When a “coup” is not a coup.

In the wake of the short-lived Wagner Group incursion into Russia I decided to tweet some basic definitions of various irregular collective action taken against political regimes and ruling elites. That was in due in no small measure to my frustration with mindless media in NZ and elsewhere originally labelling the event as a “coup” (as in coup d’état) before settling on “mutiny” after the fact. I figured that I would flesh out the tweets and publish them here.

A coup d’état (French, a strike against the State) or “golpe” (Spanish, golpe de Estado or blow to or against the State) is an armed intervention by the military and other elites against a civilian regime. A putsch (German, a violent attempt to overthrow) is a failed armed intervention by the military and civilian factions in order to produce a coup (I am indebted to Ian Morrison for correcting my initial characterisation). A mutiny is an armed protest by elements in the military against other units and/or their superiors.It does not involve civilians and tends to focus on internal, institutional grievances. A Rebellion/Revolt is an armed uprising by sectors of society against political elites, sometimes with military support. The difference between the two terms is due to the size and scale of the armed collective action–rebellions are larger than revolts and span a broader set of grievances. An insurrection is an armed uprising by elements of civil society against the ruling regime, sometimes with military support. A revolution is a grassroots act of mass collective violence against a regime followed by parametric (political, economic and social) change of that regime and in society. A pronunciamento Spanish, a pronouncement or declaration) is an armed ultimatum or statement of intent and claim by elements of the military, paramilitary militias or armed elements of civil society. It is designed to convey a message and a seriousness of purpose to targeted elites regarding their handling of certain grievances held by those making the pronouncement. It is not designed to provoke regime change per se but instead seeks to force an outcome favourable to those making the demands (my thanks to Adam Przeworski for bringing this to my attention).

Note that under certain conditions one type of event can lead to another in a cascade effect, e.g. a pronouncement leading to a rebellion leading to an insurrection that results in revolution. We also must distinguish between armed inter-elite quarrels (coups, putsches, some pronouncements), mutinies and civil society uprisings.

As for the Wagner foray into Southwestern Russia and the outer Moscow region, my impression is that it was a testing of the waters taken in order to gauge what support Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has within the Russian military and public. Remember that Prigozhin did not target Putin himself, just his High Command. In fact, for a year now Prigozhin has used his media platforms to call for the removal of Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He has labeled them cowardly and corrupt, noted that their children live the lives of pampered princelings and princesses in places like Dubai, and holds them responsible for command failures and the needless deaths of thousands of ordinary Russian soldiers. He has even called for their execution. But he has said nothing about Putin, who grew up in his hometown of Saint Petersburg.

In my opinion, Prigozhin wants to lead the MoD, not remove Putin. In fact, allowing Putin to remain as president might make it easier for Prigozhin to exercise real power from the Ministry of Defense as well as direct the prosecution of the war. We also must remember that there are other private military corporation (PMCs) operating in Russia, the largest being the one controlled by GASPROM, the state oil and gas monopoly. Prigozhin is well aware of their capabilities and presumably would like to consolidate them under an umbrella organization with global reach. Wagner fits that bill.

Having seen the lukewarm military/public response to his pronouncement, he decided that now was not the time to storm Moscow. Instead, he cut a deal with Putin that allowed he and his men to re-locate to Belarus and eventually elsewhere (since Wagner has a significant presence in many places a bit more hospitable than Belarus and where he would be less vulnerable to Russian retaliation). Even if he did not enter Moscow Prigozhin damaged Putin’s strongman image and may have fatally weakened Shoigu and Gerasimov’s positions. After all, Russian oligarchs and attendant economic elites may now see a reason to hedge their bets when it comes to the possibility of victory in the Ukraine and the durability in power of Putin and his coterie.That means exploring post-Putin options (which to be fair are as of yet invisible and which are likely to be just as authoritarian as the current ruling crowd). The Russian public is also more aware of elite fractures within the regime, so this move may be just the first salvo in a more prolonged power struggle within Russia. In fact, Prigoshin has made comparisons between the current situation in Russia and the 1917 Bolshevic Revolution, so even if he is not conceptually clear on what the purpose of his move was (other than the preposterous “march for justice” he claimed it was), he clearly sees Russia in a pre-revolutionary light.

