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Russia's Mercenary Rebellion
What Machiavelli Can Teach us About Prigozhin's Revolt
“An example from antiquity of the use of mercenary troops is the Carthaginians. They were almost overcome by their own mercenary soldiers after the first war with the Romans, even though they had their own citizens as officers” - Machiavelli [The Prince, XII]
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On Friday, June 23rd through Saturday, June 24th, the first Friday night after solstice- while much of the Russian public was probably up all night drinking and celebrating White Nights- the leader of the Wagner Group private military contractor, Yevgeny Prigozhin, led short-live revolt against Russian President Vladimir Putin. As events unfolded we were treated to the sort of wildly irresponsible coverage you would expect from the Western “thinking” class, though a small cadre of responsible people such as myself withheld judgment, recognizing that the situation was rapidly developing. The odds of Prigozhin overthrowing the Russian state with such a small body of men were always minimal, so sureness that this was the end of Putin betrayed idiocy on the part of such commentators. Still, those of us who don’t want Russia to collapse and lose control of its vast nuclear arsenal experienced a great deal of concern and anxiety about the situation’s ultimate resolution. The hearts of the Western imperialist class were broken when we found out that Belarusian President Lukashenko had defused the situation by negotiating and agreement whereby Prigozhin could leave the country with his head attached to his neck and retire to a nice beach in sunny Belarus. The episode is certainly an embarrassment for Putin- though honestly less so than for the Western commentariat and the Ukraine fans- but it overall showed that Russia is otherwise a stable and functional state. My purpose here is not to tell the story of the rebellion, but instead to share what Machiavelli would say about this confrontation. The father of modern political theory is somewhat getting his due, as many have paid superficial deference to his words on mercenaries. However, such writers have little knowledge of Machiavelli; perhaps more interesting is what Machiavelli teaches on the folly of allowing the growth of power of an ambitious, irresponsible, and capricious individual, the things which made such a confrontation all but inevitable.
Before continuing, I do need to say a few words about the actual story. Most importantly, this remains a peculiar episode, and it is possible there are factors which are yet to come to light. What we do know is that Prigozhin had a history of erratic statements attacking his employer; I had assumed there was a method to his madness, but it now appears he may just be mad. Either way, though the pro-Ukraine people loved that he said things that jived with their preconceptions, it has been clear for many months that any and all public statements by Prigozhin are entirely lacking in credibility. Disregarding any claims by Prigozhin, it appears the surface level story we’re getting from other sources is pretty close to the truth: Putin tried to disarm an armed faction that he considered too powerful and their leader lashed out instead of accepting a reduced status. In some ways, it is remarkably similar to the start of the conflict in Sudan, the difference being that Prigozhin had no role in Russia’s internal security or governance, and further, unlike in Sudan, there was enormous disparity between his military strength and the state’s. I want to share the piece on this from the inimitable Big Serge, who covers most of the things I would have wanted to say:
This part of his conclusion is particularly notable:
“It was trivially obvious that Prigozhin lacked either the force, the institutional support, or any real desire to usurp authority, and the idea that he was attempting a genuine coup was absurd…Power only comes up for grabs in the event of total state collapse, and what we saw in Russia was the opposite - we saw the state closing ranks.
Prigozhin is neither the harbinger of regime change nor a piece in Putin’s four dimensional chess game. He’s simply a mercurial and wildly irresponsible man who saw that his Private Military Corporation was going to be taken away from him and decided to go to extreme and criminal lengths to prevent this.”
This serves a sufficient response to most of the more outlandish views of what may have happened. The question I intend to answer is how and why did it come to this.
