Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Our New Option in Post-Coup Russia

Ira Straus


The coup failed, but it opened up a new option for Russians to end the war.

Prigozhin opened this question ambiguously, yet open it he did. He did it by making withering comments on the war -- the utter falsity of the reasons for it, the way it has itself created the problems it was pretended to cure, the huge actual Russian casualties from it, the fatal consequences it could have for Russia, how it could plunge Russia into another civil war and break up. 

And then he himself proceeded to show in practice how it could plunge Russia into civil war. After that, everyone had to notice the point.

This created a new option in Russia: to discuss ending the war, not as soft peace-lovers, but as hardheaded nationalist patriots, activated by the fact that it has become too dangerous for Russia.

The option cannot be closed easily. The only way to close it would be for everyone in tandem to fall silent about it.

This would be hard to achieve in Russia. The awareness has already gone too far.

It ought to be even harder to kill discussion in the world at large.

The West has an important part to play in making sure this continues to get treated as a live option and not fall back into getting the silence treatment. The Western media in fact talked a lot for couple days about the sudden venting by Prigozhin of the reality that the war was wrong all along. It was important that it did this. Regrettably, it fell almost silent about this barely a day later, when the coup stopped. 

How would the Western media and governments have been able to keep it up? By discussing the comments professionally sintead of polemically. That would mean, simply, engaging with the substance of the comments, not just mentioning them as a retort to the regime’s lying. 

They could still do so. It would be well worth it. It is no less a matter than ensuring that there is a conscious awareness of a new realm of choice for Russians as to what to think and do. 

Steven Sestanovich, an analyst never given to overstatement, has observed that the Western governments and media should make more of the comments by Prigozhin. Our interest requires doing so. Biden’s words of caution about meddling in Russian domestic politics were wise as a matter of not taking sides in the coup -- he told the Atlantic Council -- but our leaders should be less bashful about ‘interfering’ in the discussion of the facts. An important Russian hardliner has acknowledged that their accusations against the West were lies and the war is a fraud and is itself the main danger to Russia. It’s not as if we don’t have a right to push back against the massive official lying against ourselves. We have every right to use it when Russian hardliners blurt out the truth. Western leaders and media can easily find skillful ways to do this. They simply need to realize that they should be doing it.

Prigozhin’s outburst was itself much more than just a venting of his personal frustration. It was something he and the rest of the elite in some way knew deep down all along, but until that moment felt to be unmentionable.

Prigozhin’s habitual unfiltered openness in venting his resentments finally led him to vent the truth. It is important to not let it get shoved back into the memory hole.

The easy way out for Prigozhin himself was to sweep this truth back under the rug and revert to his old persona. Putin encouraged him to do so, and he’s done it. Yet it remains the case that Prigozhin said these things and everyone knows it. It gives Russians new space to talk about them.  

Western media could do much more to keep the matter under discussion. They could discuss it but as an indicator that much of the Russian hardline elite knows it is talking nonsense in its official rationales for the war. They could discuss the implications of this. This would inevitably help, unimposingly, in keeping it a live matter for discussion within the Russian elite.

A bit of space has in any case opened up among Russian elites for talking about ending the war, on two grounds: the one Prigozhin raised about its false pretexts and self-defeating consequences, and the evidence from the coup itself that the war has too great a cost to Russian state stability.

The question we should be asking is: Should we find ways to widen this opening, or should we just leave it to wither?

Russian oppositionists and democrats had warned of the war’s damage to state stability long ago. They pointed to the regime’s growing undermining of the state’s monopoly on force, as it relied more and more on warlords, mercenaries, and criminals. They pointed to how the regime’s propagandists were inculcating Russians with both a genocidal mentality and a suicidal mentality. Genocidal: that Ukrainians are all Nazis and can be disposed of accordingly (Simonyan). Suicidal: that life isn’t worth much and the best thing to do with it is sacrifice it for your country (Solovyov). That the world is worthless if Russia dies, Russia will die unless it takes Ukraine, and nuclear weapons can be used. (Putin) The language was one of a suicide cult, raised to the national level and talking of taking the whole world down with them. Further: The oppositionists pointed to the training of hundreds of thousands of Russians in practicing this nihilism in war, a war in which they were being made to commit every form of war crime against civilians. The experience would leave them deformed morally. The survivors would bring their dark arts home with them.

