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August 23, 2023
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Blissfully enjoying the relief from our first rain in over two months while anticipating tonight's Little League World series, my reverie was suddenly interrupted when insistent headlines intruded. Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin killed in Russian plane crash! Remember that heart-clutching moment in June when General Prigozhin led a coup against Vladimir Putin, inexplicably halting just when his success seemed assured? It was unclear back then how this mini-rebellion might ultimately play our but I concluded, “it will be interesting…to watch the Moscow accident reports as various people commit suicide, die of undiagnosed diseases or perish in untimely traffic accidents.” 

It is one thing to poison your opponents, another for their bodies to be found outside high-rise buildings: but to shoot down a private plane midway between Moscow and Saint Petersburg? Isn’t that just a tad blatant, even for a died-in-the wool thug like Putin? I heard at least one network commentator wonder plaintively, “Well, couldn’t this have been an accidental shoot-down?” Of all the possible explanations, the least plausible is that Russian air defenses – known during the Soviet era as PVO Strany – would act independently of a chain of command that is centralized in doctrine and practice, a rigidly top-down structure meant to reflect the orders of the elites. As the Soviets often used to say among themselves when discussing policy dilemmas, “These things, Comrade, are not accidental.”

Today’s events reminded me of when I faced the hurdle most feared by every graduate student: the two-hour examination in which my interlocutors were genuine experts, eager to test my grasp of Russian foreign and military affairs. Their opening was surprisingly gentle, asking what books and authors had been particularly helpful in forming my understanding of the Soviet military and political systems? While reviewing the standard sources, I remembered a key warning from the grad student grapevine: always try to control the discussion. “Sir, all these books have been helpful but the one that helped me most as an operational intelligence officer was Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather.” Game on!

Defending this unlikely metaphor proved surprisingly easy, because the Soviet system of controlling agriculture, heavy industry and what little consumer production existed was comparable to the way the Mob ran the rackets, the girls, the numbers and maybe even Hollywood! Our debate turned into a no-holds-barred discussion that ran a half-hour beyond the scheduled closing time. Maybe that is why today as Russian television broadcast those startling images of Prigozhin’s plane haplessly nose-diving to earth (also not an accidental occurrence!) I recalled that epic scene when Michael Corleone presided over the baptism of his infant nephew. Do you remember how Michael responded to the priest’s questioning (“I do renounce the Devil, father”) even as the camera cut-in showed his thugs killing every Mob boss who opposed him. Sorry, father, but neither Don Michael nor Don Vladimir were doing anything except ruthlessly pursuing their own agendas.

Now Joe Biden has more in common with those two characters than you might suppose; but he is also the least likely person on earth to draw far-sighted conclusions from today’s events. Everything about Putin’s most recent actions – from the determined defense of Russian territorial gains in eastern Ukraine to his latest attempts to offset severe personnel and material losses – suggests only a man determined to prevail whatever the cost. Some analysts have been so bold as to predict a sudden collapse of Putin’s latest venture and possibly even threatening Russian state viability as well. Well, what if those analysts are wrong? What if that classic KGB-trained tyrant is more serious about defending his expansive vision of the Russian state than Joe Biden is about stopping him? Most critically: Are there any reasons to imagine that Joe Biden’s perceptions of Putin are better-founded than, say, his understanding of what is required to win a conflict - from our southern border to the European territory covered by Article 5 of the NATO Treaty?

There are a number of stark examples that President Biden and his advisors would do well to consider in coming days: But the killing of Yevgeniy Prigozhin should be first among them.

 

Colonel (Ret.) Kenneth Allard is a former Cold War intelligence officer, West Point professor and Dean of the National War College. From 1998-2008, he was an on-air military analyst for the networks of NBC News.

 

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Comments 1-1 of 1

  • Claire Kunigonis

    08/24/2023 04:05 PM

    I’m so tired of this constant “Putin did it” mantra every time something awful happens in Russia. Can we at least wait for more information? To disregard any possibility that Ukraine or the US/British subversive elements have repeatedly been behind many atrocities lately is, in my opinion, just plain ignorant. Putin and the Russian government are no saints, but neither are any other governments, especially our own.