A. Kubilius. What will be the next act of the “Russian drama”?

2023-06-26 | Russia

There is a well-known classical genre as “Greek drama”: well-studied, well-researched, and a huge influence on today’s theatre.

In recent days, we have been observing what is worthy of being called the genre as “Russian drama”. Many of us have been watching it as if it were a good Hollywood action film, demanding new servings of popcorn for ourselves.

Many of us must have been confused after the end of the first act of the Russian drama (Prigozhin’s “turn”) – what does this mean, what will happen next? 

But this is the mark of a good theatrical drama: the first act is an act for dramatic intrigue; the second act is an act of speculation and doubt; the third act is the denouement, when everything becomes clear. There are also intermissions between the acts, when the audience can take a break, stretch their legs, sip champagne and speculate on the plot of the drama in the next act. As you know, the main characters may change during the play, the drama may turn into a comedy, and even into a tragedy in the finale, but one thing remains the same during the play: its main director.

As viewers of the Russian drama, we have to state that at the end of the first act we are now either still listening to the Entrance and sipping our refreshments in a state of confusion, or we are already watching the second act – an act of speculation and doubt. We have seen Prigozhin, the ‘hero’ of Act I. But who will play the role of the ‘hero’ in Acts II and III, we still do not know. Nor do we know the name of the play’s chief director.

For a viewer who does not know the entire script of the play, it is a futile effort to analyse what has just happened in the first act and what will happen in the upcoming second and third acts. The imagination of a good dramaturg and director can always surpass the imagination of any spectator, even if that spectator considers himself to be a great theatre expert.

As I write these lines, I am passing the time in Brussels and Frankfurt airports. I am flying to Croatia to attend a conference on European and regional security. Although I realise that speculating about the second and third actions is a futile exercise, as the ‘Russian drama’ may take a completely different turn, I have nevertheless decided to spend my time at the airports putting together my own analysis of the first and future actions. It makes it less boring waiting for the plane.

I have put together my analysis of the past and future actions of the Russian drama in the form of different scenarios, each of which seems to me to have its own causal links and internal logic. The scenarios are radically different, but each one is plausible enough. I am not yet in a position to judge which of the scenarios I am discussing is the most likely, because the reality of the ‘Russian drama’ has every chance of surpassing all the heights of my fantasy. I have given each script an individual dramatic title and tried to guess who the dramaturg and director of the script is.

Script I: Prigozhin is a lonely, not very wise adventurer.

Yesterday, at the very beginning of the so-called ‘revolt’ and ‘march towards Moscow’, I wrote that such a ‘revolt’ was probably long and planned by Prigozhin and his allies or ‘masters’. This seemed to be the case until the unexpected “twist” in the plot. Now I have less faith in such pre-planning. It is also possible that Prigozhin is simply a not-so-wise adventurer who personally decided to call Moscow’s bluff with his “rebellion” in order to be allowed to continue to deal freely with the Wagner group. Having gone as far as to Moscow, he realised that the bluff might have gone too far, and in the meantime the Kremlin might have discovered how to frighten Prigozhin himself (threatening his family or his wealth), and the adventurous Prigozhin realised it was better to turn around. That was the end of the rebellion, and we shall continue to see nothing but Prigozhin’s whining and await Putin’s inevitable and final revenge on the deluded adventurer, who did, after all, publicly humiliate Putin by instigating his rebellion. In this scenario, the dramaturg and director of the first act is Prigozhin himself; the director of the following act, “revenge” act, is Putin.

Scenario II: Prigozhin’s “master” has achieved what he wanted.

It is entirely possible that Prigozhin did not act alone, that a “master” representing some power structure from the Kremlin’s milieu (a part of the military leadership dissatisfied with the desperate war, FSB leaders worried about Russia’s existential crisis) planned to exploit Prigozhin’s revolt to, to show publicly, and thus to Putin himself, how weak Putin is, that nobody – neither the army nor the public – is going to defend him, that Prigozhin, with his slogans against the war in Ukraine, is being greeted joyfully by the people of Rostov (and perhaps by the people of Moscow as well). To a frightened Putin, Prigozhin’s ‘master’ could have issued a substantial ultimatum, which Putin was forced to accept (in order to prevent Prigozhin from taking over the Kremlin and Putin from being completely ruined), but we will find out much later. What that ultimatum might be we can only speculate, e.g. Putin resigns after a few months “due to a rapidly progressing illness”; Putin announces after a while that he will not take part in the presidential elections in 2024; Putin stops the war in Ukraine a few weeks later, announcing that he has achieved his goal and starts negotiations with the West for “peace” in Ukraine. In such a scenario, the second act of ‘speculation and doubt’ in this spectacle could be a long one, so we must be patient. It is clear that in the second and third acts, Prigozhin will no longer be the protagonist, but will be relegated to the ‘shadows’ for a while, in order to save Putin’s ‘face’ at least to some extent, until he delivers on the agreed ultimatum. Thereafter, Prigozhin will be duly rewarded. In the following acts of the play, the protagonist may become someone we cannot even see today, someone from the “master’s” milieu, who will be more courageous in saying that radical change is needed, that the war is a mistake, that Russia must be saved. This could be the new ‘hero’, whether portrayed as ‘ura-patriotic’ or ‘liberal-patriotic’. It is high time that the current Prime Minister, Mr Mishustin, appeared in such a role. The dramaturg and director of such a scenario may be the often-mentioned FSB chief N. Patrushev (Soviet Union’s “perestroika” was launched by KGB chief Y. Andropov), but it may also be one of the generals who can see what a desperate adventure Putin has led them into in Ukraine.

