Sunday, June 25, 2023

Lessons of the Coup Attempt: Putin shaken, West ill-prepared

Ira Straus

Time moves fast in a coup.

In an article written a mere day before this one, I gave five scenarios on where the coup attempt could lead. Four are now eliminated, as one has already come to pass: “Prigozhin folds without war, accepts a deal in which he saves his neck for now and maybe gets a few concessions on the points he has raised, and loses his neck later.” (There remains, to be sure, the matter of Putin having Prigozhin killed later.)

Just 24 hours ago, the crisis was open to going in many directions. It was important to consider what to do during it: what scenarios to prefer, and what if anything to do for that preference. 

That time is gone. It can remind us of the shortness of time for figuring out what to do in a crisis. 

Now it is time to learn lessons, if any. We can examine what was right, what wrong or insufficient in the Western response.

What was right was that we did not do and say things that would have been mistakes. There were no gaffes. And afterwards, President Biden made an effort to dispel the rumors that America was behind the rebellion.

What was wrong was that we were not ready to have any policy on it, other than to fear making mistakes. And that we have not yet found a convincing language to refute the standard Russian blame-rumors from the start, or better, refute the doctrine that keeps generating those rumors; not just deny them defensively after the fact.

The time to prepare was not lacking. There were months of public warning from Prigozhin himself that the crisis was brewing. It is reported that U.S. intelligence agencies thought since June 10 that this could happen. Yet it seems there were few preparations for the eventuality.

We needed a well-thought out policy. On the spot, our leaders had scant time to think up one. They did, fortunately, find time to think about how to avoid gaffes.

What could have been done more positively? 

Of course it is not a simple question. Every option needs analysis on its pros and cons. Every positive one can use refinement to minimize the cons. 

But that is the reason why solid forethought and advance preparation for this sort of situation is needed. In its absence, the West was doomed to fall short.

Nevertheless, some things can already be said with clarity. Whichever way the coup came out -- whether a bargain between Putin and Prigozhin, or a different bargain among elites without one of them – that bargain would be covering over sharp differences. The parties making up with each other would do so at the expense of someone else. It could  tend to be a hardline or a softline bargain. That is where we can had an interest.

The hardline bargain option: intensifying the war at Ukraine’s expense, as a way of papering over the differences between the hardline factions in Moscow, uniting them in a common shouting match of upping the ante on the war. The softline bargain option: pulling back from the war so Prigozhin’s Wagnerites would not have to go on serving as cannon fodder for the untouched elites, but the latter wouldn’t have to suffer more in return, thereby papering over Prigozhin’s demands for justice for his people against the elites and military leadership. 

The bargain went mainly the former way. It was clearly in the West’s interest for the bargain to go instead the latter way.  

Could anything have been done to affect this? It is easy to say, “No”; but just here is where hard creative thinking would have been useful. 

One possible specific shortfall is worth noting: The West failed to make anything of the sudden venting by Prigozhin of the reality that the war was wrong all along. This was a venting of more than his frustration; it was a venting of something he and the rest of the elite in some way knew deep down all along, and until that moment knew they had to suppress the expression of. It is important to not let it get shoved back into the memory hole. Prigozhin’s habitual unfiltered openness in venting his resentments finally led him to vent the truth. We needed to keep the truth out there.

Could anything have been done on this? Even if merely to make it easier for Prigozhin to stick to this new, more truthful form of openness? When the West stayed mostly silent on this truthfulness, was it making it too easy for him to fall back into his past posture of just being an angry war hawk? 

It is not an easy question, but an important one. We did not get to the point of asking it.

The easy way out for Prigozhin himself was to sweep the awareness that the war was wrong back under the rug. stop talking about that, and revert to his old super-hardline persona. Putin naturally encouraged this way out, as a basis for the bargain that ended the rebellion. Could it have been otherwise? 

This is the sort of problem and opportunity that we can anticipate opening up in crisis situations. It is only in advance that careful planning can be done for how best to handle such openings.

Meanwhile, it remains the case that Prigozhin said these things. The media talked about it for a couple days. But then the media mostly forgot it. That was unfortunate.

Western governments and media should do more to keep the matter under discussion. They should work to spread awareness of the fact that it shows that much of the Russian hardline elite knows it is talking nonsense in its official rationales for the war. They should discuss the implications of this. They should make it a live matter for discussion with the Russian elite.

Fortunately we didn’t jinx anything that we might want to support, by endorsing it publicly. It would have required hard thought to figure out how to support something without in the process doing it more harm than good.

We should have been thinking about what help we could give Ukraine to exploit the chaotic moment, and future ones.

And we should apply ourselves to thinking about what if anything to do in light of Putin’s weakening. Are there options and forces newly worth supporting in the new conditions?

Open moments in history do not stay open forever. Use them or lose them.

“History is unforgiving”, said Sen. Tom Lantos decades ago. He was discussing the fading opportunities in the 1990s for a friendly and democratic Russia.

If people are not ready to make use of open moments, they close and disappear before their potential can be realized. Getting ready for using them well is something that takes time. The time must be spent long in advance, even though that is when the open moments are contingencies that conventional bureaucrats could easily dismiss as too far out to think about.

Not all governments require advance preparation, to be sure, in order to make decisions to deal promptly with suddenly opening possibilities. The present Ukrainian government doesn't always wait for full bureaucratic clearance when a novel crisis situation appears; it could not afford to. A few American presidents, like Trump, tend to act on instinct. But the usual American government does have the bureaucratic habit. There are many virtues to its respect for caution and professional bureaucracy, but the habit is often carried to excess. Until the U.S. can improve on it, it should take precautions about its own weakness: it should make sure to do the forethought and preparation well in advance for dramatic contingencies when they are still obscure improbabilities.

There is one clear lesson, then, that we can take from this crisis: the merit of doing more active advance thinking about emergency situations, open moments, and improbable-sounding contingencies. It is entirely predictable that unpredictable open situations will arise intermittently. We should be ready for them. There is good reason for doing more thought aforethought.


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