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Prigozhin’s Putsch



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To be technical, this is a putsch and not a coup—ignore the definitions given on Wikipedia as regards “putsch”, by the way, because they just say it’s a “reactionary coup by military units” (because for progressives everything has to be referenced back to Hitler and, hence, in this case, the Kapp Putsch).


A putsch, in the traditional sense, is when units move against the government under the command of their officers. A coup is when units move against the government but with the chain of command broken—coups are typically undertaken by officers at or under the rank of colonel, hence brigadiers and generals are out (whereas in a putsch they are in).


The third variety of military-political action is the rare pronunciamento—that would be when the entire military, as a body, overthrows the government (imagine if the Joint Chiefs of Staff appeared on Fox one fine morning and announced they’d overthrown the government).


It’s a singular operation with no “insubordination”, except in regards to the civilian government—it’s also really a Latin American thing (hence the name), it’s the classic “go to bed one evening, hear some vague shots in the direction of the presidential palace (or was it a car back-firing?) and wake up to find the news boys are already shouting about a *special edition* that announces General Jouquín’s <<government of national salvation>>”.


Since Prigozhin has said—and we have no reason to disbelieve him—that his actions were approved by the Wagner Military Council, what we have here is a putsch; the chain of command is intact. As an operation to overthrow the government—as a “coup”, to use the term in its generic sense as “any military operation to overthrow the government”—what Prigozhin has done is totally incompetent.


Just like actual military operations, coups rely on speed, surprise, and commitment. It should all be over in six hours or less—and what “over” means is that the units involved in the coup should have seized the key infrastructure and personalities in the capital (TV & radio stations, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Communications, Ministry of Defence, intelligence services, presidential palace, communication hubs, airports, major road intersections, barracks in the capital).


It’s all about psychology and establishing, hands down, “Look at me, I am the captain now” (to deploy the meme). In other words, all the official broadcasting apparatus, all the means the state uses to legitimise itself, should be broadcasting videos of you (coup plotter—or, as you will ensure you are presented, “legitimate leader of the national salvation front”).


There should be “named faces”, your allies from the ancien regime, that people recognise calmly explaining that “due to rampant criminality and mismanagement of the war in the Ukraine” responsible patriotic elements have acted to “save the nation”—naturally, your actions, though extraordinary, are, in fact, constitutional (and you have a deputy minster of justice on hand to explain why this action is, assuredly, if remarkably, entirely legal).


In short, you have to control the message—ideally, the leader you just overthrew is out of the country at some international meeting, so that he cannot intervene (he should be left, aircraft helplessly circling the capital’s airport, unable to land—since your troops secured Moscow Sheremetyevo as a key objective). If there’s no chance he’s out of the country, you want to secure him as your first objective—so that you can parade him, in handcuffs, and so that his supporters know, psychologically, “the jig is up”.

What you absolutely don’t want is for the man you want to overthrow to appear on TV-livestream and tell the nation, “There is a rebellion against the legitimate government, all patriots fly to arms—frustrate these vile traitors at every turn.”


Even for the president—we’ll say you’re overthrowing the president—to get to a phone and to call a minor regional radio station can be a disaster. As soon as it’s known that he’s still “free and active”, the momentum from the ancien regime will kick in. People are naturally conservative and while the president will only have so many “diehard supporters” if he can show himself in any degree, get his message “out”, then the apparatus will swing against the coup.


In essence, the coup must be perceived as a fait accompli, so that even the most hardcore loyalists realise that “resistance is futile”—the worst case scenario if this doesn’t happen and there’s no decisive outcome from the coup is a civil war.

That’s why it’s key to control communications and perception. Even authoritarian regimes work by consent—they manage consent differently to democracies but, believe it or not, even Kim Jong Un relies on consent to rule (he can’t just institute, as I would, prima nocta and order the most delicious and delectable North Korean maidens to be brought to his bedchamber when they come of age—the way North Korea is set up to legitimatise itself doesn’t support such “Khan-like” behaviour). Hence it’s key to control the means by which legitimacy is produced, to stop the man you want to overthrow from rallying his men.


