Putin Is Caught in His Own Trap

Putin Is Caught in His Own Trap

The Wagner Group mercenaries marched 800 kilometers across Russia, shot down planes and helicopters, took over a regional military command, provoked a panic in Moscow—troops dug trenches, the mayor told everyone to stay home—and then stood down. Yet in a way, the strangest aspect of Saturday’s aborted coup was the reaction of the people of Rostov-on-Don, including the city’s military leaders, to the soldiers who arrived and declared themselves to be their new rulers.

The Wagner mercenaries showed up in the city early Saturday morning. They met no resistance. Nobody shot at them. One photograph, published by The New York Times, shows them walking at a leisurely pace across a street, one of their tanks in the background, holding yellow coffee cups.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s violent ex-con leader, posted videos of himself chatting with the local commanders in the courtyard of the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District. Nobody seemed to mind his being there.

Outside, street sweepers continued their work. Early in the morning, a few people came to gawk, but not many. After Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a panicked speech on television, comparing the situation to 1917 and evoking the ghost of civil war, one man pushing a bicycle was filmed berating the Wagnerites and telling them to go home. The troops laughed him off. But later in the day, more people showed up, and the atmosphere grew warmer.

People shook their hands, brought them food, took selfies. “People are bringing pirozhki, apples, chips. Everything there in the store has been bought to give to the soldiers,” one woman said on camera. In the evening, after Prigozhin had decided to stand down and go home (wherever home turns out to be), he drove away in an SUV with crowds filming him on their cellphones and cheering him on, as if he were a celebrity leaving a movie premiere or a gallery opening. Some chanted “Wagner! Wagner!” as the troops emerged into the street. This was the most remarkable aspect of the whole day: Nobody seemed to mind, particularly, that a brutal new warlord had arrived to replace the existing regime—not the security services, not the army, and not the general public. On the contrary, many seemed sorry to see him go.

The response is hard to understand without reckoning with the power of apathy, a much undervalued political tool. Democratic politicians spend a lot of time thinking about how to engage people and persuade them to vote. But a certain kind of autocrat, of whom Putin is the outstanding example, seeks to convince people of the opposite: not to participate, not to care, and not to follow politics at all. The propaganda used in Putin’s Russia has been designed in part for this purpose. The constant provision of absurd, conflicting explanations and ridiculous lies—the famous “firehose of falsehoods”— encourages many people to believe that there is no truth at all. The result is widespread cynicism. If you don’t know what’s true, after all, then there isn’t anything you can do about it. Protest is pointless. Engagement is useless.

But the side effect of apathy was on display yesterday as well. For if no one cares about anything, that means they don’t care about their supreme leader, his ideology, or his war. Russians haven’t flocked to sign up to fight in Ukraine. They haven’t rallied around the troops in Ukraine or held emotive ceremonies marking either their successes or their deaths. Of course they haven’t organized to oppose the war, but they haven’t organized to support it either.

Because they are afraid, or because they don’t know of any alternative, or because they think it’s what they are supposed to say, they tell pollsters that they support Putin. And yet, nobody tried to stop the Wagner group in Rostov-on-Don, and hardly anybody blocked the Wagner convoy on its way to Moscow. The security services melted away, made no move and no comment. The military dug some trenches around Moscow and sent some helicopters; somebody appears to have sent bulldozers to dig up the highways, but that was all we could see. Who will respond if a more serious challenge to Putin ever emerges? Certainly the military will think twice: Perhaps a dozen Russian servicemen, mostly pilots, died at the hands of the Wagner mutineers, more than died during the failed coup of 1991. Nobody seems particularly bothered about them.

One day after this aborted coup, it is too early to speculate about Prigozhin’s true motives, about what he was really given in exchange for standing down, about where Putin really spent the day on Saturday—some say St. Petersburg, some say a dacha in Novgorod—or about anything else, really. But the flimsiness of this regime’s ideology and the softness of its support have been suddenly laid bare. Expect more repression as Putin tries to stay in charge, more chaos, or both.

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