The Voices of War

94. Special Release: Dr. Mike Martin - Cracks In Putin’s Autocracy: Dissent, Mutiny, And Shifting Tides

VOW 94 | Putin’s Autocracy

Today, I spoke with Dr. Mike Martin who is one of the go-to voices for insights and analysis of the war in Ukraine.

Mike has authored several books, amongst which is still one of my favourites on conflict titled ‘Why We Fight’. Mike also recently released a new book titled, ‘How to Fight a War’, that details why wars are won and why they are lost. The book is getting released in Australia on the 1st of July and can be ordered here.

Mike joins me today for an update on the war in Ukraine, especially on the events that transpired in Russia over the past week. Some of the themes we discussed are:

  • Reasons for brittleness of autocratic regimes
  • Sawing of dissent within Russian ranks
  • The potential impact of the mutiny on the battlefield in Ukraine
  • Discussion on the seeming purge of Prigozhin’s allies
  • The possible shift of position by China
  • Potential future scenarios

Recent previous episodes with Dr Mike Martin:

Listen to the podcast here

Special Release: Dr. Mike Martin – Cracks In Putin’s Autocracy: Dissent, Mutiny, And Shifting Tides

My guest is, once again, Dr. Mike Martin. Mike has appeared on the show several times before. Among the many things he’s doing in life, he’s become one of the go-to voices for insights and analysis of the war in Ukraine. Mike has authored several books, which is still one of my favourites on conflict titled Why We Fight. Mike also released a new book titled How to Fight a War, which I’m told is an outstanding read, the details of why wars are won, and perhaps more importantly why they are lost. I’m yet to receive my pre-ordered copy as the book is getting released in Australia on the 1st of July, 2023. Mike joins me for an update on the war in Ukraine, especially on the events that transpired in Russia. Mike, welcome back to the show.

VOW 94 | Putin’s Autocracy
How to Fight a War by Mike Martin

How are you doing?

Good to see you again. Let’s get straight into it. The audience is very familiar with your background. Mike, from where you are sitting, what has happened in Russia? What is going on?

You hit the nail on the head. The thing about autocracies and dictate is they are quite brittle. They have this impression of strength and you have a strong man. That’s what an autocrat is. Putin is a strong man, and they project strength and it all looks very strong. There’s a huge brittleness underneath that. The brittleness comes from the fact that all power is centralised in that person rather than in a democracy, we spread power around. We have checks and balances and different organs of state, courts, parliaments, and executive and they all balance each other out.

It’s much less brittle because you have this interlocking system. In a place like Russia, all power flows from one person. It’s all very brittle. The way to think about how Putin runs Russia is, that there are two models. One is like a mafia-type gangster thing. We have all watched the Sopranos or whatever. The other way to think about it is a medieval court where you have a king and all the barons are coming up to them. The king is trying to play the barons off against each other to make sure that no one gets too powerful and can threaten him. What’s been happening is that Putin built up Prigozhin and Wagner partly because they were competent, and they were just more efficient and able to get things done in a way that the sclerotic Russian state.

He could wash his hands off it as well.

He was happy to tolerate them when they criticised the ministry. He was quite happy when there was a bit of beef going on between ministry defences because that kept them focused on each other rather than focusing on him. The war in Ukraine has been a disaster for Putin, it’s weakened him massively. It’s his project and it’s been an absolute disaster. To have lots of different organs of state competing, and it’s not just the military and Wagner, it’s the Chechens. It’s different intelligence services. All of these different organs of state, it’s the St. Petersburg gang versus the Moscow gang.

To have all those in a soup where they are constantly looking at each other going, “Who’s in favour and who’s not?” That suits Putin because it enables him to stay in power, but it doesn’t make for a very efficient state or government, or particularly, military. You can’t project a military force race successfully if your troops in Ukraine are highly factionalised between different competing stovepipes.

Have you seen that division play out between the troops?

For sure. Wagner has been largely responsible for taking Bakhmut since the beginning of 2023.

It’s the only success that Russia can claim if you want to call it a success.

