The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Putin

Prigozhin Launches A Coup Effort (And It’s Over)

Update 3: It’s over. Prigozhin has turned around. He only had one slim chance once he didn’t get defections from them military.

Putin, if he has any sense, needs to get this clown back into prison and disband Wagner or at the very least stop the convincts to mercs pipeline. However it looks like the deal may be that Shoigu gets canned and Prigozhin doesn’t go to prison, in which case Putin has made a significant mistake. (At least if he keeps the deal.)


Well, it’s on. This is why you don’t use mercenaries, let alone mercenaries who are convicts, or trust scum like Prigozhin.

Remember that Prigozhin is to the right of Putin, which is where the threat was always going to come from.

The issue here is just how much of the Russian army will side with Putin. If it’s anything substantial, he wins. If not,  he’s done unless he can occupy the Kremlin. This is why Prigozhin emphasized not enough weapons, etc… it was a stab in the back narrative: “Putin won’t let us win the war.”

Putin played around with the war, unwilling to go all in and used Wagner as a prison to frontlines pipeline. That was a mistake.

We’ll see if it’s a fatal one. This is entirely a matter of morale—what the military will do.

If Putin wins, he will be stronger than before the coup, just as Erdogan was, because he will be able to use it to purge opponents.

Update: I’m not seeing reports of mass desertions to Prigozhin. If’ that’s the case, his odds are slim.

Prigozhin is rushing for Moscow. He needs to occupy the Kremlin and declare victory. If he doesn’t, he’s probably finished in a day or two.

My money is on Putin.

Update 2: Still not seeing any signs of significant defections from the military and the regional governors and generals are siding with Putin.

Prigozhin needs to rush to Moscow and declare victory. If he does, he might win. If not, he’s toast.

Putin’s question is if he has a loyal force in the military that will fire who aren’t on the frontline facing Ukraine. The military is not going against him, but will they defend him? And, as is his modus operandi, I suspect he’s being too cautious about the use of force.

Wagner Mercenary Company Chief Prigozhin Has Gone Over The Line

So, Prigozhin captured a Russian Colonel (after what appears to be a real firefight), and interrogated him and made him “admit” that Russia troops had fired on Wagner mercenaries.

He has also accused the Ministry of Defense (MoD) of not supplying enough ammunition and of setting explosives along the route that Wagner used to leave Bakhmut, among other things. What Prigozhin is saying, repeatedly, is “the bureaucrats are stabbing us in the back, that’s why the war isn’t going well.”

Soto Voce, of course, this is an attack on Putin, whom the hard right blames for not going full war economy, not retaliating against the West’s supply of Ukraine and keeping the gloves on (which he has, if he hadn’t, there wouldn’t be power on anywhere in Ukraine.)

Almost anyone but Prigozhin saying such things would have been in prison now, and I think Putin is making a mistake if he doesn’t make an example of Prigozhin: the kidnapping of a Colonel was over the line. Since Wagner has withdrawn from combat anyway (just in time to avoid the counter-attack, so that if Ukraine has a good counter-attack they can say “we took it, the MoD lost it), well, it’s time.

Wagner was useful because it was a prison-to-frontline piprline. It took heavy casualties of people whose deaths don’t matter to Russia. Prisoners are also ideal in that a normal person is often taken from a job. A prisoner was just an expense: if he gets dead, almost no one cares.

This is, of course, the truth behind Putin’s war: he keeps trying to fight it on the cheap: the right isn’t wrong about that. He doesn’t want to go “all-in”. Money isn’t expensive to Putin, it’s cheap. Actually doing another mobilization or moving to a war economy or putting in extended curfews to help avoid Ukrainian attacks, those are expensive, because at the end of the day, Putin does require popular support to stay in power.

Putin is popular, he has always been popular and he wants to stay popular.

But there are also attacks which can’t be allowed. When you rule, in part, by fear, as Putin does, you cannot allow someone to get away with really challenging you. That’s what Prigozhin is doing, and Putin needs to put him down and probably dismantle Wagner.

