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The “witless toadies” who aroused Prigozhin’s fury

Vladimir Putin flanked by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov. Mikhail Klimentyev/Getty

There’s a reason Russia’s wars “always start with disaster”, says Edward Luttwak in UnHerd. The autocrats who rule – from the Tsars to Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin – appoint “obedient toadies” to command their forces. Take Putin’s “out-of-his-depth” defence minister Sergei Shoigu, an engineering graduate who dodged military service: his rapid promotion is down to “uncritical loyalty” rather than any martial talent. Similarly, chief of staff Valery Gerasimov has no “hands-on combat experience” and prefers vague concepts like “information warfare” to old-fashioned kinetic infantry. It was their combined lack of military understanding that convinced Putin to invade Ukraine with an army of less than 140,000, as opposed to the 800,000 who in 1968 invaded Czechoslovakia, a country one-fifth of the size.

The usual “Russian remedy” is to shoot the inept officials responsible. Stalin had dozens of generals executed, including his favourite, Grigory Kulik, when the German army smashed Russia’s forces in 1941. They were replaced with talented officers who’d previously been set aside (and in some cases imprisoned and tortured) for not being yes-men. That’s what Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin expected Putin to do with the “pair of failures” Shoigu and Gerasimov – his abortive coup this weekend was the act of a “very talented maverick” to unseat the witless toadies in his way. Stalin relished such competition. Even at the end of the war in 1945 he made Marshals Georgy Zhukov and Ivan Konev “race one another” to Berlin with their separate armies. But Putin is no Stalin. At heart, he is still “the bureaucrat he has always been”. Prigozhin may be “captured or killed” in the coming days, but he was right. Unless Putin sacks Shoigu and Gerasimov, “he will have to abandon the war that has become Russia’s misfortune”.