The Mouse That Roared
The failed coup in Russia through the American looking glass
The former US president Donald Trump’s remarks regarding the failed coup attempt in Russia by Yevgeniy Prigozhin stood out for their sheer subtlety amidst the crass new western narrative that the dramatic events on June 23-24 highlighted “cracks” within the Russian system.
No one cares to explain what these “cracks” are but the coinage conveys that Russia is heading for implosion. Per Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin may have been “somewhat weakened”, creating an opportunity for the US to broker a peace settlement in Ukraine.
Trump focused on ending the conflict in Ukraine and suggested territorial concessions to Russia as part of a settlement, taking into account the facts on the ground. However, the Biden administration is unlikely to follow up.
In this context, the remarks on July 1 at a lecture at the Ditchley Foundation in Oxfordshire, a ceremonial county in South East England, by the CIA Director William Burns are of much interest. Especially so, as the backdrop is the battlefields of Ukraine. Kiev’s “counteroffensive”, much against its wishes and almost entirely due to pressure from Washington, is floundering and it underscores the catastrophic politico-military defeat that NATO faces.
Yet, Burns blithely claimed: “Putin’s war has already been a strategic failure for Russia – its military weaknesses laid bare; its economy badly damaged for years to come; its future as a junior partner and economic colony of China being shaped by Putin’s mistakes; its revanchist ambitions blunted by a NATO which has only grown bigger and stronger.”
Each of Burns’ contentions is debatable. Again, he sees Prigozgin’s coup attempt as “a scathing indictment of the Kremlin’s mendacious rationale for its invasion of Ukraine, and of the Russian military leadership’s conduct of the war… Disaffection with the war will continue to gnaw away at the Russian leadership… That disaffection creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us at CIA, at our core a human intelligence service. We’re not letting it go to waste (boasting about a new CIA drive to recruit Russian agents via internet.)”
Burns, while serving as counsellor in the Moscow embassy handled the bloody insurgency in Chechnya (fuelled by the CIA). He should, therefore, have no quarrel with the historical truth that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recalled the other day, “Russia has always emerged more resilient and stronger after any difficulties — and it is hard to call it (Prigozhin’s revolt) anything more than difficulties. Moreover, we already feel that the process has started.”
Those who manufacture false and self-serving narratives often run the risk of becoming their consumers. The unfinished business of the disbandment of Soviet Union revved up American diplomacy in the early 1990s to the project to encircle and stymie the Russian Federation. Its flip side was the attempt to transform Ukraine incrementally as an anti-Russia state and the ill-conceived decision by the Clinton administration on NATO’s expansion into the territories of the Warsaw Pact alliance.
Being a first-hand witness of these strategic blunders, Burns is well-placed to remind President Biden that the CIA plot to foster secessionism in North Caucasus and undermine the unity and integrity of the fledgling Russian Federation, the US interference in Ukraine and Georgia the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia, the NATO expansion — all these trampled upon Russia’s legitimate security interests, which ultimately created an adversary out of Russia by the end of the 1990s. But Burns instead puts all the blame on Putin, who came to power in 2000.
So long as such patent intellectual and moral dishonesty permeates American thinking, how can there be a genuine US-Russia dialogue with mutual respect?
Trump put the Wagner affair in proper perspective. Indeed, Putin may have become “somewhat weaker,” but that is largely because Prigozhin, an exceptionally gifted name caller and climber, cultivated a certain optics hinting at proximity with Putin and exploited it to amass great wealth and indulge in all sorts of nefarious activities. Putin’s fault lies in his failure to clearly define inappropriate behaviour and that has “somewhat weakened” him.
On the other hand, this phenomenon is endemic to all top-down political systems, including the US, where no one is in a position to cross-check the veracity of the name caller’s claims that he is wired into the fountainhead of decision-making.
In the final analysis, Putin is answerable to the people. Remember how he “backtracked” on pension reforms in 2018? Reportedly, the Kremlin has started preparing for the 2024 presidential campaign, therefore, Putin’s handling of Prigozhin’s treason will be closely watched in the months ahead.
The bottom line is that Putin brilliantly succeeded in averting the massive bloodshed that the CIA had reportedly predicted as imminent in its top secret briefings to the US lawmakers in anticipation of Prigozhin’s coup attempt.
The Wall Street Journal carried an exhaustive report today titled Putin’s Corporate Takeover Of Wagner Has Begun, which shows that the Russian state is already holding a searchlight into the antecedents and labyrinthine activities of the vast business empire that Prigozhin created.
The Journal estimates that Prigozhin “built one of the world’s most complicated and unaccountable corporate structures, a heavily-sanctioned spidergram of hundreds of companies in Russia and other jurisdictions that often paid their thousands of workers, mercenaries, line cooks, mining geologists, and social-media trolls in cash. Many of the deals Wagner-linked companies struck with African governments were informal, reliant on smuggling and illicit transfers and personally negotiated by Prigozhin himself… Prigozhin had transferred some of his holdings to employees in the weeks before the mutiny, potentially making them even more complicated for the government to requisition.”
How is Putin responsible for all this? President Biden refuses to be accountable even for his son’s shady business dealings! What Burns overlooks is that the Russian people are heads and shoulders above the American public when it comes to political erudition — a legacy of the extraordinary heights of social formation in the Soviet era. That is why the Orwellian media censorship that is happening in America today cannot work in the Russian society where people are literate enough to glean facts — unlike the gullible average American.
The Russian people have no love lost for oligarchs and will overwhelmingly endorse the Kremlin’s moves to bring Prigozhin to justice. Equally, there is no question that all sections of Russian society have rallied behind Putin who scattered the coup plotters without bloodshed. The western attempt to portray Prigozhin as some charismatic figure with a mass base is all bunkum.
Such schadenfreude can only cloud rational thinking. Trump was not a career diplomat specialising in Russia but his intuitive cognition sensed that a window of opportunity had opened for the Biden Administration to take the Ukraine crisis to the negotiating table — meaning, the Russian state and Putin are here to stay and make an authentic interlocutor.
The only good part about Burns’ speech is that he refrained from bragging about defeating Russia. The proxy war turns out to be a flop and now the CIA returns to the greener pastures of internal subversion of Russia. To that end, a new narrative replaces the discredited one of Russia’s military defeat. The Ukraine war has badly exposed the CIA’s shallow understanding of Russia.
Burns caricatures Russia as “the combustible combination of grievance, ambition and insecurity that Putin embodies.” He says Russia “constantly reminds us that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising ones.” Hello, where does that put the US in the pecking order? Among the “rising ones”?
Cover Photograph: The entrance lobby of the PMC Wagner Centre in St. Petersburg