We will not like what comes after Prigozhin’s surreal insurrection against Putin.
Truth is always implausible, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in Demons, arguably his most reactionary tome. At the time of writing, the world saw the most bizarre twenty-four hours in Russia, even by Russian standards.
It started as one would expect events to start in Russia, with one Yevgeny Prigozhin—an ex-convict thief who became by turns Vladimir Putin’s cook, the Russian army’s meat supplier, a warlord and militia leader of one of the largest private armies, almost entirely now manned by former convicts and led by ex-Russian armed forces—marching on Moscow after a bizarre and violent outburst that made him look like a soyjak meme.
Prigozhin looks like a character out of Death of Stalin anyway, and the entire episode of his day-long march and revolt seemed to be like a movie directed by Armando Iannucci.
We found our protagonist marching his troops (around 25,000 of them, by his count) and circling back to Rostov, home of the southern military district, the tenth largest city; he captured its military headquarters, had tea with the locals, shot down a few Russian air force helicopters and jets, and demanded the heads of Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the Russian minister of defense and chief of general staff respectively.
He then made an appeal to Vladimir Putin to declare martial law and fire Shoigu and Gerasimov. To his astonishment, he failed to see any defection in the Russian army and eventually turned back after a negotiated settlement and headed to Belarus.
To add more layers to this already absurd plot, Putin at first declared him traitor. Rosgvardiya, the heavily armed Russian National Guards, appeared in Moscow alongside roadblocks and AFVs. Anne Applebaum wrote an article in the Atlantic claiming that this is the start of a Russian civil war.
Then once this was all over, Putin pardoned Prigozhin in a backchannel deal, apparently negotiated by none other than Belarus’s autocrat, Aleksandr Lukashenko. In 2023, we have Lukashenko as a peacemaker. Truth is indeed implausible.
It is far from over, of course; we haven’t seen the final act of this tale. When Prigozhin took his troops back and left Rostov for the barracks after the settlement, he was greeted on the streets by delirious and fawning Russians chanting the name of Wagner, his private militia group, and throwing flowers—a Caesarean moment in modern history.
Putin has rarely been so humiliated. Whatever we know of former sovok KGB officers, they certainly do not forget public humiliation. Just ask the residents of Grozny. As Peter Hitchens wrote, Putin is the “milksop moderate” compared to what might come or what already waits patiently on the sidelines. “Believe me, there are devils in Russia far worse than anything most of us have seen in our lifetime, and you would not want them controlling a vast and slowly rusting arsenal of nuclear weapons, if you were wise.” But even a milksop moderate cannot just ignore this.
Putin is often called a Machiavellian. If he has read Machiavelli, he would know that a prince is never safe from armed militia men and their divided loyalties. Divided loyalty is a topic we do not explore anymore, for obvious historical reasons. But it is an extremely important variable in the domestic politics of postmodern powers, just as it was in premodernity. Mercenaries and auxiliaries, as well as banished men in foreign courts, as Machiavelli wrote, have no fixed loyalty, and are disposed to constantly probing the limits of their power; only fear keeps them in line.
Going further, if Putin has also read his Roman historians such as Vegetius, he would also know that a sovereign must punish and make an example of ringleaders of mutiny, to instill both accountability and discipline; this is a lesson for conservatives in the West as well, who cannot seem to comprehend the need for punitive retribution when faced with smug, insubordinate military leaders and civil servants, opposing their elected leaders without any reaction.
Putin, as well as Shoigu and Gerasimov, are all similar to their counterparts in the Western bureaucracy in some ways. They might be smug and incompetent, but they have a strong sense of solidarity and power, and are extremely thin-skinned against any challenge to their collective swarm-lite rule, especially against what they consider “insurrections” by random citizens outside of the established power structure.
Bureaucracy is a curse for humanity, but in Russia it is a tragedy. Russia started this conflict under a host of misguided assumptions. She tried to take over a country of around forty million people with a force of around 90,000, hoping that they would be greeted as liberators. The planners were Shoigu, the Russian version of an affirmative action hire with no military knowledge, and Gerasimov, the Russian strategist who once thought information warfare is the future rather than hard power. Any military strategist worth his salt knows that logistics is far more important than tactics. Gerasimov’s boneheaded plan to take Kiev led to Russia losing the cream of her VDV airborne troops in a matter of weeks.
Here we have two highly credentialed midwit bureaucrats deliberately misleading their countrymen about a war that they thought would be won in three months at maximum with a strategy that did not consider local nationalism and resistance, and who thought postmodernity is all about gray zones, pink-haired people on computers, and utilization of disinformation, unlike those neanderthal hard men with blood in their eyes. If that sounds familiar, you might be having an attack of noticing things that you shouldn’t.
Compare this to the invasion of Russia by the Germans in the Second World War with a force of around 3 million. That failed as well. Patriotism is a powerful force. Combined-arms land wars are difficult—occupation and pacification without resorting to premodern brutality, even more so. The reason Russia ended the Chechen rebellion was because of brutality. The reason Sri Lankans ended the Tamil rebellion was the same; brutality is exactly why the Taliban is currently more successful in driving away the poppy production than the trillions of dollars the West spent on Afghan civil society, police forces, and NGOs. Winning hearts and minds has never historically helped in the pacification of regions. Fear does.
Prigozhin knew that instinctively, perhaps because he didn’t have any credentials. For good or for bad, he is the salt of the earth, an occupant of the lowest of the low rungs on the Russian power ladder. He has only three qualities: a primitive instinct for seeing an opportunity when one exists, a primitive instinct for utmost brutality, and an extreme Russian form of feudal patriotism.
Russia needed and still needs men like Prigozhin to conduct a successful if brutal battle, just as we needed General Douglas MacArthur or Sir Arthur Harris in an earlier pre-human-rights and NGOcracy era when wars were actually ended and territories pacified. Fear is a requisite component for military victory and destruction of enemy morale, and will remain so for as long as human nature exists.
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That is what led to Prigozhin lashing out. His feudal loyalty compelled him to be increasingly frustrated at incompetence up top until the time he couldn’t take it anymore, as postmodernity gave way to premodernity. But his primitive patriotism couldn’t compete with the rival primitive patriotism of Russian nationalists and junior military officer class, who, while perhaps frustrated with how the war is being conducted, still couldn’t bring themselves to oppose their command hierarchy. The lack of defection doomed this endeavor. And Prigozhin’s desperate “Haro haro! À l'aide, mon Prince” failed because Putin is not an aristocrat—aristocrats can appreciate the ruthlessness and patriotism of someone uncredentialed—but an arch-bureaucrat who is far more interested in the continuation of his clique’s rule.
This isn’t over. Russian rebel exiles usually get murdered abroad, or come back and foment more successful revolutions. We don’t know what might come next. Prigozhin knows that he is not safe, in either Russia or Belarus, and that Putin’s siloviki will carry their grudge. Putin knows that his rule is wounded with this display of defiance and mutiny, which will be a forerunner of more such behavior if this goes unpunished in the long run. The result is a slow power-struggle spiral, a return of the old demons.
As the history of Russia demonstrates, the one who comes after is usually, if not always, worse. We will perhaps not like what is coming after this attritional war.