The Art of (Russian) War

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In “The Art of War,” Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

One thing Sun Tzu did not say was to take on the enemy’s military leadership by storm while issuing expletive-laden diatribes on Telegram.

Yet when Yevgeny Prigozhin launched his angry charge toward Moscow last weekend, that’s exactly what he did.

Prigozhin, founder of the infamous private paramilitary company Wagner Group, also seems to have fallen short of Sun Tzu’s advice on appearing unable to attack, seeming inactive when using his forces, and making the enemy believe he was far away when he was, in fact, close. All Sun Tzu fails.

Instead, he loudly stomped across the Ukrainian border into Russia, filming himself and actively narrating his progress, while seizing control of two big cities and leading a band of mercenaries within 200 kilometers of Moscow.

Prigozhin’s advance went largely unopposed and the armed uprising sped across 750 kilometers in a single day, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon his enjoyment of the weekend’s Scarlet Sails festival – his favorite – in his hometown of St. Petersburg to put down the rebellion.

In an announcement many interpreted as uncharacteristic panic, Putin urged Russian unity, stating in a televised broadcast, “We are fighting for the life and the security of our citizens and our territorial integrity” and denouncing Prigozhin as a “deadly threat.”

Putin blasted the onslaught as “treason” and a “stab in the back” to Russia, warning, “All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment.”

Prigozhin and his rabble managed to shoot down six Russian aircraft, reportedly killing 13 crew, while the Wagner founder posted fulminating videos and audio recordings to social media threatening, “we will destroy anyone who stands in our way” and “we are moving forward and will go until the end.”

The end was not very climactic. Prigozhin and his troops apparently did not receive the backup they needed to seize Moscow and withdrew, unharmed, to field camps. Prigozhin has reportedly repaired to Belarus. Not bad for having undertaken the art of war so poorly.

Putin’s dark rumblings, so far, have come to naught, with the criminal investigation into the attack and charges against Prigozhin and his troops abruptly dropped as part of the negotiated détente.

The entire episode was puzzlingly underwhelming and the actual terms of Prigozhin’s “deal” are nebulous. But knowing Putin, this cannot be the end of it. His former ally, Prigozhin, just attempted to unseat the Kremlin’s top military leaders and, while he didn’t get enough support to finish the job, Putin didn’t look too clever hanging out on a yacht in St. Petersburg during the revolt, either.

While there have been plenty of murmurings that it is only a matter of time Prigozhin meets with a cup of poison tea or a defenestration, Putin is unmistakably weakened by what many see as the most crippling assault on his power since he came to reign.

“I would argue that this is the single worst thing that’s happened to him in the 23 years since he took power,” said American-British financier Bill Browder, chief executive and co-founder of London hedge fund Hermitage Capital Management. “What next for Putin after Prigozhin backs down? I predict Putin will execute an almighty purge that would make Stalin blush. Putin is not one to handle humiliation well, and he now desperately needs to look tough to restore his authority.”

Browder’s Hermitage Capital was once a major foreign portfolio investor in Russia, until Browder was barred from entering the country and declared a “threat” to Russian national security.

Reports of what happens next in Russia have dominated the news all week, with at least one top Russian general purportedly already detained. Whether it is the beginning of a dread reckoning by Putin remains to be seen.

It’s worth noting that while Prigozhin did not get the outpouring of support he needed to succeed in his rebellion against the Russian military establishment, Putin also didn’t fare so well.

Lawrence Freedman, an emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, observed, “As the confrontation reached a critical stage, the masses were not running out onto the streets to support” their president, and those who urged Prigozhin to back off did not go “out of their way to praise Putin as a glorious and irreplaceable war leader, whose judgment bordered on the infallible and whose bravery moved all those who witnessed it.” He added, “Putin will be aware that at this vital moment when his position was under the greatest threat, many were watching to see what happened next.”

More than anything else, Putin is a strongman, and he will move to safeguard above all else, his power. “In Russia, everything is about money, except for money – which is about power,” one insider tells Power Corridor, riffing off the well-known Oscar Wilde quote.

While neither Putin nor Prigozhin have come out well, the skirmish is a big windfall for Ukraine, which is continuing its counteroffensive.

“Ukraine is the huge winner in this,” Browder says. “Wagner was the only truly capable fighting force, the only fighting force that the Ukrainian military had respect for, the one that they really had trouble with.”

Because of the attack on Russia, Putin will need to “recalibrate the allocation of military resources to protect the rest of the country, which means that they’re going to have to withdraw some of these soldiers from Ukraine.” He also predicted “dividends in short order” for Ukraine. 

Although the clash has left Putin looking weak, when it comes to Russia, appearances can be deceitful and Western leaders have been terrible in the past at understanding Putin’s intentions and predicting his moves, says geopolitical and information warfare analyst, Irina Tsukerman, who believes some of the uprising may have been strategically used to shift attention away from Russia’s struggles winning the war in Ukraine.

“Some of this was an attempt to distract the world from Russia losing ground to Ukraine, that’s the big story,” she tells Power Corridor. “All these factions fighting one another are great distractions to themselves.”

If Russia remains bogged down in the war in Ukraine and Putin continues to lose face, will he reconsider? She thinks not. 

“There’s no such thing as losing interest for Putin,” Tsukerman says. “There’s no losing interest in the war, it doesn’t happen when your entire power is on the line.” 

“He will hold on to as much as he can and try to wear down Ukraine as long as he can, with the hope the U.S. will lose interest in supporting the war.”