I suppose in 2023. In 2022 over the summer they took over Donetsk. Is it a success? They focused on it. It was Putin’s goal. Wagner accomplished it but at a huge cost. The Ukrainians realised that Wagner was trying to take Bakhmut, and they deliberately didn’t just give up the town at some costs themselves, but much lower costs than what the Russians incurred. They fought a nutritional defence where they retreated very slowly and did as much damage as possible with Russians. What that did was tie the Russian focus up in Bakhmut which enabled the Ukrainians to build up this counter-offensive force, which we are now seeing start to be deployed, although far from fully deployed at the moment.

The Russians now losing Bakhmut because Wagner pulled out and the Army is holding it, and then they are losing it. The Ukrainians are moving in on the flank. Was it worth it? Probably not. The other thing that the Ukrainians did was they realised that there were divisions between Wagner and the military and so forth. They deliberately used Bakhmut as a way of exacerbating those divisions.

Both in what they were doing on the battlefield, so they would differentially allow retreats and attacks depending on who the enemy they were facing was. Also, they were playing an underhand, intelligent game where they were sowing the seeds of descent between Wagner and the military. We know that Prigozhin, the head of Wagner was talking to the Ukrainians and potentially giving up some Russian military commanders. The Ukrainians are very clever. Intelligence game.

Can you just elaborate on that a little bit? I’m not familiar with it, so I’m sure there will be other people also.

It came out later on. It turned out that Prigozhin had several contacts with the Ukrainian Secret Service. One of the things that came out was that he was discussing Russian military positions and stuff like that. Is that true or not? If it’s true, fine. If it’s not, then fine. Yet it’s a black op. The whole thing is designed to dissension. We see that dissension bubbling out into open rebellion. You can see the Ukrainian in Bakhmut as nothing but a complete success.

Firstly, because it tied up the Russians, and secondly, because it allowed them to exacerbate this descent between the two major factions on the Russian military side. Zoom out a bit. The only way that Ukrainians are going to win the war in Russia is by political factionalism in Moscow getting the upper hand and there being a coup, the wall will never end while Putin is in charge. Therefore, everything the Ukrainians do is about exacerbating factions and trying to bring about political change in Moscow.


VOW 94 | Putin’s Autocracy
Putin’s Autocracy: The only way that Ukrainians are going to win the war in Russia is by political factionalism in Moscow getting the upper hand and there being a coup. The war will never end while Putin is in charge.

 

You have to look at everything they do on the battlefield as being geared towards that goal because they are never going to kick every last Russian out of Ukraine. That’s just not going to happen. Here, the Ukrainian method of victory is at odds with what the West wants. This is the trap that we see. The West wants Russia to be kicked out of Ukraine, but they probably prefer Putin to stay in charge because they don’t know what comes next. What comes next could be much worse.

Likely would be if Putin goes down, chances won’t be a Western-leaning and loving Ukraine.

It won’t be, but it might be worse or even worse than that Russia splits into several different groups. The big problem is the nuclear weapons. That is the major problem who owns physically the nukes, and then who controls the ability to launch those nukes? In this sense, there’s a tension between the way that Ukraine can win and the way that the West wants them to win. Everyone wants Ukraine to win. It’s just the different roots that we go about it. There’s a slight tension there.

I will pick up on that a little bit later. I’m just signposting it now, everybody wants Ukraine to win. Certainly, in our audience, I suspect there will be a large percentage. You and I do, but maybe we will pick up on that a little bit later on. I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the strategic picture in the geopolitical games, know who are being inflated, and who’s watching what. I also want just pick up on this idea of brittleness and that it was in Putin’s interest to keep Prigozhin, Shoigu, and Gerasimov in this tension. That just seems insane given what’s happening and the risk that brings.

Are you confident that this is a game that he was playing, or is it just literally all running out of his hands? Is he losing grip on power because these guys are now feeling empowered by these guys? When I say these guys, I mean Prigozhin that he feels empowered that he can challenge Gerasimov and Shoigu publicly as he has done for months.

I don’t think you have a choice if you are a dictator. Divide and rule, you have to play factions off against each other. It’s the only way you are going to stay in power because if you create a proper hierarchy where you have someone who’s in charge of everyone else, and they report to you, that person will then inevitably challenge you for your position.

If you're a dictator, you have to divide and rule. You have to play factions off against each other. That's the only way you're going to stay in power. Click To Tweet

The most interesting thing about the rebellion is that 100% large bits of the Russian military stood on the sidelines. There’s no way that they would have been able to drive several hundred kilometres towards Moscow without the Russian military, at the very least, sitting on the sidelines. Let alone, I’m sure some of them declared for Prigozhin. We have seen some clear-outs in Rostov where we have seen some people being arrested and whatever, so we know that some people did go over to Prigozhin. It seems the Air Force stayed loyal as we saw some of those attacks.