Firstly, Putin was himself irresponsible to use mercenary troops in an important conflict so close to home. It is one thing to use Wagner to cultivate interests in Africa where they are functionally another ruler’s problem and the profits are what flow back to Russia [though I suspect their role in Africa is overplayed by the Western propagandists.] The reasons why Putin made the decision to use Wagner in Ukraine are clear: the legal status of the “Special Military Operation” limits his ability to levy citizen soldiers and he wanted to keep the human cost of the war low for the general public. These are fundamentally the same reasons anyone chooses to use mercenaries, so they serve as no excuse for the decision and all of the reasons not rely on mercenaries apply. As Machiavelli writes, “A wise prince has always avoided these soldiers [mercenaries or auxiliaries] and has turned to is own troops. He has preferred to lose with his own troops rather than win with those of others” [The Prince, XIII.] The public feeling the cost of war somewhat more by Russia wholly relying on citizen soldiers would have been a small price to avoid the situation which arose, and from which Putin was fortunate to escape with only embarrassment.
The classic Machiavelli quote regarding mercenaries that has been shared in various forms is as follows:
“Mercenaries…are useless and dangerous. If a prince holds on to his state by means of mercenary armies, he will never be stable or secure Mercenaries are disunited, ambitious, undisciplined, and disloyal. They are brave with their friends; with their enemies they are cowards. They have no fear of God, and they keep no faith with men…They love being your soldiers when you are not waging war, but when war comes, they either flee or desert.” [The Prince, XII]
Putin was in at least a somewhat better position in that presumably most Wagner mercenaries were Russian [or pro-Russian Serbs] and many were convicts who needed to continue to serve to have their records cleared- motivations which also existed among mercenaries in Machiavelli’s time. In a way, Wagner was sort of an arm of the Russian state, but that wasn’t enough to make them behave properly. You can see what Machiavelli describes in the way Prigozhin was always trying to act like some sort of badass warlord while also constantly whining about supplies, though at the time we were left assuming that was a ruse. Still, Wagner won the Battle of Bakhmut, which made Prigozhin powerful, prideful, ambitious- and unnecessary.
Once one becomes reliant on mercenary captains they are a problem whether or not they are successful. Machiavelli writes,
“Mercenary captains are either excellent men or they are not. If they are, you cannot trust them, since they will always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their masters, or by oppressing others against your intent; but if the captain is without ability, they usually ruin you. [The Prince, XII]
One of the examples Machiavelli uses is a man named Francesco Carmangola. The Italian historian known as Annibale, a Machiavelli skeptic and frequent Radio War Nerd guest, wrote a thread giving more information about this man’s life. He is indeed an archetypal mercenary captain with all the same traits Prigozhin possesses- an amoral, social-climbing opportunist of humble origins. However, Prigozhin is not a military man so much as a particularly unscrupulous entrepreneur. He started out as an ex-con with a hotdog stand and rose to being, for a time, the world’s most notorious warlord. Prigozhin clearly has an impressive ability to get ahead in life. The passage about oppressing others is notable for two reasons. The first of which is that, though in Africa Wagner more function as mercenaries that have been lent out, they have been accused of a major massacre in Mali. If the accusation is true at all, it is an example of them using wanton violence in a way that does not forward Russia’s objectives. The second, more importantly, is that Prigozhin initially framed his revolt as being against the Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, whom he blamed for the problems he alleged Russia was facing in Ukraine, and thus sought to oppress men Putin did not want him to.
Much was made over the Prigozhin lashing out at Shoigu and Gerasimov by those who like to invent palace intrigues. The thing that needs to be noted is this happened as Ukraine’s offensive fizzled and things were going well for Russia; Prigozhin’s issue was not that his men were facing too tough of conditions, it was that the situation had improved to the extent he was no longer needed and thus was facing disarmament and his forces being integrated in the Russian military. As Serge explained, Shoigu and Gerasimov were in some ways the only people Prigozhin could get away with attacking- high level bureaucrats instead of the elected political leadership or rank-and-file soldiers. There is no reason to believe Putin lacks faith in either man, and the theory some promoted that this was an excuse to get rid of them is nonsense, as Serge explained,
“Putin has not publicly criticized either Shoigu or Gerasimov for their handling of the war. Publicly, they appear to have his full backing. Could the president really remove them in response to Prigozhin’s demands without appearing incredibly weak?”
