Prepare For a Russian Civil War



Published 07/25/23 06:00 AM ET

Alexander J. Motyl

The war criminals are at one another’s throats in Russia.

First, two war criminals — the Wagner Group’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and his sidekick, Dmitry Utkin — launched an unsuccessful putsch against the accused war criminal who is Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

The latter then appeared to sideline the former by disarming the Wagnerite war-criminal rank and file and moving them to Belarus, where they may or may not stay or train the Belarusian army, or engage in a provocation against Poland, or hightail it to Africa. Meanwhile, Prigozhin and Utkin appear to be alive and well — and possibly planning a comeback against the man who tried to sideline them.

But Putin also has other war criminals on his mind. The military officer known as “General Armageddon,” Sergei Surovikin, was interrogated and placed under house arrest for his support of the attempted coup. A few weeks later, Putin had a convicted war criminal, Igor Girkin-Strelkov, arrested and his apologist war criminal, former Col. Vladimir Kvachkov, charged with discrediting the armed forces.

General Sergei Surovikin (L), commander of Russia's military operation in Ukraine and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) are seen during a visit of Russian President to the joint staff of troops involved in Russia's military operation in Ukraine in an undisclosed place on December 17, 2022.
Gen. Sergei Surovikin (L), former commander of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) are seen during a visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to troops involved in Russia’s war in Ukraine, on Dec. 17, 2022.GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

The charges matter little, and naturally they have nothing to do with war crimes. Instead, Prigozhin, Utkin and Surovikin dared to challenge Putin, while Girkin called him incompetent and Kvachkov happened to agree.

The personalities involved also matter little, except perhaps for Kremlinologists. That’s because the bottom line is that all of the individuals carrying out this infighting qualify as “war criminals” of some kind. Some are convicted, some are accused, and some await accusation or conviction. But all — including Putin’s comrades in the policy elite, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrovand Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and his apologists in the media, such as Vladimir SolovyovMargarita Simonyan and Olga Skabeyeva — are implicated in one way or another, either as perpetrators or as enthusiasts.

The sad fact is that today’s Russia is run by war criminals. The liberals and democrats are almost all in exile or in jail, while everybody else — from the nameless provincial bureaucrat tasked, like Adolf Eichmann, with something as seemingly anodyne as making the trains with military equipment run on time to the top policymakers in the Kremlin and their most vociferous critics — has blood on their hands. The blood is mostly Ukrainian, but it’s also Chechen, Georgian and Russian.

Equally unfortunate is that most Russians are indifferent to the war crimes their leaders and soldiers are committing daily in Ukraine. Small minorities are wildly supportive or critical, but the majority looks on silently as crimes are perpetrated in their name. Most Russians are probably confused and despondent and tired, but they are also passive, and that passivity places them uncomfortably close to the apologists in Dante’s circles of hell.

But there is hope in the mutual bloodletting among Russia’s war criminals.

For starters, the criticism — and worse — leveled by Prigozhin, Utkin, Surovikin, Girkin and Kvachkov means that Putin’s seemingly rock-solid regime is actually made of papier-mâché. As is the opposition to Putin: Prigozhin and Girkin are at loggerheads, and the fact that Girkin the propagandist has been arrested while Prigozhin the putschist has not must be especially galling to the former.

Prigozhin reputedly is a creature of the GRU, the military intelligence service, while Girkin is an officer of the FSB, the security service and heir to the KGB. The two agencies have long had a competitive relationship, though, more importantly, neither did anything to stop Prigozhin’s march on Moscow. And, as Gen. Ivan Popov’s criticism of Russia’s war effort and his dismissal demonstrate, at least some highly-placed officers agree that Putin is, as Girkin said, incompetent.

There’s another silver lining worth mentioning. The fact that Putin has tried to muzzle Prigozhin, Utkin, Surovikin, Girkin and Kvachkov will have one of two possible consequences, or both. The accused war criminal may succeed in suppressing Russia’s most outspoken neo-Nazis and thereby shift the political spectrum a tad away from the extreme right. That can only help the liberals and democrats.

At the same time, repressing the neo-Nazis very easily could anger and mobilize their sympathizers. Russia’s many neo-Nazis are more than likely to conclude that, if seizing power via a coup or via propaganda doesn’t work, their only recourse is to violence. Utkin, ominously, ended his brief peroration with the words, “Welcome to hell,” in a recent video of the Wagnerites in Belarus. He may have been employing a florid rhetorical style. Or he may have been serious. And the Wagnerites in Belarus and elsewhere would be ideal candidates for some bomb throwing and assassinations, the stuff of their war criminality in the Middle East and Africa.

When war criminals fight war criminals with the methods of war criminality, the consequences are likely to be bloody — and profoundly unstable. Ordinary Russians will have to abandon their fence-sitting, and Ukraine and the world will have to prepare for a Russian civil war.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

One comment

  1. A mafia civil war is the best case scenario for us. We’ve been waiting patiently for it to happen. Will it happen? We hope so. But, we can’t count on it. Thus, the destruction of the mafia army must continue and, if possible, accelerate.

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