Unknown Unknowns About Russian Coup
How Deep is the Revolt in Russia's army?
Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense, once quipped: "there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know." Right now we are very much in unknown, unknowns territory when it comes to the attempted coup d'état in Russia, and its aftermath.
Putin has already told us in no uncertain terms that when Prigozhin and the Wagner group agreed to stop their incursion, the country avoided civil war. According to Putin, the deal made with Prigozhin avoided "fratricidal" warfare.
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But Putin lets us known that it could have been! In other words, Putin feared Russia itself could have a truly existential crisis.
Meanwhile, Prigozhin has flown back to Moscow from Belarus, allegedly for only a few hours, to work out in more detail the future of Wagner. Without monetary support from Russia, Wagner will go out of business. Obviously Prigozhin seems to be relying on Putin's promise not to harm him.
Prigozhin owns his own business jet, an Embraer Legacy 600. The jet is under Western sanctions.
Another strange development happened north of Bakhmut yesterday, where the Ukrainians have made some advances against Russian forces, dug in to prevent Ukraine from taking the flanks and forming a pincer abound that city. As the Ukrainian forces mounted their attack, easily visible to the Russian side, Russian artillery stayed silent and made no effort to support Russian defenders. This is quite out of the ordinary, since the Russian army bases a significant part of its defensive capability on artillery strikes. What does it mean?
The lack of artillery support in the north of Bakhmut could mean no local Russian commander is in charge of the artillery and rocket forces in the area. How come? Have they been arrested or purged, or is something else going on?
An alternative explanation is that Russian artillery was needed elsewhere as Ukraine is in the midst of strengthening their counter-offensive in the Zaporizhzhia area. Ukraine has been attacking around Bakhmut for a couple of weeks, however, so pulling out artillery seems unlikely.
The third data point is based on speculative statements by Russian military bloggers. They are saying that General Sergey Surovikin and his deputy Col. General Andrey Yudin, Surovikin's deputy, have been taken to Moscow's Lefortovo prison compound for "preliminary" interrogation. This happened even before the New York Times said that US intelligence thought it possible that Surovikin was involved in the Prigozhin-Wagner operation preparations. If Surovikin and Yudin have been arrested, bigger problems lurk for Russian army leadership. The New York Times suggested other Russian generals might be implicated.
It is worth remembering that Surovikin made a video calling for the Wagner forces to stop their operation invading Russia and to return to their camps. One of the questions is whether this video actually reached the Wagner forces during their operation, or whether it was prepared so that Surovikin could have plausible deniability that he was part of Prigozhin's coup. One of the oddities of the video, as I previously pointed out, is that Surovikin is clutching an automatic pistol under his right arm.
If this is a bigger crisis in the Russian army that extends well beyond Surovikin, it could lead to the collapse of Putin's leadership and a remake of the Russian state. If Putin can contain the situation, mollify the generals, and get rid of only a few bad apples, he could survive.
Putin has a presidential guard and security team designed to protect him. But in a time of stress, uncertainty and duplicity, Putin will have to be looking over this shoulder all the time.
Security Guarantees for Ukraine
In Ukraine itself, Russian forces in the past couple of days sustained two or three setbacks across the line of contact, but (aside from the Bakhmut flank) appear to be operating on a normal basis. Observers say that Ukraine will make a really big push in the next week to see if they can get some kind of meaningful victory. This would help NATO give Ukraine security guarantees, which actually are worth considerably more than becoming a NATO member. NATO membership is a collective defense agreement and Article 5 of the agreement calls for consultations in case a member state is attacked. It does not guarantee a response or dictate what will be done. Moreover, it requires a unanimous vote for implementation, and a formal vote to defend Ukraine with troops is something that might be resisted by some NATO members.
Offering Ukraine security guarantees is something else. It gets around the collective defense bedrock of the alliance, and pre-commits NATO to come to Ukraine’s defense. This is something that is new and, to a degree, frightening since it appears to be an open ended commitment without any subsequent member voting. If NATO goes ahead with Ukrainian security guarantees, and presuming they are real guarantees, a security guaranty would represent a massive change in the basis of the NATO alliance.
Meanwhile, the saga in Russia continues to unfold.