Jun 26, 2023

The military mutiny in Russia.

Image: Government of the Russian Federation / Wikicommons
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center, in black) touring a catering facility of Yevgenzy Prigozhin's. Image: Government of the Russian Federation / Wikicommons

Plus, a reader question about climate change.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.


What the heck is going on in Russia? Today, we break it down. Plus, a reader question about human-caused climate change.

Last day...

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Quick hits

  1. Former Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) became the latest candidate to jump into the GOP presidential primary. Hurd is a former CIA agent who has long been critical of former President Donald Trump. (The campaign)
  2. The lead IRS agent investigating Hunter Biden's tax crimes told Congress that he uncovered evidence of Hunter claiming his father was in the room with him while pressing a Chinese business partner to move ahead with a proposed deal and alleged political interference in the investigation. (The allegations)
  3. All five people aboard the Titan submersible were presumed dead after a missing piece of the vessel was recovered. (The tragedy)
  4. House Republicans delayed a vote on a resolution to impeach President Joe Biden for his handling of the U.S.-Mexico border. The resolution was brought to the floor by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO). (The vote)
  5. Three San Antonio, Texas, police officers were charged with murder after shooting and killing a woman outside her apartment on Friday morning. (The charges)

Today's topic.

The mutiny in Russia. Over the weekend, Russia's President Vladimir Putin accused a mercenary group he has employed in the war in Ukraine of treason, all while news reports broke out about infighting turning to mutiny and perhaps an attempted coup.

Back up: Throughout the war in Ukraine, the tip of the spear for the Russian military offensive has been a mercenary division called the Wagner Group. That group is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ex-convict who rose from running a hot dog stand to working as Putin's caterer to running the Wagner Group. Prigozhin has also run some of Russia's online troll farms. But in recent months, he has been leveling increasingly harsh criticism about Russia's top military brass, alleging corruption and incompetence.

On Friday, Prigozhin accused Russian soldiers of firing on his mercenary group and attacking one of their camps in Ukraine. He responded by turning the Wagner Group around and directing them toward Moscow. They quickly claimed control over military facilities in the Russian cities Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh (the logistical hubs for Russia's war). President Vladimir Putin took to state media to report an "armed uprising," calling it a "stab in the back of our country" and warning that anyone partaking in treason would be punished.

"Those who organized and prepared the armed rebellion, those who raised weapons against comrades in arms, betrayed Russia. And they will answer for this," Putin said.

In a matter of hours, reports of a potential coup began breaking across Russian- and English-speaking media, though Prigozhin has insisted that his issues were with military leaders and has denied that his goal was to overthrow Putin.

Then what? By Sunday morning, the Wagner Group had made it to within 125 miles of Moscow as rumors swirled that Putin had fled. But before widespread fighting broke out, Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Putin's, announced he had brokered a deal with Prigozhin to halt his advance. Prigozhin said he wanted to avoid any bloodshed in the streets of Russia and is now headed to Belarus where, as part of a deal to end his insurrection, he will avoid any criminal charges and all members of the Wagner Group who participated in the momentary uprising will be pardoned.

For now, it appears the infighting is over, but the chaotic 36 hours amounted to the most public challenge of Putin's power yet, and was reminiscent of times in Russian history when armed uprising quickly accelerated to the overthrow of the entire government.

Throughout the debacle, Prigozhin managed to spread his message on Telegram, one of the only communication channels in Russia not controlled by state media. In those messages, he alleged that Putin and top military brass were lying about their justifications for the war, and that there were not "insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side," as Putin has alleged. Instead, he said Russian generals were after military honors, and that the oligarchy needed the war to keep its power.

Given the unique nature of this story, and widespread agreement from the left and right, today we are going to break down the reactions from U.S.-based writers and some international writers.

What they are saying in the U.S.

  • Many in the U.S. media agree this event has severely weakened Putin.
  • Some argue this episode was essentially two brutal maniacs playing a game of chicken.
  • Others argue that Putin is now weaker than ever, while Prigozhin's life is effectively over.

In The Washington Post, David Ignatius said Putin looked into the abyss "and blinked."

After vowing revenge for what he called an “armed mutiny,” Putin settled for a compromise. “The speed with which Putin backed down suggests that his sense of vulnerability might be higher even than analysts believed. Putin might have saved his regime Saturday, but this day will be remembered as part of the unraveling of Russia as a great power — which will be Putin’s true legacy," Ignatius said. The deal is likely to be momentary, at best.

"As Putin said in a blood-curdling address Saturday, this was becoming a 1917 moment, when the nation was reeling from another misbegotten war and, in Putin’s words, 'Russians were killing Russians, brothers killing brothers,'" Ignatius wrote. As Prigozhin marched north, soldiers and roadblocks didn't hinder him. "What’s notable about this mad 24 hours is that Putin managed to defuse the crisis without any big military confrontation. He has been humbled by a headstrong crony, to be sure, but he’s still in control. It was a close shave, not a decapitation."

