Mutiny on the Kyiv


Sevastopol, Crimea: Seized from Ukraine in 2014 and now the home port of the Russian Black Sea fleet, and from which the Battleship Potemkin sailed, on its fateful voyage, in 1905. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

I am not a military analyst, nor do I play one on television, but the signs are mounting that what’s left of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an indiscriminate campaign of terror, if not genocide, delivered nightly by cruise missiles fired into apartment blocks.

Keep in mind, however, that Western reports of the fighting are at best fragmentary, based on video uplinks from this or that besieged city, and that the campaign could well end with the Russian army controlling half of what is now Ukraine.

At the same time, the Russian request to China for economic and military aid, and the report that President Vladimir Putin plans to send a brigade of Syrian jihadis to fight the holy war in Donbas, would indicate that Russian morale among its attacking troops is dissipating, as the one thing you rarely see in any satellite or drone videos of the fighting is Russian ground forces “jumping the bags” of their trenches and closing with the bayonet.

Just the opposite: most of what I read about the war indicates that behind many inexperienced Russian frontline units are armed political commissars prepared to shoot any soldiers “voting with their feet” (to use a Lenin expression) and heading away from the sound of the guns.

In these accounts I am reminded of the mutinies in the French army in 1917, when many poilus (slang for French infantry) refused to attack the ravines and heights of the Chemin des Dames (above the city of Reims).

The French solution to restore order, organized by Marshal Pétain, was randomly to shoot one in ten from some of the mutinous units, as the phrase had it, pour encourager les autres (to encourage the others).

If, in fact, Putin’s invading army has become mutinous, it would be the death rattle of the Anschluss no matter how many cruise missiles are launched at Kyiv or how much territory is taken along the Sea of Azov.

So what can we learn from the Russian mutinies?

Running Back the Iraqi War

The initial Russian invasion plan for Ukraine was to duplicate the 2003 American attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, both because that assault quickly decapitated the local government and because the Kremlin was eager to send the Americans the message that two powers can play the great games that lead to regime change.

Note that in imitation of the Americans heading to Baghdad, Russian soldiers were given decks of playing cards that showed the leading members of the Zelensky government, who on the fall of Kyiv in the early days of the war were to have been rounded up and arrested as Nazi war criminals, just as the Americans had hunted down Saddam’s henchmen.

For reasons not altogether clear, Putin’s generals decided to spearhead the ground assault into Ukraine with conscripted troops who were only told that they were “going on maneuvers” in Belarus.

The Red Star of Courage

Presumably, the shock-and-awe of the first cruise missiles were to have brought down the Zelensky government, and then, by this logic, it hardly mattered which troops were sent in to mop up and occupy some of the local airfields into which the government of occupation was to have been flown.

But it’s some of those same draftees on the outskirts of Kyiv who are now in the same flight that Stephen Crane described in The Red Badge of Courage: “He, too, threw down his gun and fled. There was no shame in his face. He ran like a rabbit.”

Historians can someday tell us why the initial Russian attacks (at least that on Kyiv) failed, although I tend to favor the Alice in Putinland stories that no one in the Russian government had the nerve to break the news to Vlad (scowling down his long table) that many of the billion dollars in his and other oligarch offshore accounts were siphoned from military budgets.

The army sent into Ukraine was not unlike that fictitious Allied army that was conjured in 1944 to mislead the Germans into believing that the main Allied cross-Channel invasion was landing in the Pas de Calais. (On June 6, dummy paratroops were dropped behind Calais and Dunkerque.)

Here those being deceived were in the Kremlin so that they could believe they were at head of a revanchist army of liberation.

An Acid Rain of Terror

The current Russian reliance on cruise missiles is to sustain the illusion of offensive that is pushing forward. These tactics are designed to terrorize the Ukraine population, with the hope that the destruction of Ukraine’s cities will end the resistance and bring down the Zelensky government in Kyiv.

Unfortunately, the worst-learned lesson of World War II, based on the evidence of destroyed cities in Germany and Japan (see Dresden, Coventry, and Tokyo, for example), is that carpet bombings do little to break the will of a people or end wars.

In his landmark essay, “Did the Bomb End the War?”, published in the New Yorker in 1997 claiming that the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the reasons for the Japanese surrender, investigative journalist Murray Sayle writes:

If there is a such a process as military leaders being cowed into submission by air attacks, nuclear or otherwise, history has no clear example of it.

That’s a memo that was never passed along Putin’s desk.

You, Too, Can Be a Billionaire

The mutiny that has yet to break out and bring down the Russian government is that of the Yachtocracy—all those oligarchs now in search of safe harbors in places such as Dubai or the Seychelles.

By the logic of the Biden administration and other governments in Europe, it’s this billionaire boyar class that props up the Putin’s government and once it withdraws its support for the kleptocratic regime, the invasion of Ukraine is sure to fail.

I suppose anything is possible—at least if your field of vision is that of a agency computer screen in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.—but the last group that I can imagine turning on Putin are the oligarchs whose fortunes, and his, are tied together through a series of interlocking directorates that make it impossible to delineate where Putin’s wealth ends and theirs begin.

Most of the oligarchs understand that if Putin falls, they will fall with him.

