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Monday, August 21, 2023

Back to the 17th Century?

The New Yorker of August 7 includes a superb article by Joshua Yaffa on the Wagner military group in Russia, it's leader Viktor Prigozhin, and the remarkable, if ultimately unsuccessful, mutiny which they mounted earlier this summer.  I learned a great deal from the article and will now share what I learned with you.  Then, returning to the subject of a thirty-three-year-old book, I will argue that one can find parallels to this situation in the history of early modern Europe, and that it shows that the great tendency of the seventeenth century through most of the twentieth--the strengthening of the state--has definitely been reversed, with probable worldwide consequences. 

Yaffa recounts that the Russian government, following the US example, decided in the early 2000s that it could make use of private military formations similar to Blackwater.  Such formations played a key role in the intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014, and Wagner was one of them. Prigozhin was not initially its commander. Born in 1961, he went to prison for his part in a mugging in 1980 and spent nine years there. Then he went into the hot dog business, and expanded after the fall of the USSR into restaurants and supermarkets. In 1998 he opened a fancy restaurant on an island in the Neva River, and Putin began bringing foreign leaders there. He began catering government functions and the Russian military, on a very large scale, and became very rich. Branching out, he founded the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm, in 2013. 

Wagner was not a particularly important force in the Donbas war that began in 2014.  Several commanders of more important units apparently became too big for their britches during that conflict and were killed or murdered--some think, by Wagner.  Then Wagner in 2015 sent 1300 men to Syria, with the right to make its own energy deals on the scene. By the end of 2017 Wagner had units in Sudan, where he got control of gold mines. It got deeply involved in the Central African Republic in 2018-19.  They have also been involved in Libya, Mozambique, and Mali. In 2018, Wagner forces in Syria attacked a Kurdish position supported by Americans and were beaten very badly.  The Kremlin did not react to the American victory at all. 

Wagner was not initially involved in the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 but outperformed regular Russian forces when it was sent in after the initial setbacks. These fight well because they face the punishment of death if they do not. During the last year their recruits have gotten older and less effective. (Many come right out of prison.) Some of their soldiers have deserted--one such is interviewed in the article.  Wagner took very heavy casualties around Bakhmut--which had become a new Verdun, simply a battle of attrition.

Prigozhin, who interestingly enough appears to have no real military background of his own,  in May began threatening Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valerii Gerasimov on social media, blaming them for his casualties and the misdirection of the war. Putin, many thought, tolerated this because Prigozhin got results. Wagner captured most of Bakhmut, but then the Ukrainians began gaining all around it. Eventually the Wagner forces did take the whole city, and then withdrew to regroup.  Observers believe that Putin thinks he must tolerate Prigozhin's insubordination because he needs his troops.  Prigozhin's mutiny initially looked like a spectacular success, but he seems to have lost his nerve and it collapsed quickly.  Nonetheless, Putin met with him and his top commanders after the mutiny, and he remains at large. 

The general Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634), the leading military leader within the Holy Roman Emperor in the early stages of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), played a key role in my 1990 book Politics and War, and he immediately came to mind when I first read about Prigozhin and his mutiny.  Like Prigozhin, he was a master at acquiring wealth and influence within his own unique environment, and he too became so indispensable as to threaten his sovereign's authority.  He is no longer the kind of figure that many people know anything about, but he may indeed be turning into a more important archetype as the twenty-first century wears on.

Born a Bohemian Protestant in 1583,  Wallenstein had converted to Catholicism in 1606 for purely political reasons while a junior officer in the Hapsburg imperial army. In 1608 he married a very wealthy heiress, giving him control of large estates.  In 1618 the Protestants of Bohemia and Moravia (the key regions of today's Czechia) revolted against the Catholic Emperor, marking the beginning the Thirty Years War.  Wallenstein initially raised troops for the Moravian estates, but double-crossed them and went over to the Emperor.  After the imperial army defeated the Protestant rebels at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, he managed to acquire a very large share of the estates confiscated from the rebels, partly by loaning the Emperor money. The war entered a new phase when the King of Denmark intervened on the side of the Protestants in 1625, and Wallenstein raised his own army of 20,000 men.  He persuaded the Emperor to create a new Duchy of Friedland incorporating his huge new Bohemian properties, and he enjoyed sovereign power as Duke.  In 1627, after the Danes had been defeated and the Emperor controlled all Germany, Wallenstein also managed to become the Duke of Mecklenburg on the Baltic and began building a Navy.  And like Wagner in Africa, he used his army's territorial control of various areas to extract money from them. 

