The Lessons of the Wagner Mutiny

1 year ago 82

I write as a Sri Lankan who lived quite actively through two civil wars, one anti-systemic the other ethno-regional. These included a thirty-years civil war against a militia – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam led by Velupillai Prabhakaran — that was regarded as the world’s fiercest at the time, and the one that had exploded more suicide bombs than all the Islamist jihadist groups put together. I worked closely with a President who won one civil war but was later assassinated by a suicide bomber from the other war, and then I worked closely with a President who won that war.

The experience teaches you how society and state need to reconfigure to avoid defeat or to end a string of defeats and to prevail. It is a process of learning, experimentation and evolution but it teaches you what Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap called “the objective laws of development” of a phenomenon, including war and peace.

A Russian reader may think, well, that the same experience we went through with the Chechen conflict but we prevailed, so what’s his point?

My point is that sometimes the same lessons need to be re-learned. It is quite obvious that there is a huge difference between fighting a militia and fighting a state which is being supported by a constellation of other states, but still, some of the politico-military lessons are usable if not universal.

What happened recently with Prigozhin could come as a surprise only to those who were unacquainted with Shakespeare’s martial tragedy Coriolanus, based on an actual historical figure of the Roman Empire.  It could also come as surprise to those unfamiliar with Machiavelli’s cautioning against the use of contract armies. However, the Wagner PMC had to be deployed because of pressing need. It filled a gap and did things that the conventional military could not. The Wagner fighters delivered.

At a time when the Ukrainian were and are recruiting contractors from all corners of the world—including special forces veterans from Sri Lanka living in the west—the deployment of Wagner PMC cannot be criticized.

But what are the lessons to be learned from the Wagner crisis? Firstly, to take it as a symptom and an early warning. The grievances that led to this mutiny have to be addressed. If the underlying grievances that led to mutinous behavior of Russian soldiers in World War I had been addressed early enough the military wouldn’t have cracked open.

This brings us to another lesson. The reason those grievances weren’t addressed in timely fashion World War I was because they were systemic: social, political (state) and institutional.

If anyone wishes to avoid such an outcome, then they must be ready to undertake the changes, the reforms that are necessary to rectify the errors and fill the gaps – including those of coordination – that could lead to such discontent among frontline fighters.

To prevail in the Chechen war, President Putin made serious changes in the way things were. Today, the enemy is far more formidable; it is nothing less than NATO, with the Ukrainian military as the spearhead. This means the changes of the Russian system have to be even greater than in the case of the Chechen conflict. The same President who made those earlier changes must make the presently needed ones.

The war in Afghanistan was lost, taking down the Soviet Union. The problem was systemic. The Soviet system that rallied and defeated the Nazi monster, chased it across Europe and slew it in its lair, hoisting the red flag over the Reichstag in time for May 1st 1945, had lost its elan vital. That cancerous erosion, as well as the deadly delusions about the west that led to the Ukraine crisis, began with Nikita Khrushchev.     

With the NATO-backed Ukraine knocking at the door, Russia is facing an existential danger. The Wagner mutiny is just a small-scale crisis which is an early warning of what might happen if Russia does not win this war. Note that I say win, and I say war. You cannot win a war unless you recognize it as such and mobilize all your national energies. That was a lesson we in Sri Lanka learned.

It is not possible to tap into the deepest wellsprings of collective emotion if the existential issue of survival and the need to prevail are not invoked.

As a sincere friend of Russia whose first memories of it date back to age seven, when I stayed at the Hotel Ukraine with my parents, I have to say the following: nostalgia for the tzarist past cannot help one win in the present. That state form and ethos was pre-capitalist; historically obsolete. Russia was defeated twice in the 20th century with that system in place: 1905 and 1914-1917. Any kind of retro-chic in ideology, system or ethos is unsustainable and result in disaster when one is facing a collection of late-modern states (NATO) backing the hybrid state on the other side. 

To win, the Russian military has to fight as the Red Army did; it has to ‘become’ at least in some respects, the Red Army. The leading ideology cannot be nostalgic about the White Army. If it is, it will have only a White Army performance. The Red Army was a product of a historical event: 1917. That cannot be regarded as the worst outcome in modern Russian history and then expect the Russian Army to fight like the product of 1917, the Red Army.

I am not arguing for a retro-revolutionary chic either. Let me put it this way. There are three national anthems I find especially rousing: the American, French and Russian—though not necessarily in that order. All three are the products of revolutions. But only one has retained the tune but changed the lyrics. That’s the Russian.

It is not that the Americans and French have behaved in world affairs or even domestically, in keeping with the original inspirational ideals of their national anthems, but they haven’t changed the lyrics. They’ve managed to reconcile continuity and change. In the case of Russia, the lyrics have been changed, abandoning the very lyrics that the Red Army sang to the same tune, as they fought the Nazis. Those lyrics were militarily meaningful because the Red Army soldiers were workers and peasants who had been given a new life thanks to the Revolution and the new system—they fought with superhuman motivation—unlike the Tsarist armies in the 20th century—also because they knew they would be dispossessed of all they had been given for the first time in the histories of their families, if the enemy won.

The Wagner mutiny is best understood in Lenin’s words: “the flash of lightning that illumined the reality”. What is that reality? At its most obvious level, it is that the state and military system have to change so as to enable and reproduce the flexibility, motivation and combat effectiveness of irregular, quasi-partisan style fighting and fighters. Partisan units, partisan fighting, was something the Red Army had mastered, in conjunction with its conventional and mobile war mastery.      

The deeper reality, the deeper lesson is that the Russian leadership and Russia itself have to collectively decide, and decide now, whether they are ready and capable of changing whatever needs to be changed, leaving no domain or dimension untouched, to prevent the collective west from prevailing and to prevail over the collective West.

The questions that the Wagner mutiny have posed Russia, are “who will prevail over whom?”, “where to begin?” and “what is to be done?” The same questions that were posed by currently the much-reviled Lenin.

The Russian leadership and people will have to decide whether the Establishment, i.e., the established order and structures, or the ‘superstructure’ as it used to be called in Soviet literature, is more important or even remotely as important, as the State. For the State formation and the state system to survive the onslaught of the imperialist enemy and prevail over it, a choice has to be made between ‘system’ and ‘structure’. The structures have to be re-modelled or replaced for the system and state formation to survive.  

The battleground reality reveals there is a contradiction between the existential exigencies of the Russian state and nation on the one hand, and the existing structures and power-relations on the other.

The West has changed 65 years of its policy and posture towards Russia, shifting to a grand-strategic offensive aimed at absolute victory over it. The West wishes to dictate the terms of the end of the war and the destiny of postwar Russia. In the face of this threat, Russia cannot remain static, status-quoist, immobile, ossified and conservative. Russia cannot remain as it is, and defend itself, let alone win—which it must, because the only way to defend itself, to survive, is to prevail, to win.

The changes that Russia will have to make, though not guide by a subjectively revolutionary ideology, will nonetheless, objectively, have to be nothing less than revolutionary. Though it can be a ‘revolution from above’ such as those undertaken by Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin. 

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