Monday 26 June 2023

The Humbling of Vladimir Putin

How many humiliations can an authoritarian leader take before his reputation disintegrates and the people's fear of him evaporates? Following the bewildering events in Russia this weekend, we'll probably find out soon. That the Russian state is decrepit and chaotic is news to no one. The institutionalised corruption and general incompetence of Putin's creatures in the Ministry of Defence has turned the so-called special military operation into a quagmire, with all the implications for stability that entails. Therefore, the longer the war drags on the likelihood of discontent boiling over into rebellion becomes more certain. What canot be forecast in advance is the how.

It's fair to say the spectacle of and the rapid demobilisation of Saturday's uprising weren't foreseen by anyone. The tensions on the front between the regular military and Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner mercenary forces are well known. Recruited primarily from Russian prisons with the promise of a pardon, Wagner have proven themselves the most effective detachment of the invasion force simply because Prigozhin has ground down Ukrainian defenders in and around Bakhmut with human wave tactics. Like Uncle Joe back in the day, it never mattered how many troops were sacrificed as long as the objective was met. This gave Prigozhin a certain standing among Russia's army of military bloggers and public at-large, and through his own colourful social media outbursts was able to heap calumny onto the heads of Sergei Shoigu, the hapless defence minister, and Valery Gerasimov, Russia's top general, for their abysmal management of the war. Following long-running internal battles that occasionally broke out into firefights behind the lines, on Friday regular army units - according to Prigozhin - shelled a Wagner encampment and raked the area with helicopter gunship fire. This was after he'd received orders to wind his outfit up and fold it into the army. Prigozhin's audacious response was to march Wagner forces out of Ukraine to seize control of Rostov in southern Russia, and declare he was heading to Moscow "with 25,000 troops". As his convoy began heading north, there was panicky footage of plod in the capital setting up machine gun nests, police organising roadblocks, loyal civilians digging up the roads, and a rattled-looking Putin making a national address. And then as quickly as it begun, the would-be coup was all over. Prigozhin announced he was turning Wagner around following talks mediated by the Belarusian hard man, Alexander Lukashenko. The Kremlin, it seemed, had caved in to his demands: the removal of Shoigu and Gerasimov, sweetened by legal immunity for Prigozhin and his cronies. One moment Russia was staring down the barrel of bloody street battles in the capital, and the next the crisis simply vanished.

What this wasn't was elaborate theatre to throw interference in the face of Western intelligence agencies. There were gun battles along the convoy's route, a fuel depot in Voronezh was attacked by Russian helicopters while the city was in Wagner's hands, and their military vehicles were subject to air strikes. For their part, Wagner anti-air assets brought down six helicopters and one command plane, killing 14 experienced air crew. Putin's presidential jet really did fly to St Petersburg when things were getting especially spicy, and given the welcome Wagner received from civilians as the column moved north and piecemeal opposition, it looked like Prigozhin held all the cards. So why not finish Putin off and install himself the new president?

There are claims his family were in danger, and that Prigozhin's forces were somewhat less than the 25,000 soldiers he boasted about. But it's not difficult to fathom why he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Forcing Putin from office would have been one thing, but consolidating his grip on the state something else. If we're looking for a useful analogy from Soviet history, it would have been like dumping Stalin for Beria, and we know what happened to him after old Koba's corpse went on public display. Putin has stayed on top because he's been able to balance, in the first instance, the competing demands of the departments of the state and the oligarchs who leech off them. You'll remember this was how Prigozhin came to prominence: as the provider of catering contracts for public bodies, above all the military. Furthermore, Putin's base rests on the shadowy apparatus of the FSB. It's hard to see how any of these would gain from a Prigozhin leadership that they don't already enjoy under Putin. Then there's the issue of Wagner itself. Having a heavily armed group of convicts elevated to the summit of the state doesn't have much appeal, especially if they fancied a slice of the oligarchs' pie for themselves. Between Putin and a band of actual murderers and rapists, the elite were pretty clear sighted about what suited them best. Therefore the most convincing explanation is Prigozhin, who is far from a stupid man, made a similar assessment of the politics. He might have taken the Kremlin, but for how long? With no one but his men at his back, he quickly calculated he was on a hiding to nothing and became more concerned with saving his own neck. Having crossed the Rubicon, he hastily assembled a pontoon bridge back. Hence the rapid about turn and departure to a comfy hotel in Minsk.