However now many sources, all the unreliable ones which consistently spread misinformation, are saying that Surovikin, the commander of the Ukraine war effort and a man who tried to work towards an end to this crisis, has been detained. This doesn’t appear to be true, most of all because if Surovikin was in some sort of a plot with Prigozhin I think it’s safe to say he would have actually helped him as events were unfolding. Still, even if Surovikin is out, less should be made of these personnel changes than the commentariat likes to make of them. While it is certainly ideal to not have to replace military commanders, being able to replace them is one benefit of a republic, where there are ideally many important and qualified men, as opposed to just a prince or royal family to choose from. Machiavelli explains that republics must use their own citizens as commanders and then make decisions based on their performance. He writes, “when it sends one who does not turn out to be an able man, it must replace him. If he is capable, the republic must restrain him with laws so that he does not exceed his authority” [The Prince, XII.] The point is that if Surovikin’s detention is real, it could either be the case that he is considered to have been incapable for failing to stop Prigozhin’s revolt or that he did have some degree of involvement and now the laws of the republic must be used to restrain his ambition. Either way, it would not mean disaster for Russia’s war effort.
Ambitious men of mercenary natures like Prigozhin can cause a great deal of harm to a republic if they are allowed to attain power, for they care about little but improving their position. Machiavelli describes how such men rise,
“The first thing ambitious citizens who live in a republic seek is the ability not to be harmed, not only by private citizens but even by magistrates: in order to accomplish this they seek out friendships; they acquire these friends by apparently honest means…because this seems virtuous, they easily fool everyone, and for this there is no remedy, to the point that by persevering, the ambitious citizen, without any obstacle, reaches a position where private citizens are afraid of him and magistrates show him respect. When he has risen to this level…he has attained such a rank that to try to confront him would be extremely dangerous.” [Discourses, I.46]
In Prigozhin’s case he had been known as “Putin’s Chef” because he ran a fancy restaurant which catered to the elite of Russian society, including the President. He expanded into other areas, including starting the Wagner Group, which he long denied running, something which gave him immense power. On top of this, he is said to run the Internet Research Agency, which was accused of interfering in the 2016 US election; while I do not believe that story, it appears to be a real organization and presumably gave him a great deal of power to find out compromising information about people. In short, Prigozhin was commanding both his own spies and his own professional killers, making him a particularly dangerous figure within Russian society whom one would not want to cross. Putin tolerated this and took advantage of it when he could use Prigozhin as a tool in the shadows, lending Wagner out to Syria and countries in Africa for counter-terror operations. This generated great profit to Prigozhin and allowed Putin to pursue a variety of peripheral goals at low risk. The situation changed when Prigozhin acknowledged ownership and Wagner was used in Ukraine- a central and nearby interest- to fight large, highly publicized battles. Once Prigozhin was in the daylight, he was increasingly concerning as an competing power center within Russia.
