Has Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow broken the «negative equilibrium» Russia has been stuck in for the last twenty years? Vladimir Gelman, political scientist, professor at the University of Helsinki, and author of the book on «bad governance» in contemporary Russia, analyzes the consequences of the failed mutiny and possible alternative scenarios.
T-invariant: According to your book on bad governance, Russia is currently in a state of «negative equilibrium». Russian society is demoralized. It is unwilling to actively resist, but it is willing to adapt nearly infinitely to the deteriorating situation in order to maintain the status quo. Does this negative equilibrium state now appear to be broken down or shaken?
Vladimir Gelman: My book was published in Russian in 2019 and sent to print in English in February 2022, just before the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Inevitably, this negative equilibrium has been shaken by everything that has happened since February 2022. While Russian elites and citizens are still adjusting to the deteriorating situation, nobody knows how to return to pre-February 2022 conditions. The future seems increasingly bleak.
Since the current situation faces such strong challenges, it is unlikely to be cemented for a long time. A number of these challenges relate to combat operations. Others are related to foreign states’ reactions to military operations. However, the most important challenge is the situation within the country: it is irreversibly deteriorating, many people are dying, and other negative changes are occurring. So, uncertainty is increasing dramatically. As a result, some observations made a few years ago are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
T-i: Then what becomes relevant? Are there different scenarios?
VG: We are facing challenges of all kinds. One of them took place last week, when the private military company Wagner announced its refusal to obey the Russian state, starting an armed struggle against it. Obviously, this is a serious issue for the Russian state, the Russian economy, and the Russian citizens.
T-i: Does it mean a fundamental change in the scenario, or is it just an interlude between acts? Could we say that a new era has begun?
VG: In fact, the Russian state is now faced with a fundamental problem that Max Weber wrote about. He defined the state as a human community that successfully claims the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in a given territory (a definition taught to all political science students at all universities).
In February 2022, the Russian state made the country’s territory unclearly defined. As a result, problems began to arise in maintaining control over this undefined territory using violence, as well as the legitimacy of this violence. In these circumstances, the Russian state has delegated some of its functions to a private military company. In principle, there is nothing unusual about this. Many states delegate their functions to private organizations, including those associated with the use of violence. The private security companies, for instance, do not surprise us. It is, however, a condition of such outsourcing that the state controls its agents.
Russia’s state has proven incapable of fulfilling its duties. It was demonstrated repeatedly throughout the entire special military operation (SMO is the term officially used by the Russian state to refer to its invasion of Ukraine. — T-i). When the Russian state delegated its functions to a private military company and lost control over it, it appeared to many that the private military company was better at performing its tasks than the state itself. (We do not really know this for sure; it is difficult to assess efficiency.) Nevertheless, the inefficiency of the state became evident over the long period of time that the SMO lasted.
The private military company got out of control and began to claim to act on behalf of the state, i.e., taking its functions away from the government. Regardless of how much we criticize the Russian state — I have published a lot of such criticism myself, including in a book about bad governance — it is clear that its inability to perform the most important functions associated with maintaining law and order results in serious problems both for the economy and for the lives of its citizens.
Hence, this phenomenon is quite different. It is more typical, for example, in many African countries with weak or ineffective states where private military companies or warlords control some governmental functions. Russia has now taken a step in this direction.
T-i: Is it fair to say that these recent events demonstrate to people the weakness of the head of state?
VG: Absolutely. When a state loses its leverage of control, namely its monopoly on legitimate violence, it also affects the perception of the effectiveness of the head of state. We must say that he has not shown the ability to run this state effectively. Having that ability would have allowed him not to let the situation spiral out of control. And he would have known what exactly needed to be done. Let’s take a look at Putin’s televised speech in response to Prigozhin’s mutiny. We can see that this man has only the most general understanding of what is going on and that he is not prepared to respond adequately to the challenge he faced.
T-i: In his address to the nation during the mutiny, the president referred to the narratives of 1917, implicitly comparing himself to Nicholas II and the current Russian state to the Russian Empire. Could we say that this analogy refers to the president’s fear of repeating the fate of the emperor and his attempt to prevent a similar outcome?
VG: Putin is very fond of all kinds of historical parallels. The current situation is not unique. It is important, however, to note that the Russian Revolution was a bad experience. The Russian Empire, which had suffered a long and ineffective war, was unable to deal with relatively minor protests caused by the deterioration of the situation in Petrograd due to corruption in the bread procurement system, i.e., a set of circumstances. Vasily Rozanov remarked just about these events: «Russia fled in three days». Although, I think, nobody anticipated such developments just a few weeks before the fall of the Russian monarchy. But the Russian state turned out to be extremely fragile, and its collapse paved the way for all the subsequent revolutionary events.