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Power has a vast psychological aspect to it, just like war—it’s about who controls the message and how (in the age of the Internet, the ancien regime has an advantage—it used to be if the coup plotters seized the TV and radio stations you were kaputt, but now you can babble into your iPhone on Twitter and rally your supporters; the Internet is decentralised, it’s not like you can blackout a country’s Internet, as you could with TV, if you seize a single building—or it’s only a matter of time before the net routes round the blockage, anyway).

So, obviously, if Prigozhin was plotting a coup he has screwed the pooch—royally. He should have infiltrated Wagner units back into Moscow, putatively on R&R, and then positioned them to seize the key buildings. Instead, he’s decided to roll them towards the capital in a convoy that could, potentially, take days to reach Moscow—and it will be opposed by the military on the way. Putin has been on TV, addressed the nation, to condemn the rebellion—multiple other political leaders and generals (including those reputed to be close to Prigozhin, so reducing his legitimacy—especially among his men) have endorsed Putin. Nobody has endorsed Prigozhin, nobody will be allowed to.


The surprise has been lost—the Russian people have received the message, “Putin is in control—he controls everything, and everyone of consequence has supported him.” He’s the captain. At best, Prigozhin is some motley bandit to be exterminated by the Russian armed forces.

In fairness to Prigozhin, I don’t think he necessarily planned a coup in the sense that he wanted to take over the government. His move seems to me to be that Russian peasant classic “good Tsar, bad ministers”—his primary complaint is against Shoigu and Gerasimov, ministers in Putin’s government, and not Putin himself. “If only the Tsar wasn’t misled…” So this is less a coup than a vigorous protest to the Tsar, conducted in classic fashion by procession to Moscow that might kill the soldiers of the “bad ministers” along the way—but sincerely intends to “save the Tsar”. And, indeed, Prigozhin at first billed his actions as a “demonstration” that would “not fight soldiers”.


However, Prigozhin seems to have latterly shifted to the view—far too late—that Putin needs to go too. What this shows is, I think, that he hasn’t thought this through very carefully. What did he actually want? To overthrow the government and become president? If he wanted that he needed to infiltrate Moscow and carry out a proper “lightning-fast” coup—or did he just want to “protest to the Tsar”, to cause a stink and get Shoigu and Gerasimov fired? It seems he started off with the latter, then realised he’d gone too far and decided to go all in (perhaps realised that since he’s up to his neck in it, he might as well go all in and make a bid for Tsardom).


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It’s probably—probably—too late, because Prigozhin looks like “the bad guy” here, as far as your ordinary Russian is concerned (because that’s all they’re going to hear from the media that legitimises Russian governments). Of course, there’s always chance and outrageous fortune—it could be that Moscow is only defended by young conscripts, 18-21, who have never fired a shot in anger and are terrified to be confronted with “the Wagnerites” (murder-rapists hardened in Africa, with the proverbial piratical dirk between their teeth). It is entirely possible that these kids will fire a few shots and run.


Alternatively, slightly more experienced troops may feel sympathy with Prigozhin—who is a charismatic personality, and who hasn’t been entirely shut up on social media (his perfect medium—he’s a figure like Trump in many ways, more at home with a Telegram audio note than in a TV studio, as with Putin; it’s the global wave of social media populism).


Veteran soldiers may feel that his grievances are legitimate, that the Wagnerites have shouldered the burden in the Ukraine (in the recent bloodbath at Bakhmut)—that to fire on them would be like “gunning down heroes”, that it would be shooting at “the better men” (so they’ll just not do it—and it’s true, the war has been mismanaged, by the pricks we’re defending).