They didn’t shoot. I just read that a bunch of pilots are now being investigated for not engaging Wagner and potentially being prosecuted for disobeying a lawful order, which was in the defence of the state, the state was in threat and, therefore, was a law lawful order.

The defence of Moscow was people digging ditches in roads with diggers. It was not crazy deploying an army division. It was civilians getting out there, and whoever Putin ordered getting out there to dig ditches in the road. It was not. “Where is the 37th Guard division?”

I just wonder about this point about Russian soldiers being on the fence. I suspect they probably were confused as hell. In this environment where everything is in question now, you have Russians shooting Russians who were trying to escape from the front lines, and I’m sure that’s seeping in. The morale of the troops must be abysmal. Now you have the best troops Wagner turning onto Moscow. Even if you were supportive of Putin, I suspect it would be difficult to mount a resistance because if these guys are against us, something is going on which is perhaps this confusion of these 24 hours.

No one knows whose side they are on. They are just following the guy that’s in charge at the time which is again, something we see in these types of authoritarian regimes. When people came out in Rostov carrying Wagner flags, it reminded me of images we saw in Kabul of people coming out with Taliban flags. It’s just like, “Who’s next?”

These guys are in charge now. It’s like preservation. When Wagner left, they got cheered. At that point, you’d think that they’d be welcoming the police back. When Wagner left, the police were booed. That’s not a good sign. You have to look at how Coup works. The main thing about the coup is it’s all about momentum. What happens is, like you are saying, everyone goes, “Coup is happening,” and they look around and they go, “Who’s going to win?” Straightaway, it’s all about making a judgment of who’s going to win and then joining them because you don’t want to be on the wrong side.

That’s just human psychology. It seems that where we got to was rather than everyone immediately being loyal to Putin, which is what you’d expect. If someone tried to launch a coup in Australia, there’s no question that the Australian army wouldn’t immediately spring two. That didn’t happen in Russia. As we have discussed, there was acquiescence standing by. Clearly what they were doing was going, “Who’s going to win?”

“Which patch am I wearing tomorrow?”

Prigozhin then heads off into exile, but that’s acting against its interest. What’s going on? What was the deal done?

What are you making that?

There are a few rumours. I supposed it amused it on Twitter, and then some reports came out the following day that the Russian FSB got to all the families of the Wagner commanders, Prigozin’s family. That’s the easiest way to think Mafia boss. That’s the easiest way to stop these things dead. That’s the only thing I can think of. Why would he give up? He has 200,000 from Moscow.

I have read various analyses and one of them that seems the most salient is that he never wanted to do it. He was forced and pushed, and he didn’t have a plan post. What’s he going to do in the Kremlin?

I don’t know.

The way I read it was that he wanted Putin’s attention and it all spiralled out of control before we realised, “I’m 200,000 from Moscow.”

I don’t think humans work from that. He’s not stupid. He knows that if he launches his rebellion, he is a marked man. He’s got a win. If he doesn’t win, then he is a marked man for the rest of his life. He’s a marked man now.

Is he a dead man walking, if he’s even walking? We haven’t seen or heard much from him.

Is he dead or is Putin dead? I don’t know. I have no idea. I don’t have any special information. Maybe he will take over Belarus. Who knows? None of it makes sense, which means there’s a load of information that we don’t have. What we do know is that this has seriously weakened Putin. If you are a strong man and you have a rebellion on your territory, not to mention all the stuff going on in Belarus, the Russian Freedom Legion or whatever support from Ukraine. That’s not a good look.

The war is going badly. The Ukrainians are about to have some battlefield successes. They haven’t even deployed most of their strike force yet. Wagner has pulled out of Ukraine. That’s 25,000 of the most competent soldiers. That’s this huge hit. Bakhmut, there are gains, the Ukrainians made a crossing over by Kherson over Dnipro, like Tokmak access, steady progress. Volodarka is still in steady progress.

Something is going to give at some point. The Ukrainians are going to make some big gains. A faction can use this as a narrative to blame Putin and say, “We should be in charge and we are going to end the war.” Let’s make any bones about this. Whichever faction can turn up and say, “We are in charge of the nukes,” the Americans will go to them and say, “We’d be delighted to welcome you back into the international system as long as you end the war in Ukraine.”

Do you reckon they will do that?

Yeah. It comes down to controlling the nuclear weapons and not having them dismantled, or sold off. Whatever is auctioned on the dark web. Whichever power can say, “We have control of these.” What we want is a military coup in Russia. That’s the best of all outcomes because the Russian military is a pretty run bunch, but they are a lot better than the ultra-nationalists in Moscow. These are the people who are on TV every day saying, “We should be nuked in Europe and stuff.” the Russian military isn’t saying that. The Russian military is organised, they cover the entire territory of Moscow, and they are in charge of nuclear weapons.

What we want is a military coup in Russia. That's the best of all outcomes. Click To Tweet

It strikes me that a military coup is the best outcome. As you know we are both military people. You are indoctrinated into bigger things when you join the military in the sense that you take on responsibilities and think about the state. That’s probably a credible negotiating partner for the US and China. It enables them to say, “We didn’t want to go into this war. We were pushed into it by Putin. We are just following orders. We will withdraw and you will withdraw our opposition to the international system. We will guarantee nuclear security.” I don’t know. That’s the ground bargain. I suspect that we are heading for or I hope we are heading for, because the other option is Putin loses power, dies, falls out of a window, or whatever. Some crazy nutter takes over.

Having read what’s happening, he is making appearances on national TV, and he’s trying to play it off as he had it under control. He didn’t sleep a minute during the uprising or the coup attempt. We have also read in the New York Times that Surovikin was also arrested.

That was the guy who did the hostage video on the night it was sent out with an AK on his knee. That is not a regime that’s in control. You trot out a general looking dishevelled. It’s Friday night, and they have all been on the piss. You go to whichever bar that general’s in, you give him a set of combat fatigues, give him an AK, and you film a hostage video. This is not a great power that’s in control of this.

If it’s true he is under arrest because he was supporting Prigozhin and that’s because he was also quite critical of Shoigu and Gerasimov. There seems to be a purge of Prigozhin and his crew.

Purges make the system less stable and more stable. It might shore up the stability of the system in the short term. The purges then build up more enemies.

Which makes it more brittle again.

It shores it up in the short term. It looks stronger but it makes it more brittle. The situation accelerates out of control. If you are an autocrat and you have everything nicely balanced, you have all of these acolytes playing off against your head, but gradually you have to purge and punish and whatever, and then it becomes more brittle the system.


VOW 94 | Putin’s Autocracy
Putin’s Autocracy: Gradually, a General has to purge and punish. And gradually, it brittles the system more and more.

 

Especially when all the pressure as well, it’s not just the internal pressure, it’s external pressure, it’s Ukraine it’s the rest of the world still probing. As you said, it’s an intelligence game. I do not doubt that many Western powers have their fingers in that pie as well.

We saw a Chinese ambassador say, “We should look at restoring Ukraine to its 1991 borders.” That’s pretty massive.

I didn’t see that. Who did you say it was?

It was a Chinese ambassador. I can’t remember. It was an official. They are flying a kite. It’s not like a settled policy position. He said, “I don’t see why that shouldn’t be the case.” It wasn’t like, “Here’s our policy,” but it was flying the kite. That everlasting deep friendship or whatever it was, looked pretty shaky.

What did you make of the claim or the offer to the Wagner soldiers to either return home, go to Belarus, or sign contracts with the Army? How many do you suspect would have taken option C?

To go home maybe. It was signed contracts with the military or other security forces. That’s the key point because they are not going to serve in the Russian military. After all, it’s hierarchical and inefficient and all the rest of it. One of the reasons Wagner is successful is because they have an agile mission command-type stuff. They might go into one of the other paramilitary forces attached to one of the intelligence agencies. Talk about making the system more brittle.

One of the players is the FSB and the GIU. GIU is fairly close to Wagner anyway, but let’s say that lot joined one of the paramilitary arms of the FSB or the GIU. Suddenly you have a bunch of pissed-off people who are motivated, but then also working with another faction, it’s like rearranging the deck chairs. Will they go to Belarus? I don’t know. This idea of camps in Belarus doesn’t make sense. Why would you allow an armed force to exist on the territory of a neighbouring country that’s quite a weak country? Doesn’t make sense.

