War is the continuation of politics by other means, says Clausewitz in On War. To an aggressor, war can seem like a direct way to alter the domestic politics of another country. When Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine seeking "denazification and demilitarization," he meant killing Ukraine's leaders, purging its society, changing its regime, and transforming it into a colonial appendage of Russia. But wartime politics often continues in a way the aggressor does not foresee. It was not foreseen that President Volodymyr Zelens'kyi would remain in Kyiv, that the Ukrainian state would function well, that Ukrainian civil society would resist.
Russian propagandists work hard to instruct us that there is no politics in Russia: the leader is beyond question, always right, opposed by external diabolic forces, etc. Night after night, they give us a furious panoply of genocidal images of Ukrainians: as vermin, as pestilence, as pigs to be killed by the million. The visual accumulation of evil is perhaps also a desperate attempt to draw attention away from a basic reality. Even as we see that the Putin regime is more criminal than we had realized, we don't doubt that it is durable and strong. In that sense, perhaps, Russian wartime propaganda succeeds.
But we should be suspicious. Russian history abounds in examples of war bringing an unexpected continuation of politics. Defeat in Crimea (1856) brought attempts at reform. Defeat to Japan brought a Russian revolution (1905). The First World War brought down both the tsar, then the regime that replaced the tsar, in the Bolshevik revolution (1917). Brezhnev's choice to invade Afghanistan (1979) was one source of the end of the Soviet Union (1991).
And now a leading Putinist propagandist brings a note of discord to Putinism. Yevgeny Prigozhin is often called "Putin's chef," in reference to his Kremlin-adjacent catering company. More significantly, Prigozhin ran the Internet Research Agency, which in 2016 generated and spread social media content to get Donald Trump elected. Prigozhin also directs Wagner, a mercenary company. Its soldiers have been responsible for carrying out public atrocities, such a beheading a live prisoner. For Prigozhin, such war crimes are public relations: fascism is presented as effective.
In recent propaganda videos, however, Prigozhin has been complaining about the Russian military effort. He has even taken the unusual step of mocking Putin (without mentioning his name). You can get a very useful guide to the atmospherics here.
This is politics where there is supposed to be none. It is Russian domestic politics, boomeranging back from Ukraine. Christo Grozev believes that Prigozhin has been profiling himself as a rival or successor to Putin from the beginning of this war. Prigozhin has been putting his own image forward on billboards and Telegram videos with relentless regularity. Wagner has in general been more successful than the regular Russian army in gaining territory. And Prigozhin has not hesitated to make loud public claims on state resources on this logic.
It is a logic that might have run its course in Bakhmut. Russia has been trying to take this minor city in the Donbas for about a year, at huge cost in lives. The area has some economic significance in mines and minerals. But in the Russian official mind it seems to function like Stalingrad (a turning point in the Second World War): a battle that must be won for the honor of the leader. Bakhmut was clearly supposed to be taken by 9 May, so that Putin would have something of which to boast in his Victory Day speech. This did not happen. What happened instead was politics
The days before and after 9 May were full of discord. First, Prigozhin announced that he would pull Wagner from Bakhmut because the Russian military had failed to supply artillery shells. Then he proclaimed that his blackmail had succeeded: the shells were coming, so Wagner would remain in Bakhmut. Then he said that the shells had not come after all. Then he began to narrate Ukrainian counter-attacks around Bakhmut, claiming that Russian soldiers (as opposed to Wagner men) were fleeing. As I write, local Ukrainian counterattacks persist. Russian gained only a few square miles in the months and months of its entire 2023 offensive, at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties. And now it seems to be losing that.
It is hard to interpret both Russian politics and battlefield realities, and smart people take opposing sides all the time. So let me offer, with that proviso, a personal interpretation of the politics of Bakhmut. I think it possible that Wagner, at this point, is meant to lose in Bakhmut. If what Prigozhin says was broadly true (a very big if, I accept), then he has been tricked by the Russian command into not withdrawing, and has not been armed the way that he wished to be, right before a Ukrainian attack. A trap. If that is the case, the motives of his rivals would not be far to seek. Prigozhin has been mocking the Russian military leadership for months. He has now criticized Putin directly. His prestige rests on on the image if Wagner as vicious and successful. If Wagner fails in Bakhmut, that image is tarnished, and his position is weaker.