What happens now? Despite the deal that was negotiated, it appears Shoigu and Gerasimov are still in position. The mutiny charges against Prigozhin and his lieutenants remain live. Luckily for Putin, the chaos did not bring about sudden changes on the front lines. Ukraine were able to improve their tactical position around Bakhmut and established a modest bridgehead on the south bank of the Dnipro, but there was no generalised Russian collapse as per last year's Kharkiv and Kherson offensives. But the Wagner rebellion was like taking a pneumatic drill to the Putin regime's shaky foundations. In many ways, what happens to Prigozhin now is immaterial. Whether Lukashenko does the dirty and bangs him up, or by a catering mishap he ends up having a bowl of polonium for breakfast, the hard edifice Putin projects is riddled with cracks, and they're multiplying. Putin didn't just beg for his rule to be saved, he was seen to be begging. And short from a purge more extensive and terrifying than anything Stalin mustered, it's difficult to see how he can stay in situ for long.

Image Credit


Konrad said...

Hi Phil, I believe this is a serious misreading of the situation. While undoubtedly an embarrassment to Putin, he has probably come out strengthened from this episode, as he managed to get rid of an irritation without bloodshed. It does show the danger of allowing private militias, but the reason Prigozhin rebelled was that he was being forced to merge the Wagner group into the Russian army, which bureaucratic battle he lost.
As far as the current war situation is concerned, the distinct impression I have that Ukraine is losing badly, and that Russia will impose its solution, but mostly by grinding down the opposition slowly, unless there is a serious escalation by Nato, in case we are all in trouble. I suspect you give too much credence to the war reporting by the BBC & others, which is uniformly biased. There are numerous websites available which give a more considered overview, but are never reflected in the mainstream media. My personal favourite is Alexander Mercouris on YouTube, who gives an excellent summary of recent events, and posts daily, but many others exist.
I'd be interested in your views on this.

Old Trot said...

Yes, Konrad, you are absolutely correct. Phil's ill-informed article here merely repeats all the usual (totally inaccurate) propaganda tropes and memes of the Western MSM. It is no good, Phil (and others like Alex Callinocos in the latest Socialist Worker), sourcing your information on the Ukraine war (ie, the NATO v Russia proxy war, being fought to the last Ukrainian standing) from our MSM. Tragically the ENTIRE Western MSM has proven in this conflict and its lead-up, to be utterly a plaything of the US Imperialist/ NATO viewpoint. When the entire MSM is prepared to parrot the ludicrous lines that the Russians blew up their own Nordstream gas pipeline, or shelled the nuclear plant that they occupy (!) , then journalism has finally collapsed in the NATO states - to be replaced by sheer propaganda. And the Liberal Left has eaten it up wholesale !

Don't get me wrong, the Putin Russian regime is a gangster oligarchy, as are ALL the ex soviet current day post soviet states - Ukraine included )it's entire wealth, as in Russia was stolen by the oligarch gangsters who still rule behind their Zelensky actor puppet president. The aim of NATO and the EU is to break Russia into endless small statelets, and then pillage it of its vast resources. So , despite being a gangster, Putin is defending the integrity and survival of the Russian state - and the overwhelming majority of Russians recognise this - which is why the Prigozhin adventurist coup attempt had no support.

For a better reportage on the war , day by day, try 'Military Summary' on YouTube, Big Serge Substack, or , as Konrad says, Alexander Mercouris on YouTube (though his nervous twitches make him hard to watch). Fresh news for those believing the NATO state MSM nonsense - Russia is winning the war by a large margin .

Phil said...

As it happens I don't rely on the BBC for Ukraine coverage (or for anything else, really) and use a range of YouTube milibloggers. At the moment it looks like stalemate which is to Russia's advantage, but that could easily change. People who were supportive of the Kremlin or sceptical of Kyiv's chances did not see the Kharkiv and Kherson collapse coming, for example.

Perhaps I might be wrong about my read of Putin's regime. He has sidelined a Frankenstein's monster who was getting too big for his boots, but in so doing made himself look pitifully weak in front of the Russian public and his class. If history is anything to go by, authoritarians who do so tend not to last long.

Imrix said...

It never ceases to amaze me how Russian milbloggers can continue to insist that Russia is somehow winning a war that has primarily consisted of them losing troops, equipment, ground, and respect on the world stage, hand over fist. I don't even know WHAT the BBC is saying about the Ukraine war, but it is simply not that hard to find updates demonstrating how grim the picture on the ground is for Russia.

dermot said...

