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Psyops, appearances, reality: On the recent Wagner putsch attempt
As I have rather miserable hay fever, this will be a short post, but I wanted to comment at least indirectly about the Wagner PMC mutiny in Russia and its sudden resolution. My own best tentative interpretation you can find here. It’s not worth very much, as there are better sources you can go to for the war, but I wanted to speak briefly to the idea that what happened was some kind of psyop – a deliberately staged putsch to further the purposes of Russian politics or strategy. In this conception, the aim was to create a pretence for repositioning Wagner forces near Kiev, or to smoke out hidden traitors, or perhaps something else.
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I don’t find these theories credible, but I don’t want to litigate the details here. Instead, I’m interested in the degree to which appearances and reality can meaningfully diverge at the hard edge of power. They can do so only very slightly and temporarily, and not without substantial risk to the stagers.
Imagine (as some do) a government, the public officials of which are mere figureheads who take orders from hidden parties. There are ordinary elections, politicians and ministers, but they are all mere puppets for this hidden cabal. This might seem a plausible scenario, but if you think about it, it’s a highly volatile and unstable situation. The figurehead politicians can at any time just tell their minders to get lost, and these will have no recourse because the appearance of being in power hardly differs from the reality of it. There are many subtleties to modern politics – particularly in the relationships among specific parties – but the names of those who run things are for the most part known to you or easily discoverable, for this very reason. With modern communications, the pressure towards disintermediation of political power is if anything greater than ever before.
A staged putsch involving not mere press reports, but the real, widely documented movements of soldiers, the occupation of a city and army headquarters, skirmishes with regime forces, and the march on a capital, is probably not much different. Rank-and-file soldiers can’t be in on the game or it wouldn’t be a secret. The claim that it’s a psyop is just a thesis about the state of mind of a select few politicians and high commanders, but in every real mutiny we must imagine that these are highly likely to differ substantially from publicly stated motives anyway. The expression of force cannot be very different from force itself, and the appearance of compromise and weakness is hardly less real if, in the minds of some orchestrators, it’s in some way staged.
No putsch has ever occurred without a great wall of deception surrounding it, and we’ll never know the full truth of this one. The possibilities, though, must be circumscribed by the actual expressions of force we’ve seen.