TAG Virtual Conference, June 29th, 2023
“Russia is Russia”
What are the implications of Prighozin’s demarche of June 23rd and 24th for Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine and for Russia itself? The necessarily speculative debate focussed on the significance of what TAGGERS agreed was a failed insurrection against Moscow by Yevgeny Prighozin and The Wagner Group (TWG). The insurrection appears to have had the tacit (and perhaps not so tacit) support of certain members of the Russian Army’s chain of command, particularly those who served alongside TWG in Syria, possibly even General Sergei Surovikin.
The insurrection appears to have been triggered by the demand that all TWG personnel sign a contract by July 1st placing them under the command of the Russian defence ministry. This threatened to destroy TWG as a separate entity and thus destroy Prighozin’s ability to continue his protracted power struggle with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov. Prighozin also seems to have also become frustrated with Putin’s preference for loyalty over competence and has brought into sharp focus tensions between the deployed army and both Russia’s political and military leadership.
Putin will likely attribute the insurrection to a Western plot. Putin could now seek to escalate the conflict with Ukraine to the wider collective West by rattling his WMD sabres, most notably nuclear capabilities and purging elements within the Russian intelligence and military establishments. Escalation across the space, cyber and information domains should also not be ruled out.
Should Western powers seek to exploit Russia’s fragility and risk bringing into power the likes of Nikolai Patrushev and fellow ultra-anti-Western ultra-nationalists, or should the West reinforce its support for Ukraine so that Kyiv can make a decisive breakthrough on the battlefield? The future of Russia remains in Russian hands with the West’s ability to shape events in Moscow limited. Events on the battlefield will more likely shape tensions in Moscow of which Prigozhin’s failed insurrection is testament. At the very least, the West needs to reboot its intelligence-based expertise on Russia so that speculation can at least be informed.
Putin is now an emperor with few clothes, and it is now likely a question of time before those plotting around him move against him. The West must be ready for that. The side-lining of Prighozin and a much-reduced TWG might have bought Putin some time but unless he can prove that Russia’s armed forces can do far better on the battlefield the pressures upon him and his regime from Moscow’s many power-brokers and power-breakers is only likely to increase.
What should West do now? At the July 11th NATO Vilnius Summit, the Alliance must reinforce the “Madrid Agenda”, strengthen Forward Defence, and accelerate dynamic support for Ukraine and the dynamic alignment of Ukraine with the Alliance, including a path to accelerated membership. What the West should not do is appease Putin. There is a growing movement in Western Europe in support of so-called ‘defensive defence’. This is disarmament by another name from those who mistakenly believe that if the West is seen to pose no threat to Russia, Russia will pose threat to Europe. Russia is Russia and will always pose a threat to some Europeans so long as the likes of Putin and the Siloviki are in power. A weakened Russia is not the moment to abandon the West’s force modernisation, but rather to accelerate it.