Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair
A failed coup in Russia is dominating the news. Led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman, who founded a paramilitary organization called the Wagner Group, the rebellion failed, but his soldiers were not defeated. They simply stood down and stopped marching toward Moscow to ‘avoid bloodshed’. For his part in the uprising, Prigozhin was exiled to Belarus by the Kremlin. He has yet to turn up there and speculation is he has never left Russia. Prigozhin is a long-time ally of Vladimir Putin(his caterer), but recently has been critical of Russia military leaders, accusing them of incompetence after several of his Wagner mercenaries were killed in the war against Ukraine. Three observations:
First, be careful what you wish for. While Putin is far from reasonable, he is the devil you know. Who comes to power after Putin could be- and probably will be- far more radical. Many believe, including some in Russia, the Wagner Group has been used by Russia for ‘plausible deniability’ to obscure the true casualties and costs of Russian foreign wars. Millions of rubles have made their way into Prigozhin’s pockets with Putin’s blessing, but just who is Wagner?
The Wagner Group has 50,000 soldiers, many of which are former convicts. Think Dirty Dozen times 4,000! Think Blackstone, but with no ethics/values. The group derives their name from Richard Wagner, a German said to be Hitler’s favorite composer. Many in the group espouse Neo-Nazi ideology and foreign analysist believe Wagner is more dangerous and radical than the Kremlin. Wagner used Russia military bases, is transported by Russian military aircraft and uses Russian health care services, so they clearly had the support of Russian leadership. Wagner is very popular with the Russian public. The group is patriotic to the motherland and Prigozhin is treated like a rock star by the Russian public. The danger is the distinct possibility a radical, who wouldn’t hesitate to hit the nuke button, comes to power in Russia.
Second, isolation/insulation is hard to accomplish in today’s world. Technology has made the world smaller. The Internet has made it possible for people across the world to interact with each other in real time. The web has given people access to news (fake and real), information, and resources they didn’t have access to before. Russia has attempted to keep their citizens isolated and shielded, but 86% have access to the web. In America, it is 93%- China 75%. Prigozhin, who posts numerous times a day on social media, used technology in his coup attempt. Access to information makes despotism difficult. Russia and China citizens have observed how other governments work and gotten a taste of liberty. It’s next to impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.
Third, expect Russia to be a major topic in the 2024 election. If Putin is overthrown, President Biden will take credit- and so will former President Trump. If Prigozhin comes to power and Russia becomes a radical state, inculpation by both will transpire. If Ukraine wins the war, both will take credit for the victory. No matter what takes place, the American public has not heard the end of Russia.
Relations between America and Russia has not been good for over a century. Some say it is because the U.S. won the Cold War. A 2018 poll found that 85% of Russians had a negative opinion of America. Bois Kagarlitsky, a Russian intellectual, says this bitterness by Russians is ironic. “We want to be like America. We are angry that America is allowed to invade minor nations and we are not,” Kararlitsky says. The key issue is motive. The United States’ stated purpose for war is to defend or to liberate- Russia invaded Ukraine to conquer. Therein lies the contrast.