Western analysts spend a lot of time plunging the depths of Putin's mind, often to explain to us that his psychological commitments are such that he cannot lose in Ukraine. I agree that he cares about Ukraine to an unhealthy degree; I was writing about this long ago, and his misunderstanding of the country has indeed brought hubris, catastrophe, nemesis. But the fixation on Ukraine is connected to something deeper: the idea that tyranny is forever, a personal obsession with losing power.
Putin’s obsession with eternal personal power was one of the forces that led him to try to suppress Ukraine by military force: a neighboring country where people made their wishes known, where elections worked, where protest was commonplace. Ukraine was a dangerous model for Russia, at least as Putin understands Russia. His idea of "rescuing" Russian-speaking people in Ukraine always meant conquering them, humiliating them, taming them. Remember, Zelens'kyi himself is one of those people! Ukraine is the country in the world where more people say what they want in the Russian language than anywhere else. It was that freedom, expressed in Russian, that threatened Putinism. Now Ukraine threatens Putinism in other ways, which can bring other reactions.
I might be wrong about Bakhmut; it's risky to analyze while a battle is underway, especially on the basis of limited sources. But if I am right, or something like right, I hope we can think about this war as the continuation of politics by other means, where the continuation is unpredictable, and forces adaptation. Putin is not fighting the war he imagined, nor should we be. He is now embedded in a politics he did not anticipate.
Putin initially connected Ukraine to a dream of posthumous glory. But now he has no choice but to connect Ukraine to earthly politics, since he cares about retaining power to the end. To keep power, Putin must control all Russian armed forces, which is not the same thing as keeping them in Ukraine. Those two things might well contradict: the recent spectacle of disunity around Bakhmut shows how. The better Ukraine does on the battlefield, the more they will contradict. More broadly, keeping power is not the same thing as pushing for victory in Ukraine. If Ukraine seems likely to win, Putin will seek another story of power. His propagandists are good at changing the subject.
We in democracies sometimes get a bit enraptured by dictators, and particularly dictators at war. We can get a little carried away by the notion that they can do what they want. If I am right, though, that Russian politics has continued in an unexpected war thanks to the war, it is easier to see its end. Putin will not want to see challenges to his rule begin abroad.
War brings political pressure, and not necessarily where the aggressor intended. Pressure forces choices. Putin can afford to lose in Ukraine, but he cannot afford to lose in Russia. He must face that choice if this war is to be brought to an end.
TS 12 May 2023
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I have long thought that Putin felt that Ukraine as a thriving democracy was a danger so close to the authoritarian Russian state. With many Ukrainians speaking both languages, and talk of EU and NATO membership, I wonder if that wasn't the big threat to Putin rather than an actual military threat from NATO membership. With free flow along the Ukr-Rus border, how long would it be before Russians realized that there was a better way of governance. Just a thought. But it does seem that Putin made a mistake of great magnitude on 2/24/22.
I was struck by the mention of Stalingrad along with Bakhmut. As a youth I remember the importance of Stalingrad. Stalin insisted they it would not be lost to the Nazis. Countless soldiers were thrown into the house-by-house conflict and orders were issued to shoot any Soviet soldier who retreated.
Stalingrad was symbolic of the reversal of the Nazi invasion. It was the turning point in the Soviet/German conflict.
In a microcosm, it appears that Bakhmut was Putin’s ‘Stalingrad’ in Ukraine. It has no dominant strategic value. Rather it was symbolic of Putin’s ‘special military operation.’ The Wagner group was heading the grinding assault. The US and others were puzzled why Zelensky was so firm on retaining Bakhmut. Putin desperately wanted to point to the full capture of Bakhmut before his ‘glorious’ May 9th event.
Instead, Ukraine launched a modest counter offensive, retook portions of Bakhmut, and denied Putin his minor May 9th ‘victory’—a humiliation!