This past weekend featured what can only be called a farce in Russia, as we witnessed an attempted coup or revolt that quickly degenerated into something quite laughable. The trouble had been brewing for some time now, as Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary force, has been quite vocal in his denunciations of the Russian military leaders, going so far in recent days as calling Defense Minister Shoigu and the top Russian military commander, General Gerasimov, as not only incompetent, but traitors to Russia. To be fair, he was undoubtedly accurate in his claims of incompetency, as the whole Russian “special military operation” has been a long series of disasters for the Russian military, and they are getting close to being completely humiliated by the much smaller yet feisty Ukrainian armed forces. In fact, if it weren’t for the Wagner mercenaries and Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters the war might have been over by now.
The events of the past week demonstrate graphicly how uncoordinated and divided the Russian forces are, and this is no accident. Putin, in an effort to eliminate rivals and maintain power, deliberately fosters an environment that prevents any branch of his power structure from becoming too strong and dominant, and hence a threat to his authority. He finances and encourages the Chechen warlord Kadyrov, who essentially leads a private army that is ultimately only accountable to Putin. The same was true for Wagner’s mercenaries, who until the events of this past weekend were also only beholden to Putin.
Then there is is the official Russian military who are frequently at odds with and openly detest both the Wagnerites and the Chechens, who are often used as “blocking” units behind the front lines who are mandated to shoot any Russian soldiers who refuse to advance or who retreat from battle.
There is also the National Guard of Ukraine, otherwise known as Rosgvardia that consists of some 340,000 troops under the leadership of Viktor Zolotov who reports not to the armed forces of Ukraine, but again, only to Putin. Lastly, there is the FSB, Russia’s heinous successor to the KGB under the command of Russia’s National Security Council headed by Nikolai Patrushev, who as you can guess, reports directly to Putin. Everything begins and stops with Putin, and there is no love lost between all these different branches, and I am pretty sure that Putin likes to keep it that way. So long as they are competing or fighting internally with each other, they cannot consolidate their power and challenge his authoritarian rule.
As much as it may seem a winning formula for Putin to stay in power, the war on Ukraine has dramatically exposed the weakness of this kind of power structure during a time of war. Over the past year of conflict, it has been quite obvious that there is poor communication, lack of coordination and damaging internal political conflict at all levels. This fosters poor morale, slow reaction time, inflexibility, bad and misinformed decision making, and breakdowns in coordination at the operational level. The inflexible, hierarchical chain of command with Putin at the top, inhibits creativity, initiative and risk-taking. Its driving force is fear. All this is then magnified and exacerbated by the fact that systemic corruption exists at all levels like a malignant disease. This is nothing new to Russia, this is how things have worked in Russia for most of the past century, which explains why there has been no real change in Russian military organization, strategy and tactics for the past century. On today’s battlefields, this puts Russia at a great disadvantage.
Contrast this to the armed forces of Ukraine, where there is exemplary unity and coordination, a unified and flexible chain of command, and exceptional morale and trust within all the various branches of the military. The Ukrainian armed forces are not driven by fear like the Russians, but by a passionate patriotism and commitment to chase out the barbarians that have dared to invade their homeland.
The events of the past week show that fissures are beginning to develop within the Russian power monolith. Although this particular coup attempt may have failed, it is obvious that there are those in the Russian elite who have lost not only their faith in Putin’s leadership abilities, but perhaps more crucially, they may have also lost their fear of him as well. Prigozhin’s coup attempt should be seen as a dress rehearsal for more such possible attempts in the not to distant future. The Russians have begun to realize that “the emperor has no clothes”!