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The point of no return

Wagner’s abortive rebellion in Russia shows that there can be no business as usual. In order to prepare for an uncertain future, we must now accept some hard facts about the Russian Federation and prepare for its possible collapse.

June 30, 2023 - Valerii Pekar - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Military and military equipment on the streets of the city during the attempted military coup in Russia. June 24th 2023 in Rostov-on-Don. Photo: Andrey Sayfutdinov / Shutterstock

The first question that arises for an observer of recent events in Russia is what exactly was that? Was it a real mutiny or a theatrical performance, a tragedy or a farce? We do not know the truth and we will not know soon because there is too much unknown information and too many hidden actors behind the scenes. Obviously, this is not only about the power struggle in Russia but also about the struggle for de facto colonial possessions in Africa, where “Wagner” has large influence over mining alongside its criminal business holdings in Russia. The rebellion overall was seemingly about Putin’s efforts to curb the private army (which has its own powerful media, an important detail).

But the most important thing is not what is hidden but what everyone saw. And everyone (Russian citizens, elites and external observers) saw the following:

  1. The leader of the authoritarian regime showed himself to be weak and confused. An authoritarian leader may be cruel or unreasonable but he has no right to appear weak. It simply means that he is no longer the leader. For a while, mistakes can be hidden, explained as part of a multi-step game, etc. However, there comes a time when everything becomes obvious. Similar features of archaic power systems are well described in J. Frazer’s classic work The Golden Bough. A dictator behaves like a military sapper: the first big mistake becomes their last.

So it does not matter how much of this story was a true attempt at rebellion, and how much was farce and theatrics.

  1. The Russian state has lost its monopoly on violence. In a system where the law of force prevails, not the rule of law, the loss of the monopoly on violence means the loss of the monopoly on power. In recent events, we have seen not two but three centres of power. The third, Ramzan Kadyrov, remained behind the scenes, but demonstrated his independence. It is important to remember here that the non-state actors have their own protected bases. While Wagner has its network in Africa, Kadyrov has his own in Chechnya, where Russian laws de facto do not apply and he is the sole ruler.

Where the monopoly on power is lost, soon there will be more centres. One of the centres is still the main one, but no longer the only one. But only one should remain, so there is now an unstable balance, like a ball on top of a pyramid.

A popular Ukrainian joke is appropriate here: “In 2021, the Russian army was the second army in the world, in 2022 it was the second army in Ukraine, in 2023 it is the second army in Russia.”

  1. The system of power in Russia practically does not work. On the way to Moscow, Wagner not only did not meet Russian regular troops (it can be assumed that they are all on the Ukrainian front) but also the troops of the FSB, Rosgvardia (national guard and anti-riot forces) and the police, which are supposed to protect the state’s internal territories. Putin himself declared a counter-terrorist operation but could not even manage to establish a headquarters for it. Russian aircraft also struck their own territory to stop the advance of Wagner. Meanwhile, the private military company itself shot down one plane and six helicopters on their way and captured army headquarters.

This means that the population and elites of Russia are no longer safe. Their security is now not the state’s business but their own. Large state-owned corporations long ago created corporate security services that are almost full-fledged armies. Today, no large private businesses, such as banks or retail chains, can do without a private military company because it is necessary to protect their property from bandits. In the same way, governors will create their own units in order to have at least some protection in the face of actual sabotage by law enforcement agencies.

The war came directly to Moscow. Muscovites saw preparations get underway for repelling an assault on the city. Until now, Putin did everything possible so that the capital saw the war only on TV. It was not Muscovites but residents of rural areas, the ethnic republics and remote regions that were drafted into the army. In conditions of economic decline, more was taken from donor regions and less was given to recipient regions. However, Moscow’s well-being was not to suffer. Now the key city, a stronghold of the regime, saw war approaching.

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This phrase has come true in Russia.

  1. This means that the point of no return has been passed in terms of leadership, the monopoly on power, the breakdown of the governance system and violence (although the recent escapade itself was not accompanied by significant violence). This point of no return has long been predicted and described by experts.

The actors may have had some small wins in this story but they are now experiencing one big loss.

  1. Russian elites received a clear signal similar to that on August 19th 1991. Now nothing is guaranteed: security, power, wealth, corruption, rent and life – all this was previously guaranteed by personal loyalty to Putin. However, now this does not guarantee anything and may even become a problem. The best choice now is to wait, sit quietly, and sabotage orders if necessary. Now everyone will think whether it is better to find a way to be safe within their own clan and not with the state.
  1. The fact that the population warmly welcomed Wagner indicates several things. First, there is a great unsatisfied demand for justice in Russia (it was not by chance that Prigozhin called his escapade the “March of Justice”, positioning himself as a counter-elite politician). As always in Russian history, justice in the absence of the rule of law is achieved through violence. Second, Prigozhin positions himself as a Russian chauvinist and this political proposition appeals to millions of Russians in an ethnically diverse country (Kadyrov helps Prigozhin play this role and vice versa). Third, an apathetic and atomised population will swear allegiance to any strong leader, as it already was taught to see the source of legitimacy in power alone.
  1. What will happen next? No one knows. Now some fragile temporary balance will be created. But one can be sure that this is not the end of the story. Two powerful leaders cannot simply part ways. If one of them defeated the other (for example, by threatening his family), then the victor must kill the vanquished, or the vanquished must take revenge. If they agreed a deal, each of them must publicly demonstrate the fruits of their agreement to their supporters, otherwise they will lose face and therefore their lives. So, there will be more to this “movie”.
  1. Obviously, the situation will have an impact on the morale and fighting capacity of the Russian troops on the front. And here it is necessary to draw parallels not with 1991, but with 1917. When the state collapsed, the hungry and deceived army returned home in search of justice, as they understood it.

The duration and nature of further events are unpredictable, and their speed could be slow or quite fast. On August 19th 1991, no one could have predicted that Ukraine would declare independence in just five days.

When the guarantees of security, stability and order are suddenly lost, the population and elites will begin to look for and create “islands” of security, stability and order. This means that we will see many attempts to create such islands on an ethnic, regional or corporate basis.

The possible scenarios for the development of events in the Russian Federation are described in detail in this article. Please pay attention to the second section called “Scenarios of turmoil”. The collapse of Russia will occur as a result of the clash of power clans, the destruction of the army and a new parade of sovereignties.

  1. The West fears the collapse of Russia more than anything. This could bring about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, a large-scale refugee crisis, and the excessive strengthening of China at the expense of Russian resources. But it must be said frankly that the current situation is a consequence of the strategic blindness of the West, which is focused on the concept of Moscow-centrism and does not see the situation across the entirety of this huge, diverse country. This was already the case in 1991 events famous due to US President Bush’s “Chicken Kyiv Speech”. It is ridiculous now for the West to support Putin in order to save Russia from disintegration and collapse. It is ridiculous to bet on democracy in Russia because there are no democrats there.

The dichotomy between autocratic militarism and irreversible collapse is the false consequence of Moscow-centrism. The third scenario, which experts have been talking about for a long time, is the controlled reconstruction of the Russian Federation, primarily its decolonisation. This scenario, detailed in this article, prevents all the aforementioned key risks.

Today, as in 1991, the West is lagging behind events, and it is necessary to quickly catch up.

The solution is to create an exit strategy for the regional elites of the Russian Federation, who should be able to ensure security, order and legitimacy in their own territories in the absence or excessive weakness of the central government. This should happen alongside international control over civilian and military nuclear facilities, again with the support of regional elites.

There is still time to prepare.

Valerii Pekar is the co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, and a former member of the National Reform Council.

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