vladimirovich is using Adolf's Sudenland technique to further his (Russia's) ends.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree on this comment. What better way to hide a strategic repositioning if the most effective force on the battlefield than staging a ‘protest?’ It was a masquerade from the beginning.

Thos. said...

I know this is a little early, but I would like to offer Prigozhin's family and friends condolences on his sudden and unexpected death from polonium poisoning.

Aesop said...

"(At the outbreak of this war, I asked what was the United States' compelling national security interest in Ukraine. Nobody has yet answered that question comprehensively, except from their own biased, blinkered perspectives. Perhaps we need to do so on a national level, one that can be supported by all Americans, before we get dragged even deeper into the mire over there.)"

Okay, Peter, I'll play:

1. Name the last European tyrant that was content to stop at one border.

2. What happened over there the last time we looked the other way?

Check and mate, two moves.