Anglophone media bobbleheads and opinionators went to their stock analogies of poisoned teas and open high rise windows to characterise Prigoshin’s future. I disagree with them because Prigozhin has an insurance policy. Prigozhin’s insurance policy is, most immediately, that Putin needs Wagner if he is going to get any positive military result in Ukraine. If he kills Prigozhin, Wagner will quit the fight or suffer big defections and Russia will lose in Ukraine. That would likely spell the end of Putin. More broadly in terms of insurance against retaliation, Wagner also serves as a foreign ambassador and liaison between the Russian government and a number of state and non-state entities in the rougher parts of the world. It makes billions of dollars by offering protection to Chinese and other diamond and gold mining investors in Africa (a percentage of which goes to Russian state coffers), and provides military advice and personal protection to a rogues gallery of despots in Africa and the Middle East. It is a de facto (grey area) arm of the Russian state in many places where official relations are lacking or where the Russians believe that there is a need for them to be hidden from public view. Heck, Wagner are even rumoured to have some sort of operation in the Chatham Islands!

The Wagner Group may be known for its use of conscripts and brutality but in true mercenary fashion it has a senior cadre of hardened, smart and cunning military strategists drawn from around the world, including several Western countries. They are paid well and their families are well looked after. They are loyal to Prigozhin, so if he goes (one way or the other) then they go, And because Wagner operates in many different places, has its hands in many pies and delves into a broad array of endeavours (including signals intelligence, psychological operations and cyber crime), it has leverage on Putin. That is why Putin must allow Prigozhin to live, as least for the moment or until the war with Ukraine comes to an end. He needs Wagner in the fight (which makes Prigozhin’s current decision to withdraw his troops from Ukraine an additional pressure point on Putin and his military command).

In any event what Prigozhin did with his advance on Moscow was not a coup, or a putsch, or even a mutiny (since his troops are not part of the Russian military even while fighting alongside it). It might plausibly been called a revolt or a rebellion if it had garnered more popular support, but it did not reach the level of insurrection or revolution–at least not yet. So I am left with “pronouncement” as the best way of characterising the move because if nothing else, this pronouncement could well be a prelude of things to come.

5 thoughts on “When a “coup” is not a coup.

  1. It seems that you are expecting that the war will be won by ,or turn out to the advantage of, Russia.
    Some have even suggested that the whole show was perhaps intended to restructure the situation. As a result Prighozin and the core of Wagner are now in Belarus, and most of the other Wagner forces have been reintegrated directly into the military.
    So What would you expect to come next?

  2. Accurate terminology is so important in political matters, or at least should be. The deadly combo of Post Modernism (where essentially anything can mean anything) and Neo Liberal individualism have a lot to answer for.

    In the 60s, 70s–mid 80s amongst political opponents there were still agreed meanings and terms. Facts rather than alternative facts.

    The “Arab Spring” saw so many pundits and media channels describe the events as “Revolutions” which they were not. Surely a revolution is a fundamental shift in class power as described by Marx, Engels and Lenin.

    Trotskyites long described the Soviet Union as a “degenerate workers state”. Technically non capitalist public ownership of society, without much popular public input or support.

    Russia’s further decline since the Gorbachev and Yeltsin era has been well noted. Russian working class people never got to vote on their pensions and bank accounts disappearing in a huge oligarchical asset grab any more than NZers got to vote on Rogernomics–introduced by stealth.

    Don’t count Russia out though, the Southerners of the world are not quite so keen on US Imperialism. And what the…, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is now moving into the Pacific! There is a real soup of new imperialist anglophile groups and paper tigers emerging–AUKUS etc.

  3. Wagner appears to be being disbanded. In relation to the war, all you have to do is look at the timetable of Poland’s crash re-armament program and wonder who the mighty host they are assembling might for use against to know that if the Ukraine can keep the war hot for another 18 months or so the Poles will inevitably join the war. Polish intervention with the army they’ve got planned for 2025-26 would guarantee a crushing Russian defeat.

  4. William,

    I do not see how Russia can gain an advantage from the Wagner incursion into the homeland or, for that matter, how Russian will win the war. The Ukrainians are saying that Russia will destroy the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhizhia to add another environmental disaster to the flooding after the dam was blown. But the radioactive plume would most likely drift back into Russia given prevailing winds and provoke a more focused and perhaps interventionist NATO response, so given the fractures in the Russian military it is possible that the scenario will not come to pass. Moreover, Wagner has temporarily suspended combat operations in the Donbas, which could well be a way to show that their help is needed by the Russian military if they are going to secure their gains in that region, Or, conversely, that the Russians feel that they no longer need Wagner to win the war. IMO that would be a mistaken assumption.
    What I do see is a restructuring of the Russian high command and Prigozhin relocating to safer climes while his troops regroup. I doubt that there will be masses of Wagnerites joining the Russian Army any time soon if for no other reason then the incompetence and inflexibility of Russian commanders when compared with Wagner field commanders. So we shall see what develops. Meanwhile the Ukrainians need to make hay while conditions are in their favor.

  5. Pingback: Coup, Coup, Kachoo – Slow Coup I – No Minister

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