[Column] Self-censorship on the war in Ukraine

Posted on : 2023-07-06 17:08 KST Modified on : 2023-07-06 17:08 KST
Asking simple questions about a number of major events in the conflict triggers questions about which side one is on
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group that recently mutinied in Russia, greets supporters from his car while driving through Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. (Reuters/Yonhap)
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group that recently mutinied in Russia, greets supporters from his car while driving through Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. (Reuters/Yonhap)

By Jung E-gil, senior international affairs writer

After Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, started an armed rebellion on June 24, many pundits predicted we were watching the “beginning of the end” of the Putin regime. But now that the dust has settled, it seems likely that the end of Putin (presuming that end has even begun) is still a long way off.

It was a very peculiar rebellion. There was jubilation at the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, which was supposedly occupied by Prigozhin and his troops. Photographs showed Prigozhin schmoozing with Russian military officers and chit-chat between Wagner and government soldiers.

There’s some confusion about whether the Wagner units captured the Southern Military District’s command or whether they were welcomed in by the Russian government troops. There was a rebellion, but the rebels were consorting with government forces. It’s unclear whether the rebels attacked government forces on the way to the capital or whether they were blocked by government forces. And the ruler of Russia made serious threats against the rebels, only to end up giving them amnesty.

All those behaviors may ultimately indicate that the Russian regime has become weak and dysfunctional. In Western terms, it’s in total shambles. The problem is that the West doesn’t understand what that means.

“A bulldog fight under a rug” is how Winston Churchill famously described political intrigues in the Kremlin. “An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.”

Churchill was basically acknowledging that chaotic developments in Russia are often inscrutable to Western observers. In the case of Prigozhin’s rebellion, perhaps we have only heard the growling under the rug and based our interpretation on wishful thinking.

Even after the rebellion subsided, the Western authorities and media have played up a purge in the Russian military establishment, including powerful general Sergei Surovikin, head of Russia’s Aerospace Forces, who was reportedly detained for supporting Prigozhin’s rebellion.

While it’s true that Surovikin hasn’t been seen since the rebellion, his daughter denied the story in a media appearance, stating that her father is going about his normal activities and simply isn’t fond of speaking to the press. That suggests that Surovikin may be lying low as part of a Russian scheme to debunk Western rumors about a purge.

Despite confidence that the Wagner Group would certainly be dismantled, there are now concerns that Wagner units will travel to Belarus to open up a second front in northern Ukraine. Just a few days after disrupting Russia’s prosecution of the war, Wagner is once again becoming the greatest military threat to Ukraine.

After the rebellion was quelled, CIA Director William Burns called Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR, formerly the international wing of the KGB), and informed him that the rebellion was a Russian internal affair in which the US had played no part, Bloomberg reported. Burns, who has been in touch with Russia over sensitive issues since its invasion of Ukraine, apparently sent that message after concluding that the rebellion would have little impact on Putin’s rule and regime.

For the moment at least, the rebellion seems to have had only a minor impact on the war in Ukraine, which Western observers are following most closely. Russia continued its air strikes on Ukraine the very day of the rebellion. Nor are there any signs that Ukraine has gained any ground in its counteroffensive, as some had hoped. In fact, Russia has shifted to the offensive on the eastern front.

While Ukraine is ostensibly carrying out a counteroffensive, a successful offensive typically requires three times the military strength of the defending forces. But Russia has the advantage in population, resources, and weaponry, and it has been hardening its current positions since the end of last year.

Ukraine’s counterattack began a month ago, but there are no reports of Ukrainian troops breaching Russia’s first line of defense. Ukraine and its Western allies say only that the counteroffensive needs more time.

At the moment, the most likely outcome is a frozen conflict, with the two sides fighting localized skirmishes along the current front without a ceasefire, let alone a peace treaty. The likelihood of that scenario is due to the two sides’ irreconcilable worldviews. The eyes and ears of people observing the war in Ukraine are captured by propaganda that interprets the developments and incidents of the war in a way that caters to their ideals and values.

Merely asking simple questions about the bombing of the Nord Stream underwater pipeline, the attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, or the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam triggers questions about which side one is on. Those incidents are categorically assumed to be the actions of the other side.

Perhaps that’s why, even as I write this column, I find myself engaging in the same self-censorship, asking which side I’m on.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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