In National Review, Jim Geraghty headlined his piece "Brutal maniac fails to depose other brutal maniac."

"Maybe you must be a crazed maniac to try to launch a coup against a cold-blooded, paranoid dictator like Vladimir Putin. Then again, Yevgeniy Prigozhin meets most people’s definition of a crazed maniac," Geraghty said. "As a young man, he was sentenced to twelve years in prison for robbery, fraud, and involving minors in prostitution. After serving nine years, he turned a hot dog stand into the country’s largest catering company with government contracts. In 2019, his lucrative catering firm was accused of causing dysentery outbreaks at seven state-run day care catering and kindergartens in Moscow.

"He shrugged off a video of a “traitor” being executed by sledgehammer blows to the head, declaring, 'a dog receives a dog’s death… It was an excellent directional piece of work, watched in one breath.' He boasted that his forces were deliberately turning the battle of Bakhmut into a 'meat grinder' to maximize the casualties to the Ukrainians," Geraghty wrote. "As the world learned this weekend, a man crazy enough to launch a coup against Putin is also crazy enough to say, 'eh, nevermind' after a day and accept exile in Belarus because Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko asked him nicely to avoid starting a Russian civil war."

In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols said the "coup is over, but Putin is in trouble."

“Prigozhin and his men came within 125 miles of the capital—that is, closer to Moscow than Philadelphia is to Washington, D.C." Nichols said. The "deal" he struck was to save his own blood, and Prigozhin is now "a man living on borrowed time in a foreign country, waiting for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inevitable retribution... This outcome is a defeat of the first order for Prigozhin, who has now lost everything except his life." Perhaps Prigozhin had allies in the Kremlin who got cold feet, were less numerous than he thought, or never existed.

"Nonetheless, this bizarre episode is not a win for Putin. The Russian dictator has been visibly wounded, and he will now bear the permanent scar of political vulnerability," Nichols said. Putin "is now politically weaker than ever. The once unchallengeable czar is no longer invincible. The master of the Kremlin had to make a deal with a convict—again, in Putin’s culture, among the lowest of the low—just to avert the shock and embarrassment of an armed march into the Russian capital while other Russians are fighting on the front lines in Ukraine... Prigozhin’s rebellion and its effects will last beyond today, but how long he will live in Belarus—or stay alive in Belarus—to see how the rest of it plays out is unclear."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said this underscores how much Putin's "failed attempt to conquer Ukraine" has weakened Russia.

"Sixteen months ago as he invaded Ukraine, Mr. Putin spoke confidently that Russia was embarking on a nationalist endeavor to protect itself from a Western threat that didn’t exist. He thought he could take Kyiv in days. On Saturday the not-so-strongman had to beseech his weakened military to protect the Kremlin from a home-grown challenge that he called 'treason.' There were unconfirmed reports that his plane had fled Moscow," the board said. "The 24-hour rebellion and retreat suggest Mr. Prigozhin lacked the broader support in the military or political class he hoped to inspire."

Still, it doesn't end the "larger frustration in Russia over a war the country hasn't been able to win but Mr. Putin isn’t able to extricate from except at the cost of admitting defeat." The failed rebellion exposes cracks in a "facade of unity," and while those cracks are hard to see among the elite, they must exist since we’re watching "Russia’s military power be squandered, its economy decline, and its global isolation grow." This moment is ripe for a strong Ukraine counteroffensive, and "if the U.S. had provided more advanced weapons sooner, Ukraine would be better positioned to do so."

What they are saying abroad.

  • Many international observers are wondering if Putin has lost Russia, and this is the beginning of the end of his rule.
  • Others suggest his response to the insurrection made things worse, and this could ultimately be a boon for Ukraine.

In the Kyiv Independent, Wacław Radziwinowicz asked if Putin has lost Russia.

Putin "is clearly not up to the hellishly difficult task he now faces: re-asserting control over the country’s demoralized and divided military forces," and his apologists who think he is a "political magician" praised him for "responding with boasts" to a crisis he unleashed in Ukraine. If another uprising comes, "the biggest problem for Putin would be finding anyone willing to carry out the fratricidal orders to take on the Wagner fighters, who fought so savagely at Bakhmut and were, until recently, deemed heroes and 'Russia’s best soldiers.'"

Pacifying the Wagnerites with force would require motivated army divisions. "But all such Russian troops are in Ukraine. If the Kremlin is ever forced to pull them off the frontline to put down a rebellion at home, the Ukrainians, with their counteroffensive already underway, will be poised to pounce on the holes that open in the Russian defensive lines. And that could mean a huge defeat for Moscow in the war it unleashed," Radziwinowicz wrote. Meanwhile, Prigozhin is idolized by many Russians for daring to speak the truth about the war while fighting in it.

The Observer's editorial board said Putin had an "ill-judged" response to the attempted coup.

"By taking to the airwaves, vowing vengeance, dramatising the situation with talk of a coup, and claiming 'the fate of our people is being decided', Putin escalated an undoubtedly serious development into a full-blown national crisis," the board said. "Britain’s Ministry of Defence and others characterise it as the greatest security challenge to his 23-year rule. As a piece of crisis management, it failed. Then again, this is a man who has never faced open, democratic scrutiny, a tyrant who expects people to follow scripts dictated by him, not make them up themselves."

Putin must try to ensure the loyalty of his generals, but "what if other elements in the army, navy and air force share Prigozhin’s disdain for the conduct of the war, in which uncounted thousands of Russian troops have lost their lives? Putin may be about to find out. The ease with which Wagner overran Rostov could point to wider disaffection." The sudden eruption of "open dissent" could be "a great boon to Ukraine's forces."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • One narrative is dominating this story, but I think it is possible the significance here is being overblown.
  • That being said, the most significant part is the spread of the message that the basis for this war is a lie.
  • The seeds of doubt are clearly being planted across Russia.

I think there are two ways to frame this story. The way it is mostly being framed in the Western media and by all the writers above is the near-collapse of Putin's regime, one where he is a leader in decline with dissent fomenting in every direction whose army couldn't slow much less stop several thousand mercenaries from marching toward the capital. Obviously, there is some truth to that framing — Prigozhin’s rebellion was a very public breakdown of Russia's state-sponsored messaging and Putin's alleged strength.

The framing I'm not really seeing, and the other one I think is worth pointing out, is that this may end up being a lot of over-hyped noise and wishful thinking.

Prigozhin is essentially a bloodthirsty leader of a mercenary group who seems to revel in war. He does not seem any more stable or rational than the man so many people seem to be rooting for him to overthrow. He alleged, though no real evidence has been presented to support this, that Russian troops bombed his group. He marched unopposed into a couple of military hubs, pointed his nose toward Moscow, and the entire media landscape went absolutely berserk.

Prigozhin himself has consistently refuted that he was executing some kind of coup. And in a matter of hours, he was deal-making his way out of Russia and calling for his group to back down. It's incredibly hard to discern the actual threat to Putin when so many in the media are clearly rooting for his demise, and when the coverage around this internal revolt came with so much implied glee and hype. I think there is an accurate read on what just happened that is more truthfully described as a 24-hour, fairly unorganized hissy fit, before Prigozhin realized he was out over his skis and backed down.

The good news, and perhaps the most significant news, is he seems to have gotten his message out through Telegram, a channel Putin can't regulate. Prigozhin spoke directly to Russian citizens, telling them the invasion was built on the lie Ukraine was a real threat, the military leaders were incompetent, and the brass doesn't care about your average Russian. The impact of this message coming from a man actually fighting on the front lines, someone viewed by many as a war hero, can't be understated.

To me, this was more of a story about the seeds of dissent being planted than a real coup bearing any fruit. Perhaps the most likely way for this war to end now is for Putin to be taken from power, and it's much preferable for that to happen through internal, domestic revolt rather than some foreign-executed regime change. I've made my position on this war clear, so suffice it to say anything that weakens Putin and strengthens Ukraine is something I view as a net positive. 

But uncertainty is still in the air. Some Russian leaders are suggesting Prigozhin is actually still under investigation, while the details of the deal brokered by Lukashenko have not yet been made public. And get this: The whereabouts of Prigozhin and his purported 25,000 heavily armed troops was, as The Wall Street Journal put it, "unclear" as of Monday morning. That does not seem like a situation that has been resolved, and I think any reporting on this that implies some kind of resolution is premature.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Are you aware of, or have you reported on, any actual research that shows the difference between current natural climate change and people caused climate change? Seems we are throwing a lot of money at something we don’t really understand.

— Davy, from Tracys Landing, Maryland

Tangle: Yes, I am aware of research like that. However, I’d say that human-caused climate change is not something “we don’t totally understand.” Many on the right have labeled me a "lefty" who has "succumbed to the climate myth" because of this belief, but honestly: This isn't a partisan issue. And I'd argue that anyone claiming that I'm biased in describing climate change as driven by humans is actually experiencing what Daniel Stone (in our subscribers-only interview) called "affective polarization:"

"So if you dislike someone, you're not going to admit they're right, even if the evidence is really clear they're right. It's sort of another example of how polarization drives inefficiency. It could stop us from implementing policies that we would agree on otherwise."

