Mutiny P.S.: nobody is ready to defend the existing political order

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.


,   27.06.2023