"the Putin Russian regime is a gangster oligarchy, as are ALL the ex soviet current day post soviet states"

Nothing like the Western nations, so, we don't have corrupt oligarchs doing sleazy backroom deals for profit, at the expense of the public.
Oh wait

Anonymous said...

Ignore the pro-Russia cranks above (who have, after all, been wrong about nearly everything on this topic in the last 18 months) the analysis in this piece is on the money.

Loathsome as they were, Wagner were the best fighters Putin had. If they are dispersed or neutralised, the impact should be obvious.

And nor is the current situation actually a "stalemate" - Ukraine is making slow but steady progress, day by day.

McIntosh said...

Did the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016 make Erdogan weaker or stronger?

JN said...

Say what you want about Putin and the existing government of Russia, but I really don't think they're going to be overthrown by a bunch of mercenaries without any wider institutional or popular support (just as the government of the USA is unlikely to be overthrown by Blackwater). As for Prigozhin, his days are obviously numbered (If I was him, I'd be very careful about what he eats or drinks from now on; and if that doesn't work there's always just getting shot).

I'll say this much for Putin: he's right about NATO; it clearly is trying to encircle Russia and China.... but that just makes the Russian invasion of Ukraine all the more idiotic. I mean, aside from the basic morality of "don't be a war-monger", it has very clearly and predictably strengthened NATO relative to Russia.

Old Trot said...

So , poster Imrix thinks that Russia is 'losing the war' in terms of lost troops and equipment, AND 'losing respect on the world stage' too ! And Anonymous thinks anyone who differs in analysis from the universally trumpeted western NATO MSM narrative is simply a 'pro Russian crank ' , and that the Ukraine is making 'slow and steady progress' in it's Summer offensive ! Dearie me , the NATO-centric narrative myopia of those who only get their data from the US-dominated NATO sphere.

Sorry folks, but if the pre Ukraine Summer Grand Offensive claims of the entire Western MSM was to be proving correct - by now the Ukrainian forces should have cut right through Russian defences to the Azov sea by now, cutting off the Crimea from the rest of the occupied territories. But in fact Ukrainian forces have been decimated by the minefields and total air superiority of the Russians in just their FORWARD SKIRMISH ZONES , without yet breaching or reaching even the first of the multiple layer Russian main defence lines. This offensive, without utterly vital total air superiority, was always going to be a disaster for Ukrainian troops , and so it is proving.

Lastly, outside of the US / NATO states and US dominated wider periphery, all the evidence is that the wider world community, from their dreadful experiences of centuries of Western imperialism, are actually now MORE favourably inclined to the Russian cause. The very different treatment of the war in the Indian press being a case in point.

One doesn't have to be any sort of fan of the corrupt gangster oligarchy of the Russian Federation , to recognise the malign intent of US/Western imperialism in deliberately provoking this dreadful war over decades (and a CIA funded fascist militias backed pro western coup in 2014) , and the total lack of genuine concern the NATO nations have for the Ukrainian people - whose nation will be utterly destroyed during this proxy war.

Anonymous said...


A major reason that coup failed was large numbers coming out on the streets to support Erdogan, pretty much spontaneously.

Something notable by its absence last weekend.

Imrix said...

a) Ukraine is making reasonable gains across the front, sometimes gains that should've been impossible, like the Dnieper bridgehead. Meanwhile losses've been things like 'Bradley's get mobility killed, troops bail out just fine, successive advances push up 1-2 km, Bradley's are patched up and put back in the fight', so, 'decimated by minefields and total air superiority' simply does not seem accurate. They're up to retaking territory Russia's held since 2014, at this point - it was always going to be slower than the Kherson rout, especially after Russia collapsed a dam, but still Russia has gone from incompetent thunder runs at the start to losing territory it's held since 2014, and losing their best kit the whole time. Seems like losing to me.

Doubtless Russian sources say Ukraine's taken horrendous casualties for no gain, but the Russian MoD says the entire Ukranian air force and all their tanks have been destroyed more than twice over, yet Ukraine still does CAP's, and still fights tank battles. Every army exaggerates their killcounts, but Russian sources go beyond that into a fantasy that's not worth wiping your arse with.

b) Indian press might treat Russia's invasion differently, but only 4 countries in the world supported the 22 annexation referenda for Donbas and Luhansk - North Korea, Syria, Belarus, Nicaragua, and that kind of support is what we call scraping the bottom of the barrel. China and India might not have condemned it outright, but they hardly approved.