T-i: Regarding the «fled in three days», we saw the planes of the heads of Russian structures, such as Rotenberg and Manturov, flying to neighboring countries, while other leaders, such as Prime Minister Mishustin, remained silent until the crisis was over. What does such silence and the escape of the elites tell us?
VG: I’d say it’s similar to a bank run. When a bank is threatened with bankruptcy, investors try to take their assets out to stash elsewhere.
Similarly, there were reports of Russian oligarchs flying away in their planes to distant lands: someone’s plane was found in Baku, another was seen flying to Dubai, etc. It’s understandable that people would try to escape or distance themselves from such unfolding events to avoid taking responsibility.
The problem is the same as in February 1917: no one is willing to defend the previous order. This does not mean that many people are on the side of the rebels. It means that those who should oppose the rebels have no serious incentives to do so.
T-i: What do you think about Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s call to support Prigozhin, since we share a common enemy?
VG: This is the logic of «the enemy of my enemy is my friend». I do not think, however, that the success of the rebels in this conflict, if it were to happen, would improve the situation in Russia. Rather the opposite. The collapse of the state is not the way to solve Russia’s problems: in this case, some problems are simply replaced by much bigger ones. This is why the idea «Let’s help destroy the Russian state» seems profoundly flawed. But I’m arguing as a researcher. Politicians, including Khodorkovsky, pursue their own interests, as they understand them.
It’s unclear what might have happened as a result of Prigozhin’s victory. A military dictatorship was one option, but by no means the only one. We should keep in mind, however, that Khodorkovsky is an opposition politician in exile. Quite frankly, his impact on what happens inside the country is not very significant. It’s not because Khodorkovsky is good or bad; I don’t assess him in such terms. It’s just that one has to admit that the influence of all politicians in exile, without exception, on what’s actually unfolding inside Russia is rather small.
T-i: Theoretically, what possible scenarios could play out?
VG: It was quite possible that no side in the conflict could have succeeded in achieving its goals. That is, neither Wagner would have been able to seize and retain power in Moscow, nor would the Russian state establishment have been able to regain control over the territory that Wagner had seized.
In some African countries, which the head of Wagner is familiar with from his previous experience, there are territories controlled not by the central government but by militant groups acting in their own interests.
T-i: In what direction do you think events will go? Will the elites, who turned their backs yesterday, be punished today in the process of tightening the screws? Or could the government decide to accumulate as much support as possible, and an unexpected thaw may come?
VG: We don’t really know anything. It is unclear how all of this will affect developments on the battlefield. I believe that this factor can greatly influence further events.
An attempt to prevent future mutinies is certainly a natural reaction. The problem is that this isn’t the only or even the major problem Russia is facing. The major issue remains the fact that the SMO, which was started 16 months ago, has not achieved its goals and will not achieve them in the foreseeable future, and related issues are coming to the forefront now. Military actions will determine the course of events in the future.
T-i: All eyes are on the question: under what conditions could the war end?
VG: It depends on developments on the front. There may be a time when the maintenance of military operations becomes so unacceptable for Russia that the withdrawal of troops beyond the borders, as existed until February 2022, would be the only possible step. This is quite a possible development.
The main problem with the stopping of warfare is that there are no guarantees that, after some time, Russia will not restart SMO again. That is, in theory, a peace agreement can be signed. However, there are no credible commitments from Russia’s side, no mechanisms that will force Russia to observe the agreement. And no one can provide guarantees because there is no way to ensure that Russia will fulfill its obligations. Any truce, therefore, becomes temporary, even if Russia withdraws its troops to their February 2022 positions.
T-i: In today’s Russia, could a civil war like the one at the beginning of the last century occur?
VG: I think not. Objectively, there is no cause for large-scale violent conflict among broad segments of society.
After 1917, the redistribution of land, i.e., who would control the agricultural lands, was an extremely important issue for a large peasant country.
Today, we do not see anything like that. But we do see citizens who are tired of everything that has been going on since February 2022. They are not ready for any kind of activism, and they greatly prefer all these conflicts to end so that they can get back to their families, their children, and their work — the things that are important to their everyday lives. So, I see no reason for a civil war in the sense that we understood Russia’s experiences after 1917. But I don’t totally rule out the possibility of a serious violent confrontation among the elites. Since much depends on the ongoing course of events, I cannot predict what lies ahead.
T-i: Has the president demonstrated strength or weakness by settling the mutiny peacefully in such a strange way?
Vladimir Gelman: Frankly speaking, I don’t think it was the worst outcome of the conflict with Prigozhin. It will take some time to figure out how it will affect the Russian president’s future.
Questions by MARINA STEINBERG