In contrast to Prigozhin, however, Wallenstein had a highly realistic view of the political situation in the Empire and a good idea of how the war might be ended. While the Catholic party around the emperor and some other Catholic princes wanted to regain total Catholic control of the whole Holy Roman Emperor, he realized that this was impossible, and favored a compromise peace.  He had no personal animosity against Protestants and employed some as officers in his army.  Partly as a result, he was dismissed from the imperial service in 1630,  He had become too powerful.

A year later, King Gustav Adolph of Sweden brought his own army into Germany on behalf of the Protestants, and he crushed the Imperial Army--without Wallenstein--in the fall of 1631.  The Emperor Ferdinand had no choice but to recall Wallenstein and ask him to reconstitute his own army, with suitable rewards.  Wallenstein confronted the Swedish Army during 1632, and eventually fought it to a draw at Luetzen in November--where Gustav Adolf was killed. Then he began negotiating covertly both with leading Protestant princes and with French envoys, whose chief Richelieu was preparing to intervene in the war as well.  Wallenstein offered very generous terms--terms which the Emperor would not accept.  The emperor decided to rely on the extreme Catholic party and on Spain, which was also thinking of intervening, and in February 1634 accused Wallenstein of a treasonous conspiracy to overthrow him and ordered his troops not to obey him.  Wallenstein fled to organize resistance, but one of his leading subordinates authorized his assassination.  He was vindicated, politically at least, when the emperor had to agree to compromise terms with the Protestants, but the war dragged on, for various reasons, until 1648.

I learned in detail about Wallenstein during the 1980s, writing Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler.  He was a central figure in the first of four parts of that book, covering the century from 1559 to 1659, which I christened the general crisis of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  That was an age of ambitious monarchs whose great projects consistently failed because they did not dispose of the necessary material and moral resources--that is, the loyalty of their subjects--to impose their will. Great aristocrats refused to recognize their ultimate authority and themselves had the resources to resist it--especially when they got help from other monarchs, as they often did.  The next section, on the era of Louis  XIV (1661-1715), showed how Louis and  his fellow monarchs successfully established what we now call a monopoly on the legitimate use of force--paving the way for two or three centuries of progress on economic, cultural and intellectual fronts.  The section on the revolutionary and Napoleonic era (1789-1815) showed how the ideas of the Enlightenment removed traditional restraints on state power and allowed states to mobilize unprecedented resources, and the last section on the era of the two world wars (1914-45) showed how war became too expensive for European states to wage. 

Over the last ten or fifteen years I have begun to realize that the process I described over those four centuries began to reverse itself around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Putin's reliance on Wagner--which he can no more do without than the Emperor Ferdinand could do without Wallenstein at certain critical moments--shows that his oligarchy is a poor shadow of the Soviet state, and perhaps even of the earlier Russian empire.  He relies largely on oligarchs who can turn against him and who might well be vulnerable to corruption by foreign powers.  And something similar has been happening all over the world, as conscription has become the exception rather than the rule among modern states and the power of governments over economic institutions has declined.  Media moguls like Silvio Berlusconi and media celebrities like Donald Trump have become better known and more powerful than any politician.  That, to me, is the real lesson of the Wagner mutiny, and it does not promise better times in the west unless we can find a way to reverse this new long-term trend.


Energyflow said...

As technology changes the state loses its monopoly on information and violence. When there was no literacy or guns, just priests and swords, a certain system existed. This broke down as gutenberg's bible was printed, literacy became widespread and guns were produced in masses for armies, both of these trends democratizing. Governments had a long time dealing with these technologies. They are riding a tiger to control a populace which can read and hold firearms. One plays the game of social liberties but only allows representative democracy, usually by a certain wealthy class. A similar democratization of technology has again occurred. Containing this is a major task for govt. agencies. MSM belongs to big corporations with govt. ties, as do big internet companies, all interlinked with military, banking cartel. Still, mavericks find ways to have an independent voice, outside of the accepted narrative. The world is flat and the earth is the center of the universe. Galileo was imprisoned. Trump must be as well. Heresy is not allowable.

Of course the white colonialists of NATO and cohorts wish to maintain power. Don't rock the boat. 500 years after Columbus. power is slipping away. Asian, African ascendancy is coming.

Bruce Wilder said...

I imagine that Putin, as statesman, thinks that his invasion of Ukraine and confrontation with the American imperium globally can potentially trigger a reworking of both the international system and Russian political economy that does strengthen the Russian state at least. Would he be wrong?