Scenario III. The West needs to be frightened by a “weak” Putin.

This scenario can be constructed on the assumption that Putin himself is beginning to realise what a desperate adventure he has gotten himself into in Ukraine.  He therefore urgently needs “peace” talks with the West on terms acceptable to Putin. This can only be achieved if the West is seriously frightened by the chaos that Russia may find itself in if the West does not agree to talks with Putin in the short term.

Putin may have realised that he was involved in a hopeless adventure already when he did not take Kyiv in 3 days and was then forced to retreat from Kyiv, Kharkov and Kherson. He realised even then that in the long term, there would be a growing dissatisfaction with such a war, both in Russian society and in the Russian army. Putin therefore appointed his loyal ‘chef’ Prigozhin as the accumulator and channel of discontent among the troops and the wider population. He allowed him to criticise the generals and the Shoigu, so that Prigozhin would gain some sort of reputation amongst the discontented people that he was his own man in the trenches, that he was with the common people. It is better for the Kremlin if the loyal Prigozhin is the leader of the discontent of the common people than if he is some more intellectual and independent general staff officer. In parallel, Putin has been sending signals to the West all this time that it is necessary to negotiate on Putin’s terms. In the name of this, he has periodically threatened the West with a nuclear strike, and then lobbied the leaders of China, India, Brazil and some African countries, who have come in repeated waves to offer the West and Ukraine new peace plans, but all according to the ‘Putin formula’. So far, this has not produced the result Putin wants. And Putin is becoming increasingly desperate because he realises that the Russian army will not be able to withstand the Ukrainian counter-attack. That is why he has taken both actions at once: Firstly, Karaganov, who is close to Putin, has published an article arguing that Russia must launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Europe in order for the West to finally “wean” itself away from Russia (some Western experts consider Karaganov’s doctrine to be the most serious nuclear blackmail yet formulated); secondly, Putin deliberately allowed his loyal cook to organise the “revolt” in order to scare the West with how weak the Putin regime is, how easily it can be overthrown by some criminal, aggressive, sabre-rattling, almost crazy Prigozhin (or Kadyrov), and how nuclear weapons will immediately fall into their unpredictable hands. This scenario of a ‘weak’ Putin must frighten the West, and it must either immediately agree to the terms of a ‘Putin peace’ or stop supporting Ukraine with weapons that would allow Ukraine to crush the Russian army, and therefore Putin. Because the West must believe that such a total victory of Ukraine will only mean that the unpredictable Prigozhin will take power in Russia. Putin is desperate for the West to adopt precisely this view of the situation in Russia. There have been examples of this Western thinking so far, and it will radically increase after the ‘revolt’. Yesterday, the Ukrainian portal “24 kanal” published a text quoting a “senior defence bureaucrat from a NATO country”, who says that “we do not need a Russia that is too strong. But we don’t want a too weak Russia either. We don’t want Russia to be a failed state because it is a nuclear state after all’.

So a ‘weak Putin’ is a threat to the West. Similarly with Gorbachev, a “weak Gorbachev” was also considered a threat to the West. This was also the focus of President George H. W. Bush’s “chicken Kyiv” speech. Perhaps even the August 1991 “revolt” against Gorbachev. The problem of a “weak” Gorbachev was then “solved” by Yeltsin and Russian civil society. Now these factors are absent, which is why Putin or his entourage can scare the West with a “weak” Putin. Prigozhin’s “rebellion” is very suitable for this. At some point Putin will pay him back properly, but for now he needs to be removed, because according to Putin, the West should negotiate with Putin, not with Prigozhin. The dramaturg and director of such a scenario is Putin himself and his inner circle. He will continue it right up to the end. Whether we will see Putin negotiating with a frightened West in the aftermath, we shall see in the near future.

My plane is about to take off. It is up to you to decide which scenario you think is most realistic. I lean towards scenario III.

But popcorn is still needed. And at the end of the day, Ukraine’s victory is crucial, because it destroys all the Kremlin’s scenarios, no matter how clever the directors and writers of the ‘Russian drama’ think they are.