Back in February 2022, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, decided to roll the dice. He was betting on an easy takeover of Ukraine, aiming to expand Russia’s frontiers all the way to NATO’s Eastern flank. Yet, as the tides of conflict have shown, NATO’s decision to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons has considerably weakened Russia’s conventional military strength. Consequently, the heavy lifting has fallen to the private paramilitary company Wagner Group, owned by Putin’s former ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Now, with morale dwindling amongst Russian troops and Putin’s allies, there’s an echo of doubt about Putin’s grip on power, despite his continued saber-rattling about the potential use of nuclear weapons. Given these circumstances, it’s crucial we take these threats seriously.
The West was surprisingly unalarmed at the attempted coup by the Wagner Group. Many looked on, speculating about the end of Putin’s reign without considering the potential consequences of the shift in power dynamics. Such responses reveal a worrying blind spot in the West’s understanding of Russia’s existential threat—a complex, enigmatic, and dangerous country that often defies our comprehension.
The West, it seems, fails to understand the “apocalyptic messianism” of the Russian elite, a mindset that has its roots in the medieval era and imagines Mother Russia as both the anti-Christ and bringer of End Times, manifesting in philosophy, film, and literature.
This brings us to two unsettling possibilities:
The first, Putin, sensing his political doom, might escalate the Ukraine conflict, potentially igniting another global war. Putin’s fear of a grim fate like that of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi could motivate such a drastic move. This fear may have heightened with threats to his authority from restless warlords and a warrant for his arrest from the International Criminal Court.
The second possibility is a power grab by Russia’s warlords. Putin’s rule resembles a mafia corporation, where he’s held the capitalist barons of the Yeltsin era in check through a balance of protection and threat. But now, his leniency towards the privatization of security means he risks becoming a puppet to rogue armies over which he has minimal control.
There’s also a chance that Putin may continue leading Russia towards a slow, physical, and psychological disintegration, only to delay a final explosive reckoning. This scenario is equally concerning.
In any case, turning a blind eye to the current state of affairs is not an option for the West. The outcome of the Wagner coup and its aftermath offers few positive scenarios for peace or stability. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial that we take this existential threat to civilization seriously.