Saturday was quite a news day. It briefly felt like a throwback to 1991, the year that Soviet hardliners staged a failed coup to oust Mikhail Gorbachev. There were some comedic aspects to that event, but the media knew what to call it. It was clearly a coup. I’ve seen what happened this weekend called a coup, revolt, mutiny, and rebellion. I like the word mutiny but that feels naval to me, so I landed on rebellion. Make that failed rebellion.
The fog of rebellion was thick all weekend after Wagner group honcho Yevgeny Prigozhin vowed to march on Moscow but ended up in Belarus instead. It was a bizarre compromise that was allegedly negotiated by the Belarusian president who is a creature of Putin’s.
Prigozhin used to be Putin’s creature as well. He was known for many years as Putin’s Chef, not to be confused with either Master Chef or Top Chef. If Gordon Ramsay or Tom Colicchio had organized the revolt, it might have succeeded. They both know how to clean up a mess. There’s borscht all over the walls of Putin’s metaphorical kitchen right now. Splat.
There was also a discussion on social media as to the pronunciation of Wagner. There was even a New Orleans twist because of this:
You say beats, I say beets. Let’s call the whole thing off.
Wagner’s Meats is pronounced with a soft W whereas the mercenary force is pronounced vith a V-sound like the name of the proto-Nazi composer. I know that because I saw Christiane Amanpour say it thusly. I switched on CNN because it was an international crisis, which is their jam or used to be before they became rattled by Trump. Ted Turner weeps.
Unlike many other armchair analysts and amateur historians, I make no claim to be an expert on the doings in Russia. As a child of the Cold War, I’ve long taken an interest in Russian history and whatever you call the Wagner incident, it’s bad news for Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin.
I was not among those pulling for Putin’s former chef. He’s a hardcore Russian nationalist who is to the right of Putin. There’s not much space to Putin’s right but that’s where one finds the Wagner honcho. He can also be found in Belarus, which, to be blunt, is a shithole country. Nobody retires to Belarus. It would be like an American retiring to McKay, Texas, which is a shithole town off Interstate-10 between San Antonio and El Paso.
Before the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Putin was considered a strong Tsar like Alexander III. Putin is looking more like Alexander’s weakling son Nicholas II after this rebellion, revolt, coup, mutiny or whatever the hell you want to call it. Alexander III would have had Prigozhin’s head on a pike by now.
I don’t expect the compromise to hold. If Putin wants to stay in power, his minions have to whack Prigozhin. Putin is part Tsar, part mob boss. If he doesn’t suppress this challenge more ruthlessly, he’s doomed.
My reading of Russian history has taught me two lessons important enough to merit bullet points:
- The Russian military is always huge, so it’s always overrated.
- Russian rulers don’t fare well after losing wars. See, 1905, 1917, and 1991.
Events in Russia are typically opaque and distorted by the fog of lies that emits from the Kremlin. Was the Wagner rebellion a botched coup or a shakedown by an oligarch in over his head as a war lord? Beats the hell outta me but one thing I know for sure: only failed states have war lords. Putin’s Russia increasingly looks like a failed state.
Speculation about what really happened and why is running rampant. I’m relying on two writers at the Atlantic to keep my bearings: Anne Applebaum and my countryman, Tom Nichols. Neither is 100% sure but any speculation on their part is informed. Most of the other theories I’ve seen are pure pantomime.
As I pondered what really happened this weekend in Russia, I thought of the pantomime horses, which were a running gag on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In the featured image, John Cleese, is giving the pantomime horses a dressing down for dressing up in silly costumes. Putin hasn’t even done this with his former chef. He made Prigozhin and he can break him. Putin’s half-measures are a confusing sign of weakness or is that veekness?
Call it a coup, revolt, mutiny, or rebellion, it’s bad news for Vladimir Putin. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Stay tuned.
The last word goes to Show of Hands with a traditional tune that fits the moment like a glove: