They almost reached Moscow, but did not storm the city. Almost no one knows what was behind their action. It could be a coordinated attempt to reveal potential domestic traitors, deceive Ukrainians, and test the Western reaction.
By Pekka Virkki , a Helsinki-based journalist and author specializing in the Baltic Sea region and security.
It may have been a well-planned rebellion lead by a modern warlord, likely supported by several Kremlin insiders.
It could be anything between and beyond these.
What seems to be certain is, however, that Putin’s vertical of power no longer exists – at least not in the form it used to exist or we thought it did.
Even in the case that ”it was all show” – not very likely option based on the current information – organizing such a show is a desperate act.
Does the President really have to openly humiliate himself to reveal potential challengers? In a macho culture like Russia, showing weakness is rarely rewarded.
Much more likely than a completely staged operation is a complicated, Byzantine intrigue with overlapping and contradictory interests. What we saw during the recent days is likely a combination of planned action and improvisation.
Why did not the Russian military stop
the Wagner mercenaries before reaching the gates of Moscow?
Maybe some commanders and high officers had sympathy toward their goals. Some of them wanted to see the next moves of both – rather, all – parties. Some wished to gather intelligence. Maybe there were technological problems. Someone could have been drunk or otherwise intoxicated.
Why did Lukashenka mediate a deal between the parties – if he really did?
Maybe there was no one else to do that. Prigozhin could have wanted to humiliate Putin, known to personally hate his Belarusian counterpart.
Maybe Lukashenka himself managed to remind both parties – as they are staunch supporters of the Russian imperial idea – that even a short chaos in Moscow would likely lead to a democratic, pro- European policy change in Minsk.
After all, the conflict between Putin and Prigozhin was about how to best suppress and kill neighbouring states and their people – not about whether is should be done.
The following weeks and months will probably reveal more about the background of the events. Meanwhile, the West – especially we in the border states – should prepare us to every scenario. Russia may fall.
We may see new separatist movements, even states. However, let’s look beyond Russia.
The future of Wagner can have an unexpectedly high impact on the geopolitical and geoeconomic balance in the world.
What happens to the Maduro regime in Venezuela? Currently, its huge oil reserves fund an authoritarian clan allied with Russia and China – with significant support of the Wagner group. Venezuela, on the other hand, is strongly interlinked with the socialist government of Cuba.
The same is true in many African countries. In the big picture, Russia is certainly allied – or aligned – with authoritarian China and Iran.
However, they are also competitors within their anti-Western geopolitical framework. If the grip of Wagner significantly weakens in Africa and the Middle East, both Tehran and Beijing may very well want to inherit its natural resources and political influence.
In this case, the Kremlin and Russia as a state is weakened, no matter what. There are no good options for Putin and there are only barely acceptable options for Prigozhin.
Mercenaries or Maniacs
– What Drives the Wagnerites?
History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
Sometimes an old cliché is worth of thousand new ones.
We have seen this before.
A large part of the Russian nation feels deceived and demoralized.
To cope with their own system, they develop stories about the Great Russian Soul, extreme spirituality, mythical and messianic task in the world.
As their government is unable or unwilling to implement Western myths – such as the rule of law, constitutional principles, or human rights – in a consistent manner to improve the standard of living of ”an ordinary Russian”, there must be something wrong in these principles… And even if ”they are nice in principle”, they cannot function in Russia.
The Russian world view is largely
constructed around power and violence
There are warlords and governments, the latter being essentially the most influential private army.
”An honest thief” is a regular character in Russian literature; the one challenging the robbery barons and simulataneously offering a possibility for some of the most able and brave subjects to improve their social, economic, and political position.
In 2023, the role of the honest thief is reserved to Prigozhin, who even glorified prisoner recruits as good people in whose life bad things have happened – contrasting them to the imperial elites, enjoying the earthly pleasures in their palaces and dachas.
To understand the ideology of the Wagner group, we do not have to go very far.
While nothing is certain in Russia, Wagner allegedly received its name from a former liutenant- colonel of the Russian military intelligence (then called GRU, nowadays GU) Dmitry Utkin. It has been told Wagner was a call sign of this admirer of the Third Reich, referring to Hitler’s favourite composer.
The National Socialist leader loved the musical and dramatic expression of the former revolutionary radical and leftist intellectual, whose philosophy of theatre relied on problematization of the tense relationship between law and justice, modern institutions and nature.
From this perspective, Wagner comes close to a Russian icon, Leo Tolstoy, who was simultaneously a political radical considered dangerous by the Tsar, but also a deeply religious person emphasizing ”internal growth” of a human being. Tolstoy’s ”Deep Russian Soul” despised Wagner and his music for sticking into conventions and tradition – true radicalim does not respect forms.
