Dr. Dale Herspring and I published a book on the Soviet Union and strategic arms control in the 1980s. Dale went on to have a distinguished career in academia after a distinguished career as a foreign service officer.
Recently, he gave an interview on recent Russian events to a foreign newspaper and are republishing with his permission.
Question: Is there any doubt about the Putin intervention in the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin? How does this affect the position of Putin inside Russia, or this does not change anything for him and his supporters?
Herspring: I don’t think there is any question of Putin’s involvement. He has made it clear throughout his reign that he would put up with a lot, but if the act involved betrayal, the answer was death.
The Prigozhin case was certainly such an event. The Pentagon refuses to say Putin was involved, or that a surface to air missile was utilized.
So, it is not a simple answer.
I think we are going to have to wait before we come to a conclusive answer, we need more evidence. Will we get it?
I use the Russian phrase, which I think hits the nail on the head, “Tylko bog znaet” (Only God knows).
Question: In the context of the Ukrainian war, which consequences could have the death of Prigozhin? What’s the message for Shoygu and the Russian Army in general?
Herspring: This is the big, unanswered question. Prigozhin’s troops were the best facing the Ukrainians, as the latter have admitted.
Russian forces are full of those who have been drafted and desert at the first opportunity.
For that reason, the next few days will be critical.
If the Ukrainian troops can breakthrough Russian lines, it could lead to serious losses for the Russians.
Logically, the Russians should win simply because they have more troops, but the quality is way down.
Unfortunately, that is also true of the Ukrainian forces.
The next month or so will be critical.
The question, to use a German phrase is wither we will move into a “sitzkrieg” with both sides “stuck” where they are for the indefinite future.
Question: There’s a way to frame the rebellion of June: Wagner, outside the Army, was the most powerful group or collective that could actually become a threat to the Putin regime.
How is the death of Prigozhin affecting the possibility of getting Putin out of power?
Herspring: The answer is as simple as it is complex.
I am not playing games with words, when I say that.
It is simple because Putin is in power, from what we can tell, “in total power” or as close as that can be as seen “through as glass darkly.”
I have followed events in the Soviet Union and now Russia for more than 50 years.
And one thing I have learned is that the minute you think you have events figured out and are in a position to provide excellent advice, the opposite of what you expected occurs.
And contrary to what many believe, that was not only a phenomenon of Stalin’s Russia it may simply be part of Russian history/culture for the last hundred or so years.
Question: About the rebellion of June: did it have at least a chance to overthrow the Putin’s regime?
How did it affect the credibility or image that Putin had at that time?
Herspring: The answer is NYET! (no).
Prigozhin made far too many mistakes, in the same way that many politicians do.
One of the most difficult tasks on the part of any politician, East or West – is to accurately measure his or her power.
There is almost always a tendency for the individual to overestimate one’s influence, although one might have expected a senior advisor to do a better than average job.
That was not the case with Prigozhin.
Based on what we know from unclassified information, his march on Putin was a comedy of errors. He did not seem to know where his following units were, nor exactly who was for or against him.
Plotting against a man like Putin who has his tenacles in just about every part of the Russian state and society is plain stupid, except in very special circumstances.
There is too much we simply do not understand about Russian politics today.
For example: What does the average Russian think about Putin/the war in Ukraine, the standard of living, etc.?
These are critical factors, well researched in the West on our policies, but who is prepared to send in the questionnaires and expect honest answers in Russia? Lots of luck.
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that Prigozhin made was to overestimate his own strength, unity, and military capability.
There is no doubt that the troops he commanded were the best facing the Ukrainians. They were tough and fought well.
But the coordination so critical to military operations was simply missing. Intelligence was also lacking.
His people seemed to be confused, out of communication, indeed lost on occasion, and rather than follow through and let the cards fall where they may, he hesitated short of his goal.
That gave the old intelligence chief, who knows far more about intelligence matters than he is given credit for, time to organize his force and respond effectively, on the spot.
Question:What’s the future of Wagner and its operations in Africa, after the events of Wednesday?
Herspring: I think it is too soon to know what will happen in Africa. I know the Irish, who are active in parts of Africa, are concerned about these Russians and what impact their presence will have on their peacekeeping efforts on the continent.
Question: Even if it’s difficult to measure; how did the Russian society react to the rebellion of June, and how should they be feeling right now?
Herspring That is as great question.
Unfortunately, the answer is – or I should say – appears to be “not much.”
Life among the troops is not their concern.
If the average American gets irritated enough with the way politics are being handled in Washington, he or she may become politically active and make use of whatever levers of political power are available to them — it may be membership in a political power group, through a Congressman or a senator, or perhaps via an interest group just as President Biden is discovering.
This avenue is simply not available to the average Russian.
Besides, that is not something that would dawn on the vast majority of Russians.
It is simply not part of their political culture.
Note: The term “Sitzkrieg – sit + war” comes from the First World War and refers to a time when the lines of action are more or less sitting on both sides and there is no fighting.