Now everyone has seen this blowback in real life. Prigozhin just brought his dark arts home with him. It is only the beginning. It has left Russia reeling.

It is an indicator that Simonyan herself has suddenly talked of the war maybe not being worth it. She wondered why Russia needs places whose people do not want to be a part of Russia.

Veteran Russia analyst Mark Galeotti has discerned “a quiet consensus growing [in the Russian elite] that the Ukrainian invasion was a mistake, and that the price of victory — escalation, militarizing the economy, essentially following Prigozhin’s prescription of “North Koreanization” — is too high…. Actively working to topple Putin may well not be wise — from Iraq onwards, we have proven better at regime change than managing what follows — but at the very least we should welcome whatever hastens the end of his reign.” ( “What comes after Putin?”, The Spectator, June 30, 2023)

The crucial battle today, barely visible, is over which line speech will slide into: between falling back into the mode of saying that Russia must escalate the war further in order to save its essence, or else moving into a new mode of saying that Russia must put aside the war in order to save the Russian state. It is a choice between the intoxicated line and the sober line – between taking another drink and sobering up. It is a nodal choice: the kind of moment when the scale can tip to either side.

It is not hard to envisage how Putin himself could announce a course correction along the sober line. There are many lines he could choose from; here’s a menu of a few of them:

“We have just been confronted with the reality of a threat to the stability of the Russian state that grew out of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine. The brave Russian people united to stop the threat this time, but every patriot must make the stability of the Russian state the top priority and put aside everything that endangers the unity of our country. The threats keep threats growing from this conflict, and we cannot allow that to continue.

The mutineers threatened that the Operation could lead us to another civil war and proceeded to prove the point by their own behavior. They suggested the catastrophic solution that we should all share the suffering like North Koreans as the only way to make the Operation OK. And if not? They threatened a revolution that destroys everything.

Realities have not all developed the way we wanted. Too many Ukrainians were against being liberated by us, and NATO beefed them up too much. We must not turn against each other because of this. All Russians must stay united as we overcome the new danger.

Now that the consequences of the Operation have grown to endanger the very stability of the Russian state, those who would insist on continuing it are actually serving the interests of the Americans, who have been trying to break our country into pieces for decades. The stability of our country was hard won over the last two decades. It is something that must be preserved at all costs. It must take precedence over everything else.

We must draw a conclusion just as serious as the problem itself, and end this war. Better to cut our losses than let them keep growing.

Fortunately we have prepared our economy well over these decades, well enough that we can afford to cut our losses in Ukraine. The only thing we could not afford is to escalate the losses to a higher level.”


Some people will say that anything like this is impossible and Putin will inevitably just slide back into his old line instead. But realities are changing. The massive default line of the Russian media is to repeat the old line, but Prigozhin blasted a big hole in this line. It now has the symptoms of a dying legacy line. The wiser line, though still only faintly heard, is gaining life.

It matters for all Russians which line their country slides into saying. And not only for Russians. In light of the global nihilism that Putin has expressed when talking up the hard line, everyone has a stake in this matter.

Russians often say, out of fear and out of habit, that “there is nothing I can do about it”. Yet when something formerly marginalized becomes a live option in discussion, they suddenly see the reality that they all have a voice in determining what gets voiced, and everything shifts to the opposite side.

Everyone has a part in determining what is seen as a live option, not just Russians. And everyone has a legitimate voice in it: in face of the nuclear threats, everyone has skin in this game. We should give proper voice to our skin.




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