Wagner was a mediator of modernization, while Tolstoy did not recognize any value of the authorities he resisted – not the Orthodox Church, legal institutions, nor the Tsar himself. A child of a middle class family grown up in the German Rechtsstaat did not see the world in the same way as a Russian landlord experiencing – real or acted – regrets due to the past sexual abuse of his subjects.
While Tolstoy chose not to actively resist those he saw as oppressors, Wagner saw the world as a dynamic place in which the most skillful and ethical – as understood by him – would ultimately prevail.
Hitler willingly ignored the moderate elements of Wagner’s philosophy – and today, Prigozhin’s troops are doing exactly the same. Like in the case of Tolstoy, their world view is based on rejection of all social conventions and pure reliance on force – they are just on the other side of the aisle, challenging the current ”rotten elite”.
Throughout the history, Russians have mastered adapting Western – especially German – ideas and modifying those to serve their imagined ”national interest”.
Peter ”the Great” brought Western technology and some of its conventions to Russia, but built the new capital – of course named after him – on the bones of Swedish, Finnish, and Russian slaves. The Soviet Union was found on Marxist ideology despite most regions of the Communist empire were far from an industrialized community.
Modern Russian neo-fascist ideology – which is significant for Putin, not to even mention extreme nationalists – is largely copied from the German war propaganda during the Franco-Prussian war. The difference between Bismarck and Putin advocating their civilizational theories and national specificity is that Germany really had an organized, militarily capable society with a strong economy – something a ”German in the Kremlin”, as Putin is sometimes called, could only dream of.
June 2023 revealed that Putin’s ability to mediate the internal conflicts within the Russian elite and society in general has significantly reduced. The relative stability he has provided is gone.
During the 2000s, Russians could enjoy some elements of the German-style Rechtsstaat – predictability which allowed them to build their lives should they avoid sensitive political issues. It was not an Anglo-Saxon rule of law, relying on constitutional freedom as a divine right, but a practical organization of society – still, it was more Western than ever in the Russian history.
Whether we will see an authoritarian, fascist-like rule or internal fight between clans remains to be seen.
However, Wagner is not an ”ordinary mercenary group just fighting for money”.
In Russia, there is no money without politics – and in the end, physical force. For Wagnerites, money is a Western concept, simply a tool of corruption and manipulation, not one of organized exchange of goods and services.
The ”Wagnerian rebellion” cannot be distinguished from its ideological background.
It was the Honest Thief, a Russian epic figure, who received the applause and shouts of support in when they left the Rostov-on-Don – not Prigozhin as a person. He was an archetype of a Hitler-style figure, bringing some order in the middle of poverty, frustration, and the looming chaos.
Western Action Plan on Russia
On August 19-22, 1991 a junta consisting of military and civilian officials attempted a coup in the Soviet Union. Although Mikhail Gorbachev managed to return back to Moscow form his dacha in the Crimea, his power was already gone.
Have we already reached a similar point in the Russian transformation? It may become clear to us during the following months.
In general, the Western response to the Soviet collapse was mixed.
On the other hand, few dared to claim the fall of the communist empire is a bad thing. Nations and citizens had the right to determine their own destinies.
At the same time, the fear of chaos – even nuclear escalation – loomed behind the corner. It is unclear how real such threat really was, but it had a moderating impact on Western decision- makers.
At the same time, Gorbachev and the KGB’s propaganda machine tried to demonize national liberation movements, presenting them as right-wing extremists. When possible, they also provoked far-right ideology, ethnic conflicts, and aggressive jihadism while suppressing secular, pro-Western, democratic actors.
Just before the August coup attempt of 1991, the US president George H. W. Bush gave a speech in Kyiv. He reminded the audience that freedom and independence are two different things and no authoritarian nationalism should overtake sustainable development toward a more pluralistic society.
Ukrainian nationalists and hard-line Republicans protested – Gorbachev probably did not.
Bush’s speech, in principle, was not that bad. However, the context of presentation sent a wrong signal to the Soviet-ruled nations: we prefer supporting Gorbachev over your interests. This may not have been the actual US policy, but the danger of misinterpretation was real.
More than anything, the events after 2014 have shown that instead of an obstacle, Ukrainian independence is a precondition of liberal democratic Ukraine.
We cannot prove how a counterfactual history would have played out, but one thing is certain: not a single ”federation subject” of Russia is liberal, neither democratic.
Some of the former Soviet republics have remained as dictatorships or hybrid regimes, but this is the case rather due to high concentration of the former nomenklatura within their elites, not because of national independence.