Prigozhin had been blessed with some sort of combination of opportunity and opportunism, or fortune and virtue as Machiavelli would describe it. Unfortunately for him, in that position, you only need to outlive your usefulness or misplay your hand one time. Machiavelli says that to maintain fortune a man needs to change with the times, writing,
“When a man with one mode of conduct has been very prosperous, it is impossible to persuade him that he can do as well by proceeding in a different manner; it happens in this way that fortune varies for a single man, because she brings about the changes in the times while he fails to modify his methods.” [Discourses, III.9]
The problems Prigozhin would face after success in Ukraine should have been obvious, but he could not change his conduct. A leader like Putin cannot have a man like Prigozhin possessing the glory that came with victory in Bakhmut while existing outside of the state apparatus. Once it was seen that Russia was able to repel Ukraine’s much-hyped offensive, it was time to make a move against Prigozhin, which Putin did by trying to integrate Wagner’s Ukraine forces into the regular military. Prigozhin would have done well to read his Machiavelli, who gives this advice to a commander who succeeds in acquiring the territory he has been dispatched to obtain by a prince,
“I have no other precept to offer them except one they will learn for themselves. But let me say to this commander that since I believe him incapable of avoiding the sting of ingratitude, he should do one of two things: either let him abandon the army and place himself again in the hands of his prince immediately after his victory, taking care to avoid every insolent or ambitious act…or, when this does not seem the proper thing to do, let him boldly take the opposite course of action and consider…the acquired territory to be his own.” [Discourses, I.30]
These are the two courses Prigozhin had, and trying to be the emperor of the ashes of Bakhmut was not a good one. However, if he was going to resist he certainly should have stayed in place with his army, as he had nowhere near the forces to conquer the Russian Federation, but could have dug in somewhere and perhaps at least ran a statelet for a time. It’s curious he didn’t accept the loss of his army in Ukraine and go back to making a fortune in Africa, but Prigozhin had grown increasing imprudent and unstable. Instead of taking either of the poor but reasonable options, he directly challenged Putin’s rule over the whole country. It is indeed as Machiavelli says, such commanders never want to abandon their army, and then, “remaining undecided, between their own indecision and their ambiguity they are eliminated” [I.30.] Prigozhin was lucky to get out of this with his life: many men in this situation have not.
Once the revolt started it was managed quite well as a crisis. The Western leadership class, despite their extremely high opinion of their own sophistication and development, cannot conceptualize of dealing with any problem besides through brutally attacking it or buying it off [hence trying both with covid, for one example.] Also, as I’ve covered repeatedly, they oppose negotiating with anyone with whom you disagree. Thus, the surreal scenes we saw in Russia, with Wagner allowed to peacefully take over the large city of Rostov-on-Don and march towards Moscow without resistance remain incomprehensible to this class of men. The calmness of the Russian public as tanks rolled into a city was indeed something to behold. Western analysts take Putin’s inaction to be weakness. They say it shows that he will back down when confronted, and that Russia doesn’t even have the internal troops to put down such a small revolt. The reality is that a lot of Wagner personnel are Russians who have family in the country, and putting down the rebellion with brute force would have been a huge and risky political liability. Instead, as Machiavelli says, it is safer to delay dealing with a problem than to attack it. He writes,
“When you put off dealing with them, they either fade away by themselves or at least the evil is postponed for a longer time. In all such affairs, princes who plan on eliminating these difficulties or opposing them impetuously with force should keep their eyes open to avoid increasing them in a harmful way.” [Discourses, I.33]
On top of concerns about the families of Wagner soldiers or any Russian state troops who might die fighting them, many Wagner troops did not take part in the revolt, but they certainly might have joined if their comrades were massacred on the highway by air strikes, which is quite clearly what the Western leadership class believes a strong leader would have done [and it doesn’t appear they are cynically providing bad commentary to discredit Putin.]
After around 24 hours of extreme tension and uncertainty, the problem did mostly fade away on its own. I myself was doing my weekly grocery shopping and got home to find that the great Russian Civil War the Western media and pro-Ukraine accounts were so excited for was cancelled. Prigozhin would be going into exile in Belarus, functionally a vassal state of the Russian Federation, though one with a great degree of sovereignty regarding domestic matters. Alexander Lukashenko, the long time ruler of Belarus, has since said in a speech that he negotiated an end to the situation on his own accord:
Though somewhat unusual, I find Lukashenko’s story plausible: he simply wanted to avoid bloodshed which would be bad for everyone, so he tried to stop it. According to him, Putin had given up, saying Prigozhin was not speaking to anyone. This leaves one wondering what, then, Putin intended to do. It’s possible Lukashenko is lying, because this does make him look like the hero of the day, while also showing Putin would be willing to use force as necessary. However, the dramatic situation being solved with minimal loss of life is impressive as it is and doesn’t need to be lied about. Perhaps Putin did just get lucky to have such a man on his side to resolve the situation. Regardless, Putin clearly benefited from delaying attacking Prigozhin. Even without Lukashenko’s intervention, the Russian state had already weathered the crisis well and without defections, and unless Prigozhin had intended to die in a blaze of glory, he had surely realized by this point that no one was turning against Putin and he had no chance of achieving his objectives. By not falling into the bias for action that so defines Western leadership, Putin averted disaster. Certainly an embarrassment, especially for a man who has done all he can to stop the public from feeling the impacts of the war, but other ambitious men are sure to see that raising a rebellion against Russia’s leadership will not work at this time. For his part, Prigozhin now claims he was never trying to overthrow the government at all, and it was simply a protest for the respect of him and his soldiers.