Lots to look at over the next days, weeks, and months ahead. What are some of the scenarios you have seen play out? Give me your most likely and most dangerous from Ukraine’s perspective given what we have seen.

I suspect that we will see not much happen for a little while, and then I suspect Ukraine will suddenly burst through one section of the line and flood in and there will be a bit like the Kharkiv moments in September 2022. They are doing a wreck by force at the moment. Battalion level brigade minus wreck by force.

I suspect at some point they will spot because they are smashing all the Russian logistics, and at some point, a section of that front line is going to collapse. I haven’t got a clue what’s going to happen with the Wagner tale. It seems to me they are just waiting in the wings to take advantage of stuff that’s going on. Putin’s incredibly brittle, this deal has just delayed the inevitable coup. Whether Ukraine’s success on the battlefield and the Russian coup are linked, it’s not clear what sequence they will come in. There’s a reasonable chance that both of those things will happen before the end of 2023. I guess the most dangerous for Ukraine is neither of those two things happens. Next few years they are entering the US Presidential cycle.

It makes it harder for them to support Ukraine because if you look at the runners and riders in the US Presidential Election, not all of them are supportive of Ukraine. Supports Ukraine might become a political football and the argument we made that you gave them all this stuff and they haven’t done anything. Whereas if the Ukrainians do have some successes, Biden can make the example by saying, “We gave relatively small amounts of money compared to the Pentagon’s budget and we degraded the military of a major geopolitical competitor.”

That’s a pretty good argument to make going to the polls. There’s a great value-for-money argument. With the help of the Ukrainians, we have destroyed the military of a major peer competitor. It’s rocky because, as we discussed earlier, what happens if there’s a coup and someone crazy takes over? One set of hands is bad enough, but what if it falls into several sets of hands? That’s dangerous. There are safeguards built in and nuclear launch codes and all that type of stuff. I’m far from an expert in Russian nuclear security, but hopefully, there are enough safeguards built into that system that it doesn’t spin up and fall apart.

What happens if there's a coup? Someone crazy takes over the control of the nukes. Click To Tweet

Although we have been disappointed more than once by the alleged might of the Russian capabilities.

If they are nuclear arsenals anything like the rest of their military.

It’s probably rotting somewhere and very poorly maintained with flat tires. Before we sign off, tell me a little bit about this book. What’s the book about?

How to Fight a War does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s written in the second person. From me to you. It explains to you as the commander in chief, what you need to do to fight a war successfully. The major obvious pitfall that everyone always falls into, is that we fight wars all the time, but we are not very good at it. Look at Putin’s total failure. All over the West in Afghanistan and Iraq, total failure. 

Basically, we fight wars all the time, but we're not very good at it. Click To Tweet

We are bad at fighting wars, but it’s quite simple in conceptual terms or in how to do it. The detail is in actually carrying that out. It splits into chapters strategy, logistics, morale, and training. Those are your four foundations if you get them right, you will be able to fight a war. We have a chapter on land, air, sea, and space information, and then weapons of mass destruction.

There’s a final section where it all gets brought together and explains, as a commander-in-chief, how to fight a war. It’s written to the commander-in-chief, so hopefully some of the people are going to fight some wars. Read it. The reason we want people to fight successful wars is because they are over quickly and they achieve their geopolitical objectives. If you fight unsuccessful wars, you end up just revisiting that war, in a couple of years to try and resettle it.

The aim of war should be to achieve a just peace and if you can do that quickly.

If the Amazon reviews or anything to go by, obviously been out in the UK for a bit longer. It’s just coming out in Australia and America in August 2023, and various other countries are in the pipeline. The Amazon reviews lots of people who are not interested in military staff have found it fascinating because they find that they can now watch the news and understand much better what’s going on. They have that context it’s written in plain speak rather than dense jargon. It was designed so that people can pick it up and go, “I now understand what’s going on.”

If we are talking about Why We Fight, I can’t wait to read it. I’m sure there’s another episode in the book with Mike from Clausewitz.

We can apply it to Ukraine. We could go through the principles and have a look at how the Russians and the Ukrainians have done.

It’s always a pleasure. Looking great despite the lack of sleep that I’m sure you are under with all the various things you are doing in your life. Thanks for your time once again. It’s always a pleasure.

Thanks. 

Important Links