Today, the Baltic states are stable democracies, clearly beating many of the former Western bloc states in international comparisons. It is clear their history as independent, Western-oriented European countries helped to achieve this, but it is as clear that no glorious history can replace the will of the citizens and favourable political or geographical conditions.
In Chechnya, there was will, but not favourable conditions.
Former Soviet Air Force Major General Dzokhar Dudayev, who developed his liberal nationalist ideology in Tartu, Estonia, was assassinated by the Russians on April 21, 1996. The event marked a beginning of the end of independent and secular Chechnya – soon, Kadyrovites and jihadists would step in.
The cruelty of Russian ”detention centers” was already visible in Chechnya, but not too many were willing to see it. This was partly caused by a simple fact: Chechens did not have their own Soviet republic, only autonomous subjects under the Russian central government.
While it was clear the occupied Baltic states could get their independence and Ukraine, located nearby Central Europe, would not be legally prevented from getting rid of the USSR, Chechnyans and many other small nations were seen as ”legitimate” targets of Russian imperialism. The solution was based on borders drawn by the colonial masters.
Did ”not provoking Russia” and ”respecting her independence” – i.e. allowing the cruel slaughter of Chechens – make Russia more democratic? No. But it left many Chechens dead and made sure liberal democracy could not emerge even in Chechnya.
The Soviet collapse can provide many
lessons for the upcoming months and years.
First, knowing the Russian empire – and an empire, although a declining one it is – must be distinguished from knowing ”the Russian culture” and its centers. It is as important to know what are the attitudes around the peripheral parts of the federation as it is to have a good grasp on the development in Moscow.
Western officials, intelligence services, and decision-makers should initially start to gather information and draft plans of action to be implemented in different scenarios.
Second, territorial changes – should they emerge – are a natural part of the decolonization of the Russian empire. Russia is not a nation state, neither a liberal state in a Western sense. It is an undemocratic imperial structure and nations it holds as hostages have legitimate reasons to reach international recognition for their independence.
In addition, should a ”clan war” between PMCs, non-state actors, and interest groups emerge, territorial changes may be a stabilizing factor, not a driver of destablization as often feared.
Third, the message of the Bush’s speech in 1991 was right – strictly in principle. We should not prefer an authoritarian nation state over a democratic federation. However, we should prefer an independent nation state over an imperialist structure even in the cases when neither one is democratic. This is because a smaller, cohesive political communities generally have better chances to positive development than completely artificial administrative territories. Just look at Africa.
Fourth, we should understand territorial changes may actually happen. In authoritarian countries, suppressed attitudes and hidden memories may be revealed really fast in the times of crisis. We should not forget the high-level decisions actually have an impact on the lives of millions and not treat these people as abstractions of international law.
Fifth, we should not stick to one, predetermined model. The background of the conflicts in Eastern Moldova, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Chechnya – or potentially, Tatarstan and many more – is different. We should act according to our values, but respecting the locals. When needed, use of military force may be better than the alternative solutions.
Sixth, we must reach a well-considered balance between the short-, mid-, and long-term goals. We should not sacrifice institutional reforms to support initial economic growth. We should not forget denuclearization and decolonization of Russia in order to ”avoid provocations”. We must remember that even during the political chaos, there are people in need of nourishment, health care, and protection. We must impose clear sanctions for undesirable development – especially illegal aggression or genocidal activities – and refuse to deal with regimes committing such actions.
Seventh, we should carry out a global investigation on the influence and clandestine activity of the Russian intelligence services – a ”Red Nuremberg process”. Some countries, like Finland, are already initiating their domestic investigations. However, the Soviet totalitarianism and its heirs should be globally condemned and the archives opened. This is especially important in the states leaving the Russian sphere of influence.
Eighth, if Prigozhin or a similar figure is able to consolidate his power in Russia or parts of it, we should realistically deal with such regime, but avoid rushing to legitimize it. The rise of Lenin offered many nations an opportunity to break free from the empire. This, in turn, protected the whole Europe from communist expansion and potentially saved the Western part of the continent from Stalin’s conquest. Before the World War II, it was the deterrence against totalitarian regimes that failed – not ”unnatural border states unfit for independence”, as some – luckily rare – commentators would say.
About the author
Pekka Virkki is a Helsinki-based journalist and author specializing in the Baltic Sea region and security. In March 2023, his bestselling book Jälkisuomettumisen ruumiinavaus (Docendo) – Autopsy of Post-Finlandization – caused a widespread national debate on the Kremlin influence in Finland. Virkki holds an MA in Social Sciences (International Relations and Regional Studies, University of Tartu) and is finalizing an MSSc (European and Nordic Studies) at the University of Helsinki.