Fundamentally, in January of '22, Russia was in a good strategic/political position; NATO was slowly succumbing to a growing feeling that it had outgrown its era, European militarism was faded, and Russia had great political soft power in diplomacy, military propaganda, and oil and gas pipelines - power that had room to grow, ex. the Nordstream 2 pipeline. Ukraine sought to join NATO, yes, but its chances of doing so sat somewhere between 'no' and 'haha, fuck no' as long as the Donbas and Crimea were active territorial disputes.

All of that is ruin now. Europe has cut itself off Russian energy and begun to arm up, while Russia's reputation as someone you can do business with and a strong military that must be respected, have both been thoroughly shot to shit. The Russian economy didn't implode under sanctions like some hyperbolic analysts claimed, but those projections of strong economic growth are ash in the wind. The war has expanded NATO membership in Scandinavia, and increased support for Ukraine joining. Arms companies in supposedly neutral South Africa are supplying Ukraine, while other countries are buying less Russian arms. The war has if anything made global American hegemony MORE popular- see Pew research centre's figures about whether countries would prefer a US- or Chinese-lead world in 2018 vs June 2022, where Brazil jumped from 51% to 87% in favour of America, and India still polls at 88% in favour of America.

We all grumble about American hegemony, myself very much included, but 'least bad' is still 'better than the other guy'. Meanwhile, with the Russian army busy embarrassing itself on another imperial overreach, eastern europe and central asia are seeing the opportunity to court ties with other powers, sometimes the US, sometimes China, but invariably not Russia.

Imrix said...

While we're at it, no, 2014 was not a 'CIA-funded fascist militia-backed pro-western coup'. Regular people do not sing the national anthem while charging riot police who are firing live ammo, for a sack of cash from a spook in a suit and dark glasses. Nobody does that unless they BELIEVE in what they're doing, and the Ukranian revolutionaries believed like hell. At the end of the day, it was a popular revolution against the corruption of Yanukovych's regime. It had foreign support - most successful popular movements do. But it started and ended with the Ukranian people. Hell, Zelensky was the pro-Russian choice when he was elected! He got in partly because he reminded people that they still had Russia on the borders and had to work with them! The man's an open Jew leading a centre-left government that has some of the lowest anti-semitism statistics in Europe, and as much of a neonazi element as, say, France. Probably less, actually. If anybody has a nazi problem in this war, it is Russia - not Ukraine, not both sides, Russia alone. They're the side running PMC's like Wagner as a major arm of their defence industry, and lead by a man openly citing fascist theorists like Ivan Ilyin and Carl Schmidt as the great philosophical influences on his regime. The absolutely furious turn Ukrainian feeling has taken against Russia is entirely on how Putin has treated them since.

That's something Russia likes to forget, see. Ukrainians are their own people with a long memory of Russian abuse, and if they want to seek ties with the west to avoid Russia doing as they did before, then, well, I have some sympathy with Putin for worrying about then, but my sympathy ends when Russia invades again and shells children's hospitals. That kind of thing rather makes the Ukranian's argument for them.

David Parry said...

'Ukraine sought to join NATO, yes, but its chances of doing so sat somewhere between 'no' and 'haha, fuck no' as long as the Donbas and Crimea were active territorial disputes.'

*Cough, cough* Turkey and Greece. *Cough, cough* Cyprus. *Cough, cough*

David Parry said...

'We all grumble about American hegemony, myself very much included, but 'least bad' is still 'better than the other guy'.'

Please. The idea that US hegemony is more benign than Russian hegemony would be is fatuous in the extreme.

David Parry said...

As another, more recent example, Croatia and Slovenia have ongoing border disputes, and in a part of the world that, within the last three-and-a-half decades, has seen hundreds of thousands of lives lost as a result of devastating wars caused by conflicting ethno-nationalisms, and yet this did not stop both of them from being admitted to NATO.

Come to think of it, I seem to recall that a certain NATO founder-member has a (still-unresolved) territorial dispute with a neighbouring state over part of the island that the latter state occupies. If I'm not mistaken, the roots of this dispute lay in the fact that the NATO founder-member in question used to be in colonial possession of the neighbouring state, and used divide-and-rule along sectarian lines to maintain its sovereignty over the colony, and then, after the colony fought a war of independence, certain figures among those on the 'right' side of the sectarian divide threatened a continuation of hostilties, in the face of which the erstwhile coloniser made a grubby compromise whereby it would retain sovereignty over part of the island that it had hitherto claimed possession of in its entirety.

This idea that having ongoing territorial disputes with neighbouring states is a barrier to NATO membership doesn't withstand the slightest scrutiny.