This leaves just the question of what Putin should have done differently to avoid this situation. Machiavelli says that in this situation when dealing with such a man one needs to occupy the paths a person is taking towards greatness, writing,
“There is…no better method, nor one that is less divisive and more simple, of opposing the ambition of any citizen than to be the first to occupy the paths through which he appears to be moving towards the rank he intends to reach.” [Discourses I.52]
However, Putin would still need a way to achieve the disparate objectives for which he was using Prigozhin [for our purposes we will assume those objectives are worth pursuing.] These objectives would primarily be whatever the Internet Research Agency actually does [assuming it is not just a for-profit clickbait operation, which it may be, this would be various disinformation and online intelligence gathering], limited military engagements in mineral-rich Third World countries, and acting as expendable front-line troops in major conflicts. In this instance, “occupying his path” would mean Putin needs more direct control over the key functions which Prigozhin was using to build the state’s reliance on him. I happen to have an elegant solution to this problem, though one which he would have needed to plan for well in advance: copying the French Foreign Legion. As you may know, the French Foreign Legion is an elite fighting force, originally drawn from France’s African Empire, of foreigners- or French citizens looking for a new start- which has operated in troubled areas outside of France. After service, legionnaires are eligible to apply for French citizenship, which makes it appeal to many and thus makes them something akin to citizen soldiers, “aspiring citizen” soldiers so to speak. Though it has not been successfully replicated by any country that has tried, Russia is in a unique position to do so, being surrounded by impoverished former Soviet states and also having a cultural appeal to those who feel alienated by the secular West. Putin would have needed the approval of the legislature to create such a body, but as he has a great deal of support in the legislature that should not have been a problem. It is true that the creation of such an organization creates another power center within the Russian state, as it would need men to command it. However, the man put in command would be within the state. This means he could be properly rewarded and has the potential for career advancement within the state besides through violently seizing power. There would be one problem, in that such an organization’s charter would be to operate outside of the Russian Federation and the four annexed oblasts where the war is taking place became part of Russia under their laws, but this is the current situation and they have primarily ignored the contradictions it creates. Such an organization existing separately from Russia’s regular army and which included an intelligence component would have fulfilled all of Prigozhin’s functions while the soldiers it employed would have remained Putin’s own troops and the commander would not have existed in a gray area outside of the state.
Overall, Prigozhin’s Revolt was one of the more remarkable political crises of the modern era. It shone brightly, and gave many “very serious people” in the West a chance to show just how irresponsible they really are. It was also a spectacular embarrassment for Putin, who generally has a way of at least keeping himself a step away from problems within his state. His reliance on a mercenary captain- particularly one who had behaved so erratically- can only be described as a mistake, especially in retrospect. However, one would hope that the belief that his government will be overthrown from within has been put to rest, though of course successful coups rely on surprise and as such the possibility can never be entirely discounted. The biggest lesson here is that there is often great benefit in waiting to react to a crisis. I suppose it is for each man to decide if he thinks Putin doing so should be attributed to wisdom, a lucky result of indecision, or some combination of the two. What I can assure you is that even if this ending as it did may make Putin look weak to some, it is immeasurably better for both him and the Russian state that it ended without two opposing bodies of Russian men doing battle in the heart of the country- something which could have poisoned their republic for years or decades to come.
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