I'll try to lay out the argument for anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change as clearly as I can in a few hundred words:

There's pretty vast agreement that the climate has changed before. In fact, there's broad consensus that Earth has spent the majority of the past 500 million years being too hot for polar ice caps.

We know what factors drive the Earth's heating/cooling cycles. We know that our planet receives energy from the sun, radiates heat to the atmosphere, and that our atmosphere has certain "greenhouse gasses" that re-radiate that heat back to Earth. In other words, we know that heating/cooling cycles are driven by changes in energy coming in (solar cycle and Earth orbit), changes to the Earth's surface (ice cover, plant cover, and other life) that affect energy going out, and changes to the Earth's greenhouse gasses (concentration of CO2, CH4, water vapor, and others in our atmosphere) that affect energy retention.

We can measure those factors today. We have a very good understanding of the solar cycle and our Earth's orbit. We have a very good understanding of our planet's surface. And we have a very good understanding of historical changes to the atmosphere, through ice core data and direct atmospheric measurement. Of the factors that contribute to warming, it's very apparent that only greenhouse gasses have increased over the past century to any significant degree (and the degree of increase is very significant).

We are aware of what's causing those factors to increase. The long-lived greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere that keep our planet warm eventually return to the earth, and again to the atmosphere, through a process called the carbon cycle. Many things contribute to this cycle, and there are a lot of great arguments that support that the excess carbon is anthropogenic. One of the best arguments is that the proportion of carbon isotopes in the atmosphere is consistent with an increase in the carbon from organic matter (i.e. burned fossil fuels), and that the increase of these isotopes began with the Industrial Revolution and has increased ever since.

The Earth is getting warmer. There is essentially unanimous consensus that the Earth has been warming over the past 100 years.

Given all of the above, I think suggesting that the identifiable excess emissions from human activity are not causing the definite increase in global warming is kind of like saying, "sure, there have been a lot more deaths from car accidents after the invention of the automobile, but hey — who can say if that has anything to do with cars? People have been dying in accidents forever."

The real question isn't ‘what is causing climate change?’ or ‘is it real?’ or ‘is it a threat?’ It's ‘what can we do about it?’ Some of my favorite ideas in that arena (like expanding nuclear energy or embracing an all-of-the-above energy platform) are actually more in-line with today’s conservatives and have upset a lot of folks on the left. But I think the question of whether we are causing the climate to change has been answered pretty convincingly.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

On Friday, the Supreme Court threw out a GOP-led challenge to a Biden administration immigration policy. In 2021, the Biden administration announced that it would prioritize arresting and deporting unauthorized migrants who were suspected of terrorism or violent crime rather than arresting and deporting everyone who had entered the U.S. illegally. Texas and Louisiana sued, saying the policy would result in too few arrests. In an 8-1 ruling, the court concluded that the states did not have standing to sue. More broadly, the ruling will set new limits on partisan lawsuits filed by states designed to challenge federal programs, which have flourished in recent years. The Hill has the story

New video.


  • 6,000 to 25,000. The estimated number of Wagner Group troops remaining.
  • 4,000. The number of NATO soldiers deployed to Lithuania following the events over the weekend.
  • $3.8 billion. The increase in funding for the European Peace Facility fund following the events over the weekend.
  • 45. The number of Gepard antiaircraft tanks Germany committed to sending to Lithuania following the events over the weekend.
  • 13. The number of Russian airmen who were killed when the Wagner group shot down six Russian helicopters and a command-center plane, according to Russian military analysts.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about Roe v. Wade getting struck down.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was the article on why dogs look like their owners.
  • Let's hear it: We asked Tangle readers if, in general, they were supportive of more debates between vaccine scientists and skeptics. 79% of respondents said yes, 13% said no, and 8% were unsure or had no opinion. We also asked readers about their level of trust in the vaccine schedule given to children. 57% said highly trustful, 28% said mostly trustful, 8% were mixed, 3% said mostly distrustful, and another 3% said highly distrustful.
  • A little to do with politics: In case you missed it, we released our Friday edition to everyone. We wrote about what makes a bad argument
  • Take the poll. Do you think this was the end of Prigozhin's challenge to the Russian military? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

A massive humanitarian effort in Ukraine is making sure that clean drinking water is available to those impacted by the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam. 16,000 people lost their homes after the dam was destroyed, and the drinking water for those who remained in the area was contaminated. Thanks to Project HOPE, an organization supported by USAID, humanitarian teams have distributed necessities to the area, including 20,160 liters of much-needed drinking water to communities in the heart of the destruction. “Amidst the unfolding tragedy, acts of bravery and heroism emerged,” Project HOPE shared in an email. “Communities rallied together, offering shelter, provisions, and a glimmer of hope to the weary evacuees who sought solace in unfamiliar lands." In total, Project HOPE has already delivered 141,140 liters of drinking water specifically in response to the floods. Good Good Good has the story.

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