What exactly is Wagner and how did it rise to the stature of a parallel authority in a country where power is supposed to flow from the top?
Sreeram Chaulia, Professor and Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.
A thunderstorm gathered and then dispersed, leaving in its wake a trail of uncertainty and doubt about the soundness of Russia’s State structure and the prospects of its grinding war in Ukraine. The shortlived mutiny of the Wagner paramilitary group against Russia’s military establishment briefly raised fears of a coup d’etat or civil war, and was mysteriously aborted later through backroom deals. But the dramatic episode revealed a hollowed-out polity which lacks institutional strength and dynamism.
To understand the revolt, basic questions must be asked. What exactly is Wagner and how did it rise to the stature of a parallel authority in a country where power is supposed to flow from the top and President Vladimir Putin purportedly has an iron grip?
The answer lies in the game of thrones that Putin has orchestrated to remain in power as Russia’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin. American political scientist Timothy Frye labels Putin a “weak strongman” who deliberately keeps institutions such as the military, bureaucracy and business community frail and compartmentalised, so that none amasses too much power and he retains ultimate control via personalised relationships.
Staying above the fray as an arbitrator or dealmaker while elites vie for the spoils is not Putin’s invention. Authoritarian playbooks worldwide use this ploy. Putin’s strategy is a classic manifestation of the art of political survival by keeping the State institutionally fragile and making the country dependent on the leader’s individual discretion. His mass popularity also derives from this game where the military, the civil service, private corporations, governors and local administrations are viewed as incompetent and greedy, while he remains the nation’s saviour.
Published in: Hindustan Times
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