Opinion | Putin, Prigozhin and the Danger of Disorder

By Thomas L. Friedman

Opinion Columnist

The events playing out in Russia feel like the trailer for the next James Bond movie: Vladimir Putin’s ex-chef/ex-cyber-hacker/recent mercenary army leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, goes rogue.

Prigozhin, a character straight out of “Dr. No,” leads a convoy of ex-convicts and soldiers of fortune on a madcap dash to seize the Russian capital, shooting down a few Russian military helicopters along the way. They meet so little resistance that the internet is full of pictures of his mercenaries waiting patiently in line to buy coffee: “Hey, could you put a lid on that? I don’t want it to spill on my tank!”

But then, just as suddenly, as Prigozhin’s men got within 120 miles of Moscow, he apparently caught wind that his convoy on the open highway would be sitting ducks to a determined air attack. So Prigozhin opted for a plea bargain, arranged by the president of Belarus, and called off his revolution — sorry, didn’t mean it, I was just trying to point out some problems with the Russian Army — and everyone called it a day.

It’s still not clear if the stone-hearted Putin conveyed any direct threat to his old pal Prigozhin, but as Putin’s former bag man, Prigozhin clearly wasn’t taking any chances. With good reason. As the ever-helpful president of Belarus, where Prigozhin reportedly surfaced on Tuesday, said: The Russian president told him that he wanted to kill his traitorous mercenary commander, to “squash him like a bug.”

Like the sinister Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the Bond villain who leads the international criminal syndicate SPECTRE and was often seen petting his white cat while plotting mayhem, Putin is often seen at his 20-foot-long white table, with visitors usually seated at the far end where, you suspect, a trapdoor waits, ready to swallow anyone who gets out of line.

My first reaction — watching this drama unfold on CNN and then replayed over the past few days — was to wonder: Was this whole thing for real? I am not a conspiracy buff, but “Live and Let Die” had nothing on this Mutiny on The Moskva script — a script that is still playing out, as the analog Putin tries to keep pace on state-run Russian TV, while the digitally savvy Prigozhin continues to run circles around him on Telegram.

To the question many readers have asked me — “What happens to Putin now?” — it is impossible to predict. I would be careful, though, about writing Putin off so fast. Remember: Blofeld appeared in six Bond movies before 007 finally eliminated him.

All one can do for the moment, I believe, is to try to calculate the different balances of power shaping this story and analyze who can do what in the coming months.

Let me start with the biggest balance of power that should never be lost sight of. President Biden, please come onstage and take a bow. It was the broad and sustained coalition Biden assembled to confront Putin in Ukraine that ripped the facade off Putin’s Potemkin village.

I like how Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat in the United States, described it in Haaretz this week: Biden understood from the start that Putin “is the epicenter of an anti-American, antidemocratic, fascist constellation that needs to be defeated, not negotiated with.” Prigozhin’s mutiny “essentially did what Biden has been doing for the past 18 months: exposing Putin’s weaknesses, puncturing his already impaled veneer of supposed strategic genius and aura of invincibility.”

Putin has long ruled with two instruments — fear and money, covered with a cloak of nationalism. He bought those whom he could buy — and jailed, or killed those whom he couldn’t. Some Russia watchers, though, argue that fear has now left the building in Moscow. With Putin’s aura of invincibility seemingly punctured, others could soon challenge him. We’ll see.

If I were Prigozhin or one of his allies, I’d still stay away from anyone walking along a Belarusian sidewalk with an umbrella when the sun is shining. Putin has done a pretty effective job of eliminating his critics — and one should never underestimate the deep fears of Russians about any return to the early 1990s chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how grateful many still are for the order that Putin restored.

It’s Putin’s balance of power with the rest of the world where things get complicated, because we in the West have as much to fear from Putin’s weakness as his strength.

There is no sign yet that the Prigozhin mutiny, or the Ukrainian counteroffensive, has led to any significant collapse of Russian forces in Ukraine — but it is too soon to draw any final conclusions.

U.S. officials argue that Putin’s strategy is to exhaust the Ukrainian Army of its 155-millimeter howitzer artillery shells, the mainstay of its ground forces, as well as of its antiaircraft interceptors, so its ground forces would be naked to Russian airpower — and then try to hold on until the Western allies are exhausted or Donald Trump gets re-elected and Putin can get a dirty deal where he saves face in Ukraine.

It’s not a crazy strategy. Ukraine fires off so many 155 rounds — as many as 8,000 per day — that the Biden team is now scrambling to find more stocks before the new factories making them come on line in 2024.

Logistics matter. So does whether you are playing defense or offense — because offense is harder and the Russians are now really dug in and have laid mines all across their defense lines, which is why the Ukrainian counteroffensive has been off to a slow start.

As Ivan Krastev, a Russia expert and chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria, told me: “In the first year of this war, when Russia was on the offensive, every day that it was not winning, it was losing. In the second year, every day that Ukraine is not winning it, it is losing.”

We should not underestimate the courage of Ukrainians. Nor should we underestimate how exhausted they have to be as a society.

And as has happened before in history, the Russian Army has been learning from its mistakes, John Arquilla, a longtime professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in California and the author of “Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyber Warfare,” explained to me: “The Russians suffer, but they always learn.”

Putin’s army has gotten better at pushing authority down to the officers on the front lines and using drones extensively, Arquilla argued. At the same time, the Ukrainian Army has drifted somewhat from its early strategy emphasizing small, mobile units, armed with intelligence and smart weapons, attacking the lumbering Russian Army — to adopting a bigger, heavier profile, and using more tanks.

“The Ukrainians were winning with small units, swift-flowing information and smart munitions,” Arquilla said. “Now they look a lot more like the Russian Army they were defeating.” The battlefield will tell us whether or not this is the right strategy.

All that said, we should be worried as much by the prospect of Putin’s defeat as by any victory. What if Putin were toppled? This is not like the last days of the Soviet Union. There is no nice, decent Yeltsin-like or Gorbachev-like figure with the power and standing to immediately take over.

“The old Soviet Union had institutions — there were party and state organs — central and provincial — which were responsible for maintaining their bailiwicks, as well as some order of succession,” Leon Aron, a Russia scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, whose book about Putin’s Russia is being published in October, remarked to me. “When Putin came in, he bulldozed or subverted all political and social structures outside the Kremlin.”

But Russian history does offer some surprising twists, Aron added: “Longer-term, historically, successors to Russia’s reactionary rulers are often more liberal, especially early in their term: Alexander I after Paul I, Alexander II after Nicholas I, Khrushchev after Stalin, Gorbachev after Andropov. So if we can get through a transition from Putin, there is some hope.”

In the near-term, though, if Putin were to be ousted, we could well end up with someone worse. How would you feel if Prigozhin were in the Kremlin this morning, commanding Russia’s nuclear arsenal?

You could also get disorder or civil war and the crackup of Russia into warlord/oligarch fiefs. As much as I detest Putin, I detest disorder even more, because when a big state cracks apart it is very hard to put it back together. The nuclear weapons and criminality that could spill out of a disintegrated Russia would change the world.

This is not a defense of Putin. It is an expression of rage at what he did to his country, making it into a ticking time bomb spread across 11 time zones. Putin has taken the whole world hostage.

If he wins, the Russian people lose. But if he loses and his successor is disorder, the whole world loses.

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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman Facebook

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