By Dr. Agbor N Ebuta
Those who must war-war should prepare to jaw-jaw, early enough as this may just save lives.
In the game of chess, strategy is everything. The ability to play out multiple scenarios even before they happen, and prepare for them, long before they emerge determine wins or losses. The ability to deploy these key attributes sustainably signposts the master strategist.
The Bolsheviks’ revolutionist in 1917, led by Vladimir Lenin against the Duma represents the closest to a de javu of recent events. Corruption was rife, while other forms of socioeconomic hardship were commonplace. This fueled wide disillusionment with Czar Nicholas II’s government, creating the hiatus the Bolsheviks quickly filled.
However, since then, the Bolsheviks have since evolved into the Communist Party and have gone on to hold sway for a century and counting.
Fast forward to the seemingly incomprehensible events in the last couple of days. A state-partnered private army defied a commander-in-chief, openly challenged the Military command, and marched un-hindered via strips of the country protected by territorial integrity leaving much to the imagination.
The fact that major world-altering events have happened in the past without much ado, should permit any student of history the mental space to accommodate these recent events. Hilter did what he did, Mussolini followed, the USA chased phantom weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and Ghaddafi’s fall are a few examples of how unprepared to predict or experience major earth-shaking events we all can be. Despite their potential to distort socio-political balance globally and regionally, and irrespective of quintessential intelligence gathering, nothing prepares us for the shocks we get from time to time.
Interestingly, the Prigozhin affair appeared to have ended even before it started. One will say, it had to happen for a few reasons. Recently Putin may have failed to pay attention to his military acolytes ever so closely. Though military corruption is considered a tradition in some parts of the world, un-mitigated corruption especially in the middle of war efforts, is a major demotivating factor.
The lack of resistance, all the way to the city of Rostov, about 1000km to Moscow, and a promise of limited skirmishes ahead defied popular predictions. The speed with which this was executed, also suggests a highly efficient and motivated army acting against the opposite side.
Although the excuse for this action was justifiable, ie the bombing of Wagner troops camped in Bakhmut. All fingers pointed at Kremlin and rightly so, the response was debatable.
On one hand, the Wagner group needed to send an unambiguous message, to deter a repeat of similar mayhem by Kremlin-linked interest. This, no doubt, they achieved last week. Although things could have quickly escalated to bloodshed and a point of no return, the timely intervention of the time-tested survivalist, Lukashenko of Belarus, served all interests satisfactorily in the interim.
As Prigozhin marched towards Moscow, Putin quickly strengthened his pre-negotiation position by focusing on soft targets. Relatives of current and ex-Wagner group members were marked out, some sources confirmed. Real or propaganda, this may have softened the ground for what followed next. That and the eventual discovery of a sizeable amount of money in pounds sterlings said to belong to the Wagner army but siezed by the Kremlin would suggest compensation, with face-saving attributes.
Aleksandr Lukashenko’s intervention did not come as a surprise, too. He understood the assignment. He equally had alot at stake. Here, he was undeniably a friend of Prigozhin and a buddy to Putin, a crossroads at best.
However, he knew that a challenge to Kremlin had implications in the medium to long term for Belarus his home country. The collapse of Putin’s government will directly leave his political flanks in Belarus vulnerable and weakened. He had to act. And act, timely, he did. He did not disappoint. In one fell swoop, he secured his position, stabilised the internal security of Russia, and shifted focus back to the war in Ukraine, allowing Putin to retain a modicum of respect. Prigozhin too, felt unbruised.
However, the fallouts of these events will not go away soon enough. Poorly managed, a domino effect may follow. Putin’s immediate move will be to strengthen his control of the military, review the command structure, and attempt to erase the accusations about un-mitigated corruption within the Kremlin military command. This he may execute quickly and efficiently.
He will also in the medium to long term, target the Wagner group, at least to send a message to would-be internal fifth columnists, who will read the Prigozhin affairs as an indication of the Boss ‘going soft”. In the Italian Mafia code, a weak Boss gets ‘whacked’, especially if he remains complacent. I doubt if an ex-KGB officer, with historical efficiency in the old East Germany, and additional political hands-on experience firmly in charge of state affairs would be so easily upstaged.
Prigozhin, Putin’s erstwhile ‘Chef’, has now asserted himself beyond agreed limits. There will be consequences. He will depend on the guarantee of Lukashenko, his field experience as a private military commando, and managerial acumen as the owner of a chain of luxury restaurants, including his exposure from being the coordinator of a ruthlessly efficient Wagner group, amongst others, to survive going forward.
Lukashenko will now begin to review his options. In the event of a move by the Kremlin against Prigozhin, his loyalty will be tested. In all this, with all the pieces moving in game of power, like chessboard manoeuvres, we can all but wonder, who is playing who.
Another big question too is: was this a ‘Russian roulette’ and if yes, who will take the bullet?
More important for us should be the lessons; which include but are not limited to early diffusion of tension, the strategic deployment of multiple targets appraisal, non-neglect of historical precedents, informal friendship ties, and the need to allow everyone to win at least, for now; permitting face-saving, which may dull the pains of apparent defeat as well as leave open the doors of reconciliation.
May these lessons come home sooner.
▪︎ Ebuta, a medical doctor and strategist, lives in Abuja.