Mercenaries are always a bad idea anyway, for a variety of reasons. Putin may not need full mobilization, but he needs more than he’s done, and he should calculate the costs of a slow drag war vs. mobilizing and getting the war done by making real gains that force the Ukrainians to the table.

But leave Prigozhin to keep spewing his attacks and Putin will be seen as weak, and once seen as weak, some dog pack or another will tear him down.

(Oh, and if I were in the Russian army officer corp, I’d kidnap Prigozhin and “interrogate” him.)

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The Bottom Line On Ukraine As An Example Of Decision Analysis

I could write a lot of words on this, but let’s keep it simple.

First: Russia keeps taking land.

Second: Putin has far more reserves he can commit than Ukraine does.

Third: this means that the decision about whether to win or lose is Putin’s.

Which do you think he’ll choose.

Oh, there’s considerations around acceptable costs and a possible guerilla war later, but this it the essence of the invasion.

This is a fairly basic but important style of analysis. Ask yourself:

1) Who makes the decision?

2) Do they have sufficient resources and power to enforce their decision?

3) What do they think the right thing to do is? (This isn’t always about self interest, though it often is.)

4) What decision are they likely to make?

You can add bits to this, like “does anyone have a veto?” but this is the essence of it.

This is why I have said for years that nothing would be done about climate change till too late, because the people who have the power to make the decision don’t think it affects them, and do think that the status quo is good for them, so they aren’t going to do anything.

Most reasonably reliable analysis comes down to simple heuristics like this one. Complicated heuristics for social decision making rarely work.


Russia as an Enemy of the United States

I believe that most of the concerns about Russia are overblown. (See this for the argument.) In fact, I put it into the public hysterics category.

But to the extent that Russia is opposed to the US, and it is, I put most of the blame on the US. Russia desperately wanted to be part of the West, and for many years bent over backwards trying to be. (In this case, it is quite similar to secular Turkey, whose aspirations to EU membership were repeatedly crushed, leading to the rise of Erdogan’s Islamism.)

I want to quote an interview with George Kennan in 1998 about NATO expansion, in particular. For those who don’t know, Kennan was the architect of the Cold War containment policy towards the USSR: He was hardly a dove.

”I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. ”I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [The NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.”…

‘I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

”And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia,” said Mr. Kennan, who joined the State Department in 1926 and was US Ambassador to Moscow in 1952. ”It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.” (Emphasis mine.)

Indeed, a lot of people have forgotten that Russia also asked to join NATO (under both Gorbachev and Putin) and was rebuffed. Russia wanted IN the club. In fact, it was pathetic how much they wanted in the club and I thought so at the time. The West, steeped in Russophobia, was never going to let them in, and the Russians wasted somewhere between fifteen and twenty years before they got the message that the West, and the US in particular, was implacably hostile and intended to remain so.

Russia has about half the GDP of California. It is a superpower only in terms of nuclear weapons, though its army, technology, and geographic reach mean that it is still a great power.

It has been pushed into the arms of the Chinese, which from a geopolitical POV is ludicrous: Siberia is the most likely point of conflict between the Chinese and the Russians, driven by the realities of climate change, demographics, and aquifer depletion. Siberia has hardly any population, lots of land, and tons of water, and in twenty to thirty years, the Chinese are going to need that water, and in forty years or so they’re going to need the land.

It would have been easy to spin Russia in and make it the Eastern end of West. Instead, it has been made into a foe, and if the hysterics looking for someone to blame for their own electoral failures have their way, made into an actual enemy. (An enemy with enough nukes to destroy the entire world more than once. Sanity suggests picking better enemies.)

Whether or not the majority of Americans “want” this, emergent American behaviour shows this to be the path the US and the West are on.

Those of us who would prefer the world to survive might wish otherwise, but in-group thinking and the death wish are stronger than sanity or reason.

