Chartbook 224 The Wagner uprising and the centrifugal force of war.

What happened this time last week in Russia? 

As Robert Armstrong observed it went by so fast that markets hardly had time to react. One could infer that Russia doesn’t matter that much. As Armstrong argued that would be a mistake. In fact it may very well be of decisive importance to a number of key facets of the world economy, notably energy markets. The problem is that like other crucial factors in the global scene right now – most notably the logic driving Chinese policy – it is devilishly hard to get good information about what is going on and to decide its significance. What it does clearly illustrate, however, is the centrifugal dynamic of war. 

On Ones and Tooze this week, Cameron Abadi and I discussed some of the questions that arise from the incident. 

  • What kind of organization was Wagner? 
  • Is Putin weaker now than he was prior to the mutiny? 
  • How far are economic factors decisive in political history, or is it ultimately men with guns who call the shots? 
  • And has Putin overcommitted his military to Ukraine? How many soldiers is it normal for states to have? 

You can listen and read more here.

One piece that really set me off was a an op ed by Tony Barber in the FT. He evoked what is supposedly a 

long tradition of unofficial, semi-official or secretly state-backed warriors who fight for Russia — a tradition that extends from the tsarist empire’s 19th-century volunteers to the Wagner group of Vladimir Putin’s presidency.

To make the point Barber invokes the character of Count Alexei Vronsky from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina who set off to join thousands of Russian volunteers fighting in the Balkans for the liberation of fellow Slavs from Ottoman rule.

To me that seems about as illuminating as saying that the British mercenaries operating in the Gulf, or the Congo or West Africa in recent decades are descendants of a tradition that goes back to the Greek wars of liberation in the 1820s.

In fact, Russia’s laws are comparatively strict when it comes to truly free lance, private mercenary activity. That didn’t stop military entrepreneurialism of many kinds after the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to one report: “by 1998 an official Russian government estimate placed the total number of private security companies operating in Russia at around 5,000.” High-profile private operations overseas, however, were by no means encouraged. The survivors of one precursor organization to Wagner were arrested on their arrival back in Russia after their first and highly unsuccessful sally into Syria. 

It took a rethink on Putin’s part, between 2009 and 2012 to lead to the state backing of Wagner. As András Rácz pointed out in a CSIS blog:

As pointed out by Anna Borshchevskaya, in 2009 several special operations units of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) were subordinated directly to Chief of Staff Nikolay Makarov. Though there is no direct evidence, these units were probably intended to become the personnel source for private military companies to be set up in the future. A year later, Makarov publicly spoke about the need to use private military companies “for delicate missions abroad.” The logic prevailed: in April 2012, when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was asked in the Russian Duma about whether he supported the idea of creating a network of Russian private military companies, he replied positively and emphasized that PMCs could be tools of influence abroad, allowing the realization of national interests without the direct involvement of the state. As examples, he noted that such companies could provide protection of important facilities, as well as training for foreign military personnel abroad. Plausible deniability played a key role in Russia’s considerations about setting up private military companies, based also on the rich historical experiences Moscow has.

Wagner was never a PMC like Blackwater. It was always a proxy force, a deniable military arm of the Russian state. The obvious historical analogue, therefore, is less romantic military adventurers in the 19th century, than the kind of front companies used by the CIA in various settings. The main difference seems to be that whereas the CIA used front companies above all for air transport, Wagner developed into something like a miniature combined arms force. Its main base in Russia, its long-range logistics and tricky matters like passports were all provided by the GRU. 

As to the question of the state and the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, Wagner was obviously in a grey zone. On the one hand it was deniable. On the other hand it was an open-secret that it was endorsed and backed by Putin himself, which gave it a status in a sense higher than the regular military. It was an exception defined by the sovereign and defining his sovereignty. 

The serious problem this kind of organization creates is less the question of legitimacy than the rivalry between different militaries, especially when the going gets rough and it is not victory, but the responsibility for defeat that has to be apportioned. 

This is not unusual in war. All armed forces are complex. This gives rise to rivalry and political arguments – with both a small and a capital “p”. In the American Civil War, for instance, different units of the Union army had more or less radical positions on abolition. In World War 2, Army Group Center on the Eastern Front harbored many of those involved in the bomb plot of 20 July 1944. The tensions are likely to be particularly acute when military forces are made up of units recruited through different politicized channels, as on the Republican side during the Spanish civil war. 

Tensions between Wagner and the regular Russian military flared already in Syria. In the disastrous war in Ukraine it was hardly surprising that they would reach a new pitch. The bushfire of indignant nationalist military bloggers on Telegram are a welcome extension of Kremlin propaganda, but a risk for the regular military leadership. This Al-Jazeera segment on the military bloggers was excellent. 

When Prigozhin’s attacks on the top brass became too outrageous and Wagner was ordered to be incorporated into the Russian military command chain, it was hardly surprising that this triggered opposition. It is surprising only that it was allowed to flare into an armed rebellion. It was not a rebellion against the war, or even truly against Putin, but an internal military on military struggle, which has been resolved in favor of the regular military command chain.

Bruno Macaes concludes with characteristic insight but also overstatement that what the Putsch shows us is that the Russian state is hollow. It certainly demonstrates that Putin is losing his grip in balancing the different factions and showed little actual ruthlessness in dealing with the rebellion. We surely expected to see Prigozhin subjected to savage reprisals. If he eventually falls victim to an assassin it will hardly be surprising, but nor will it do much to restore Putin’s authority. 

Rather than cause for celebration, as Alexander Clarkson remarks, if this is a sign of things to come, it should surely be reason for concern. 

In a system that has become reliant on an individual leader to act as arbiter between rival factions, the ability of a force made up of a few thousand troops to threaten the capital demonstrates the chaos that could unfold once Putin is gone. Putin’s unwillingness to select a potential successor who could become an alternative center of authority means that the risk of disputes over the succession process once he does eventually—and inevitably—leave office are inherent to the power structure he had put in place. With the severe pressure that a disastrous war against Ukraine has put on Russian society and the proliferation of parastatal armed units—of which Wagner and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s Akhmat units are only the most prominent examples—the likelihood has risen sharply that such a succession dispute could escalate into a neo-feudal civil war that fractures the state.

We must also ask, surely, what the implications of this shock are for our wider thinking about the war and its future course. 

Of course, Putin’s Russia has a distinctive political structure. But Ukraine’s military effort too has its roots back in 2013 and 2014 in formations recruited under different flags and with very different politics. They have been welded together highly effectively by Kyiv. Success and the patriotic rally has done the rest. But will that unity hold if the Ukrainian offensive continues without major success, if supplies of equipment run critically short, or when it comes to negotiating peace? 

Tony Barber in his piece about the Wagner rebellion refers to the ominous example of the Freikorps in Weimar Germany. He cites them as an example of the breakdown of state power. But they were also a political force. They were the spawning ground of Nazism and they were organized above all around opposition to the decision by the democratic forces in Germany to negotiate a peace and to try and fulfill the terms of the Versailles peace treaty. They killed not only the revolutionary communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, but also thousands of other leftists and two of the most prominent civilian politicians involved in negotiating the peace, Walther Rathenau and Matthias Erzberger. 

Nor was this logic of disintegration in the face of peace confined to Germany. Think of the civil war in Ireland that followed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The IRA was able to resist the compromise peace with armed force, because it had grown out of an armed underground resistance with an independent system of financing and arming itself. In the moment that he put his signature on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Michael Collins knew that he was a man marked for death.

Modern wars generate massive and violent centrifugal forces. We should not be surprised if this is just the beginning. 


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