Crossing the Russian Rubicon

Until now, I have held the title of last person on social media to not comment on the most recent events in Russia. I am giving up the crown.

First, Prigozhin’s ploy isn’t fully understood or even over yet. The move on Moscow only made sense if he expected units of the Russian military, national guard, interior ministry or state security services to join him. Few if any did, or did not have time to do so, before the march was called off. Social media is full of explanations, many involving conspiracies, as to what was supposed to happen, and what actually went down. The who, what, where, and why will become clearer in days and weeks, not months.  One thing is absolutely clear and will not change: Prigozhin was moving against the MoD/Shoigu/Gerasimov, not Putin himself. The Tsar is always good; it is the advisors who are betraying him and need to be revealed. It is an age-old Russian trope.

Second, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of the explanation and reaction that emerges, they all point to a weakened regime. There is a vast distance between shooting Nemtsov by the Kremlin walls (2015) and grabbing Navalnyi at Sheremetyevo (2021) with utter impunity, on one hand, and, on the other, having an armed band cross the Russian Rubicon, seize cities and military facilities, and head to the capital. The Russian government’s social contract–to the extent one exists–looks nothing like ours. It privileges stability and security. A government that can not provide that will not last long. The failed invasion of Ukraine was a challenge to it, but having the conflict rebound back deep into Russia is another matter entirely.

Third, the parlor game question has finally been answered: warlordism. Within a few weeks of February 24, 2022, it was clear Russia’s gambit had failed. At that time, Putin doubled down, went all in, and proceeded down a path of abject national disaster. Since then, Western observers have been trying to figure out how it ends. Will it be the FSB, the military, the oligarchs, the non-existent liberal alternative, a popular uprising? For those of us familiar with Russia, some of those outcomes were far less likely than others. But now we know. Russia’s increasing use of mercenary armies–Wagner most notably, the Chechens earlier, and smaller corporate forces that have arisen in recent years–ultimately fractured the brittle facade. Will Putin be able to avoid further cracks? I suspect not. Once shown to be friable, the regime will face similar challenges.

Finally, none of this is definitively good news for either Ukraine or for the West. While I do believe this is the beginning of the end of Putin’s regime, it does not necessarily follow that a subsequent regime will be any differently inclined. A Russia back on its heels may be less directly threatening, but is no less dangerous.