In these cases, much depends on leadership. Is there an officer who leads young conscripts tasked to defend some Moscow boulevard who is prepared to jump on a BMP and say:

Listen, boys, I know you think these Wagnerites are tough, but I know them—I’ve met them—and they’re just murderers and rapists, nothing more. Bullies. They’re like all bullies, show them a little resistance and they run—against Africans, against Ukrainians, yes they’re okay; but we’re Russians, you understand? These are the scum of Russia—and all Russia is against them, you’ve seen it on TV; these are men who knock a granny down for her purse, you understand? This is treason in war from scum, if they win Russia is kaputt; already the West is laughing at us because of this Wagner bullshit—this is going to be nothing, just keep your nerve and keep shooting and it’ll be fine. They’re going back to prison, okay?”


In essence, psychology is key in warfare—who controls perception and who has better morale? Who is perceived to be the leader? Who is perceived to be the hero? At the moment, in accord with 20th-century coups, Prigozhin has done everything wrong—but there are psychological imponderables that are critical, nobody has shut him up yet.


And I’ve seen Russian civilians bringing his soldiers food and water in Rostov—which is the classic image you want for a coup, the people spontaneously on the streets providing your men with food and drink (we speak for the real Russia, for the man on the street—the women shower us with flowers as our tanks fly by). In other words, it shows consent of the governed—not a group of FSB men in suspiciously clean uniforms huddled round a checkpoint (alienated from the people).

Prigozhin is a “character”, rather like Trump—he knows how to use social media against the establishment. He’s half Jewish—he has the showman’s genes, he has the emotional volubility and the “passion for justice” (his videos shot directly next to corpses lying in a field—“Listen, scum in Moscow, this is what happens while your children sip champagne in Dubai!!!”).


I think there’s truth to what Prigozhin says, just like when Trump talks about “immigrant rapists from Mexico”—sure, it’s a broad rhetorical brush but both men capture the basic situation (compromised lawless border, shambolic supply lines overseen by men secretly jockeying to replace Putin and not win the war). The question is whether a “social media coup” can defy the rules laid down by a “classic coup”.

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As for Russia as Russia, this is a catastrophic development—to be divided in war is a critical weakness. Again, it doesn’t matter if this escapade kills a few hundred men as far as the war goes, it’s just a hammer to morale—to the men at the front—that is probably impossible to recover from. How can you keep your mind on the Ukrainians across from you when you’re not really certain *who* is in charge in Moscow, who your leader is? Are we fighting this war or are we fighting each other? What is going on?

Russia’s chances in this war have fluctuated—so long as the Ukraine was backed by the West, Russia had to lose (greater economy = victory in war). Then the Russians reached an agreement with the Chinese, not for full military support (though probably some de facto support)—and that put it back to about even, since Russia and China combined constitute the world’s largest economy; and yet without a firm commitment for military aid it still hung in the balance. This latest development means Ukrainian victory—and the longer it goes on, the better for the Ukraine.


Both Prigozhin and Putin suffer from the same problem: both were “lukewarm”, Dante’s worst sin—Putin, as Prigozhin rightly said, never put Russia on a full war-footing (“building skyscrapers and enjoying Dubai”) and never treated what was a major war as a war (“Special Military Operation”).


However, Prigozhin has made his own “commitment error”—he didn’t really commit to a coup, to a project to become president. He went for an extension of his florid social media outbursts—a protest, a provocation; and then decided he’d make it “a coup after all”. He needed to go all in and do it properly from the first—and I suspect he didn’t because, to look at him, Prigozhin might be an inspired mercenary leader, perhaps a mercenary of genius, but he isn’t a national leader—deep down he doesn’t have that in his heart, doesn’t have that confidence in himself.











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1 Comment


Horizon
Jun 24, 2023

You underestimate the Russians here: This is a feint. It's also at least the third time Prigozhin has played this role, escalating each time (previously, he claimed to be withdrawing in despair from Bakhmut- a week before it was finally subdued by Wagner)


The Russian air force has been running non-stop strikes (some of the largest of the entire war) against Ukraine the entire time this drama has been unfolding. Not exactly what you'd expect during a regime-threatening crisis, no?


At a minimum, this draws out Ukrainian elements within Russia- sabotage groups, terrorist cells, and the like. At best, it opens up all sorts of possibilities- from throwing off the momentum of the Ukrainian ZNPP narrative through to enticing Polan…


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