Putin is a result of shock doctrine, imposed by the West. Russian animosity is largely a result of Western actions that the Russians could not but interpret as hostile (including the color revolutions and the Western-backed Ukrainian coup.)

If, at this point, the Russians are trying to return the interference (and they probably are, just not nearly to the extent or effect the propaganda suggests) that is only what is to be expected, and Americans crying about a little bit of interference look ludicrous, given the US’s record of backing actual coups and constant, regular interference in virtually everyone else’s elections.

If you don’t want enemies, don’t treat them like your enemies. If you do, don’t be surprised when they act like your enemies.

And for God’s sake, Democrats, stop blaming Russia for an electoral failure that was primarily your own damn fault. Look to what you can control–your own behaviour–rather than seeking a scapegoat.

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Fools Russians Where Angels Fear to Tread

(NB: post by Mandos.)

Recent events suggest that, whatever they may have originally thought, the Trump administration is in the process of being pulled back into the overall historical attractor of US policy regarding Russia. The Russian establishment had made no secret of its preference for Trump and its belief that Trump was a person with which they could deal on a more even footing, a politician in a mold they understood, etc.

I’m not here to argue whether or not Trump (or Flynn) is some kind of Russian plant, an issue that seems to be occupying many others.  I gather that conclusive evidence on this matter has yet to be produced and that it so far lies in the realm of (negative) wishful thinking.  However, Russian policy-makers are already voicing disappointment that Russia-favorable entities in the Trump administration are increasingly weakened. The US state, particularly its intelligence community, are deeply set up for conflict with Russia, for better or for worse, and it turns out that the White House is only part of a large infrastructure, and any fantasies of an election resulting in a vast purge and house-cleaning were just that: fantasies. The intelligence community still believes to its core in the necessity of containing Russia.

However, one thing that is different now is the position of Western social liberals. Unfortunately, Russia had decided to back in spirit, if not always materially, movements that are identified with various strains of nationalist conservatism that are hostile to the goals and beliefs of social liberals. This is not only in the USA, but especially so in Europe, with the on-going rise of the Le Pens, the Wilders, and other groups in the world. Once upon a time, social liberal groups were principally parochial movements which were relatively indifferent on foreign policy questions regarding Russia, and to a very large extent also overlapped with anti-war movements — and so were once at odds with the intelligence community.

However, the apparent desire of Russia to return to a world of ordinary nation-state politics, and therefore its willing appearance (at minimum) of siding with conservative nationalist movements, have led to many social liberals now viewing Russia as mortal threat to their projects, and therefore, having a plausible motive to try to subvert political movements like that of Trumpism to their aims.  In this situation, social liberals (or “identity politics” movements, or whatever you want to call them) will quite rationally stake out a position that the devil you know (American intelligence forces) are better than the devil you don’t (Vladimir Putin). This is not helped by the appearance of things like Russia loosening its laws on domestic violence.

While social liberals have not lately been winning elections on their platforms (most notably, in the USA due to the Electoral College structure), it would be a mistake to assume that these groups have no power whatsoever. In fact, they have broad and deep bases of popular support (merely electorally inefficient), and those bases are being pushed into the arms of forces hostile to Russian interests. The combination of Cold War-style intelligence community conservatism with popular social liberalism is one that is likely to lead to an even more hostile neo-Cold War posture on the part of the Western establishment in the medium-term, unless in the short term Trumpism can generate the political competence required to coerce the establishment in the other direction.

For its part, Russia has been attempting to play, in the “further abroad”, a soft power role given that its other options are not effective. It is attempting to play the part of a rival global hegemon without actually being a hegemon. It does not currently have the cultural or technological reach to do so.  While it operates a technologically advanced, developed economy, it is still highly dependent on natural resource development and export. That means that the risks accruing from a strategy of using cultural divisions in the currently hegemonic Western social order are high: should social liberals gain the upper hand due to the inability of nationalist populism to operate the levers of state effectively, they will be confirmed in a resolve for further containment and suppression of a Russia that took sides against them.

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