Prigozhin’s mutiny against Putin’s reign of lies
A funeral in December for a member of the Wagner group killed in Ukraine.
By BRET STEPHENS
For a good understanding of the psychology of modern Russia, it helps to read Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” published in 2014, the year Vladimir Putin seized Crimea using “little green men” who either were or were not Russian soldiers. The book captures the qualities of cultivated unreality and sinister surrealism that, for a day last week, were punctured by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny.
Pomerantsev, a British journalist born in the Soviet Union to a family of Jewish dissidents, spent nearly a decade in Moscow working largely on reality TV shows for a Russian entertainment channel. It turned out to be the perfect lens through which to see Putin’s Russia, where the Kremlin’s spinmeisters work hard to promote an image of a virile and infallible president vanquishing devious foes. It’s a place where people don’t say (and may not even know) what they really think and where sophistication means being in on the truth that most everything is potentially a lie.
“It’s almost as if you are encouraged to have one identity one moment and the opposite one the next,” Pomerantsev wrote. “So you’re always split into little bits and can never quite commit to changing things. And a result is the somewhat aggressive apathy you can encounter here so often. That’s the underlying mind-set that supported the U.S.S.R. and supports the new Russia now.”
It was from this phantasmagorical kingdom that the war against Ukraine was launched. Everything the Kremlin says about the invasion has been either a lie or the result of self-deceit: the evolving justifications for the war, the optimism of its assumptions, the scale of the casualties, the description of it as a “special military operation.” In May, Putin finally used the term “actual war” to describe the conflict, but only as something that had “been unleashed against our homeland again.”
It’s hard to decide what’s scarier: that he believes this or that he doesn’t.
But something went wrong in Putin’s approach, and it wasn’t just the incompetence of his military, the bravery of Ukrainians or the intercession by the West. In a nutshell, the problem is this: A monopoly on truth can be sustained only through a monopoly on violence. Big Brother can tell the Big Lie only if he has the Big — and only — Gun. Otherwise, the lie inevitably falls apart.
But Putin tried to sustain his monopoly on truth even as he demonopolized violence, allowing Prigozhin’s Wagner Group to fight in Ukraine as an autonomous unit along with the fighters of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. Putin’s reasons for doing this are easy to guess; creating competing centers of power, loyal to the leader but profoundly hostile to one another, is a tried-and-true method of effective dictatorships. But it creates risks, including the risk that someone from one of those centers of power will be willing to tell an inconvenient truth.
That is just what Prigozhin did and why his real mutiny did not happen over the weekend, with his takeover of the city of Rostov-on-Don and his brief march on Moscow. It occurred instead on Friday, with his 30-minute diatribe on Telegram, as cited by Newsweek, about the course of the war — a “poorly planned operation” that killed “thousands of the most combat-ready Russian soldiers in the first days” — and the falseness of its justification.
“The Ministry of Defense is trying to deceive the public and the president and spin the story that there were insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they were going to attack us together with the whole NATO bloc,” he said. “The special operation was started for a completely different reason.”
Aside from Prigozhin’s decorative effort to deflect blame from Putin to his generals, this is as close to the truth as Russians are soon likely to hear. And it may be why he appeared to have been treated as a hero, almost a liberator, in Rostov-on-Don. For a moment, they were freed not only from the grip of the Kremlin’s political and security apparatus but also from the narcosis of its propaganda.
There’s something bracing and refreshing about hearing the truth — even if it comes from the mouth of a self-interested thug. There’s also something terrifying about it.
To know the truth about the war is to see the awfulness of Russia’s options: a humiliating defeat, a bloody stalemate or escalation that risks a much wider war. There is an additional terror, too, though probably one that runs in a buried vein: the terror of self-indictment, when the apathy or jingoism of ordinary Russians must face the atrocities committed in their name.
The drift of Western commentary since Prigozhin’s mutiny is that Putin has been humiliated, his facade of invincibility cracked. I’m less sure.
His most vocal (and credible) internal critic may now go silent — or be silenced. Russians may conclude that they would rather live in the world of pleasing lies, in which they’ve long been complicit, than know the stark truth. And Putin will likely continue to rule inside his bubble because so many of the potential alternatives, from defeat to anarchy, look worse. Only a decisive Ukrainian victory can puncture it.