The World Today for June 27, 2023

NEED TO KNOW

Pugachevshchina

RUSSIA

In the 1770s, a Cossack named Emelian Pugachev rebelled against Catherine the Great. As described in Alexander Pushkin’s novel, “The Captain’s Daughter,” peasants furious at the Russian army’s corruption fueled the rebellion.

But Pugachev’s uprising failed. He was captured and publicly executed in Moscow. Today, Russians remember him with the term “pugachevshchina,” which means a “senseless, doomed rebellion,” wrote New York Times columnist recently.

The term might perfectly describe recent events in Russia involving Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary company that staged a brief mutiny to oust corrupt and incompetent Russian military officials whom Prigozhin claimed were the reason why Moscow was losing the war against Ukraine.

A former convict and caterer who gained the trust of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin turned the Wagner Group into an unofficial arm of Russian foreign policy, Axios explained. Wagner troops – often Russian veterans and convicts – deployed to the Middle East, Africa, and South America, granting Putin influence and plausible deniability about the Russian state’s role in crisis spots while enriching Prigozhin and his cronies.

In Ukraine, however, Wagner had fared poorly, like its Russian army counterparts. Blaming the Russian defense ministry and others for his troops’ failures, Prigozhin instructed his fighters to seize Russia’s southern military command headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and marched to Moscow ostensibly to bring Putin’s military officials to justice. Like the peasants who supported Pugachev – Russians in Rostov-on-Don cheered the Wagner fighters as they embarked on their trip to the capital, according to Business Insider.

As the Intercept noted, Prigozhin stopped short of his goal, however, and fled to Belarus after Putin condemned the march, ordered Russian aircraft to attack the convoy – at least six Russian helicopters and a plane were shot down – and granted the Wagner fighters immunity from prosecution.

It’s not clear why Prigozhin lost his nerve, the Atlantic Council wrote. Perhaps he bit off more than he could chew, New York Magazine speculated. It’s not clear if the episode will harm the Russian campaign in Ukraine, either, although Wagner had been seen as the best force on the Russian side.

It’s also not clear why Putin “blinked,” making concessions to Prigozhin after vowing revenge on the mercenary leader. After Belarus’ leader mediated, Putin agreed to allow his former protegee to escape to Belarus. Commentator and author David Ignatius said that the speed with which Putin backed down suggests that his sense of vulnerability might be higher than most people realized. “Putin might have saved his regime on Saturday, but this day will be remembered as part of the unravelling of Russia as a great power — which will be Putin’s true legacy,” he wrote.

On Monday, Putin spoke to the nation, telling Russians that he had ordered “bloodshed to be avoided,” by agreeing to compromise with his mercenary chief while vowing retribution for the mutiny. But Russians including pro-war bloggers continue to wonder why Prigozhin wasn’t punished and quietly talk about how the episode demonstrates Putin’s collapse of control.

Undoubtedly, though, the Wagner uprising suggests that Putin faces enormous pressure from within his circle to defeat the Ukrainians quickly, sue for a peace that allows leaders in Moscow to maintain their dignity, or find some other path from the army’s current flops. “While the war and sanctions have increased Putin’s power and decreased the elite’s autonomy, the system still rests on the elite’s sense that Putin rules in their interest,” argued the Centre for European Policy Analysis.

Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor contended that the short rebellion was the natural consequence of Putin’s power grab. One who lives by the sword, the logic goes, will eventually die by it.

Tharoor’s assessment might be premature. Or maybe not.

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