Platinum Card Nationalism

To understand why the oligarchs will never become a kamikaze revolutionary class, it’s useful to review the source of their wealth, which dates to the privatization schemes of the Russian economy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Soviet means of production (all those state-owned steel and nickel factories) were up for grabs.

In theory, the shareholders of Russian Inc. should have been the ordinary citizens of the country, who had built and operated these enterprises after the fall of the tsar in 1917.

When the Soviet Union went into receivership in 1991 (and countries like Ukraine and Kazakhstan went their separate ways), there was no orderly process to distribute the assets and liabilities of the Russian economy, which instead turned into the world’s largest insider-trading ring, run by the nomenklatura of the failed Soviet state.

Because there were no shareholders (other than Soviet ministries that no longer existed) of state enterprises, the only legal claims on many industries came from their bank loans, nearly all of which were denominated in Russian rubles, a wheelbarrow currency throughout the 1990s.

The Great Russian Land Grab

The early get-rich-quick scheme of the Russian economy came through the banks that had outstanding loans to large enterprises, which, when they defaulted on their debts, became the property of the bank (or more likely the shareholders of that bank).

Foreclosure became the new state lottery, but the only ones with tickets were those close to the high table of government power.

In many cases, companies that should have been valued at, say, $13 billion and sold off in an orderly process, with the money going back to the people of Russia, were “privatized” at a value of around $250 million, with the payment coming from outstanding debts being written off. (So no front money was not needed.)

When Boris Yeltsin was the Russian president, the privatization of the economy was a wild west affair, with various outlaws gunning each other down in Moscow’s streets to gain control over this strategic market or that company.

In the hands of Vladimir Putin, however, the Russian government (at least those at the top) became a more organized crime, in which Putin himself approved the transactions that turned former apparatchiks and loyal aides into overnight millionaires, if not billionaires—the same class that the West now expects to rise up in a Pugachev-like rebellion against the president. I cannot see it happening.

Intelligence Operative of Fortune

Nor am I holding out hope that in some audit during the sanctions will someone emerge from a bank vault with Putin’s name at the bottom of an account as the beneficial owner of $100 billion.

As a former intelligence officer, Putin’s financial modus vivendi would be not to hold purloined state assets in his own name.

Instead he might have come up with a grander variation on nationalization, in which everything in the country belongs to him as the head of state.

In earlier times, mail-order dictators of the Putin variety felt the need to sew diamonds into the linings of their fur coats or stash gold bars in bank vaults in Zurich or London.

Putin, I suspect, has taken a different approach to his expropriations. In terms of entitlement, he is the Russian state, and the Russian state is him, which may explain why no one ever turns up a BVI yacht registration in his name.

It has been suggested that his nominees (all those oligarchs whose yachts are now on the run) hold billions for him in convoluted layers of offshore companies and trusts (blind, revocable, discretionary, interest in possession, whatever), but Putin will have known how to cover his tracks in the snow so that he can maintain the cover that he’s never had his hand in the till.

Whatever the reality, Putin would not survive the failure of the Russian army in Ukraine, which explains the cruise missiles that are laying waste to so many cities (in 1972 Richard Nixon bombed Hanoi for the same reasons), and why he needs to stick with an army in the field that may be deserting him.

The Battleship Potemkin Takes On Water

Unfortunately for Putin’s chances of survival, the Russian army and navy have a long tradition of throwing down their weapons and leaving the front lines.

Perhaps the most famous mutiny occurred on the battleship Potemkin in the Black Sea (an early silent film was made about the incident), in which Russian sailors (ironically led by a Ukrainian), angry about the food on board and the naval losses in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War, rose up against the officers and commandeered the tsarist ship to preach the gospel of revolution.

The same 1917 mutiny that swept through the French army at Chemin des Dames also affected Russian troops on the eastern front, who literally walked away from the war, bringing down the tsarist government of Nicholas II.

In World War II, many on the Russian side who surrendered or were captured by the Germans ended up fighting for the Nazis, such that by 1945 there was an entire German command (known as the Russian Liberation Army) fighting against the Red Army. (After the war the Allies forcibly repatriated many of these collaborators to the Soviet Union, where they were executed.)

If the Russian army in Ukraine were to become mutinous (more than it is today), I don’t see how Putin’s government could survive such a revolt, especially as Putin would blame senior army commanders for the desertions (not something that they would digest easily).

Anatoly Don’t Surf

In the order of battle, it was the intelligence services (following the army’s sound-and-light show over the horizon) who were to have captured the government in Kyiv and deliver Zelensky’s head (in whatever form) to Putin.

Now, presumably, because the Russian army doesn’t want to fight door-to-door in Ukrainian cities, the only tactic left to Putin is genocidal terror directed from afar at the civilian population, although I suspect that each Russian missile fired in anger creates one more volunteer battalion for the resistance.

In street fighting and in ambushes, the Ukrainian army has the same advantages that the Viet Cong had over the Americans in Vietnam or that the Taliban had in Afghanistan.

With their heavy armor and helicopters, the Russians will be confined to the main roads and their laagers while the Ukrainians will have free rein on the back streets and on the steppe to fire their Javelin missiles at stalled columns.

Meanwhile will Putinist commissars behind the lines be shooting deserters, pour encourager les autres?

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.