Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation after Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, called for armed rebellion.
( Pavel Bednyakov / Sputnik Kremlin Pool Photo
Reporter: We begin our report with the rebellion that wasn't in Russia, or was it a rebellion?
Brandy Zadrozny: Whiplash as a brief armed uprising in Russia disbands replaced by a battle of narratives.
Naunihal Singh: It creates an understanding that Putin's position is weak, that he doesn't have enough support within the military, and that perhaps if someone else engages in a coup, the coup might succeed.
Brandy Zadrozny: From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brandy Zadrozny. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is on the campaign trail, and the media are learning to cope with the phenomenon known as the Gish gallop.
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Brandy Zadrozny: It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brandy Zadrozny. I'll be sitting in for Brooke Gladstone this week.
Reporter: The last day or so has seen an extraordinary turn events in Russia.
Brandy Zadrozny: A week ago, the world watched as Russian president Vladimir Putin's favorite fixer made a power play.
Reporter: In the Russian city of Rostov, armed men and armor on the streets.
Reporter: Wagner's founder Yevgeny Prigozhin is calling for an armed rebellion.
Reporter: Prigozhin announced his army, tens of thousands strong, would reverse course backing out of Ukraine, marching directly on Moscow.
Brandy Zadrozny: Russian state TV threw to a lot of commercial breaks as the rest of the world tried to figure out what was going on.
Reporter: What's the latest that we have confirmed?
Reporter: There is very little confirmed.
Reporter: An utterly baffling turn of events here.
Reporter: The rebellion that wasn't in Russia, or was it a rebellion?
Brandy Zadrozny: Then as quickly as the rebellion flared, it fizzled.
Reporter: The leader of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin, has ordered his mercenaries to turn around and return to their bases to avoid bloodshed, he said.
Reporter: Vladimir Putin began the day angrily denouncing an armed insurrection as terrorist methods and now appears to have struck a deal with Prigozhin.
Reporter: The Kremlin says it dropped charges and Prigozhin will go to Belarus while promising his fighters contracts with the Russian military.
Naunihal Singh: It was not a coup because Prigozhin may made his intention clear repeatedly. He was not trying to overthrow the government. He was not trying to seize power from Putin.
Brandy Zadrozny: Naunihal Singh is the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. Back in 2016, he helped on the media create a breaking news consumer's handbook, military coup edition, after a failed attempt by the military to seize power in Turkey. He says, what happened in Russia last week was less a coup than a mutiny.
Naunihal Singh: There were some distinctions. Most mutinies are from the bottom, which is to say if your average Russian conscript was to rise up against the war or against their conditions of service, that would be a lot more typical. However, this is not something which is unique what Prigozhin did. In fact, there are other examples like in Ecuador or in Argentina where you have generals or people who are in command of significant military forces who will mount an armed rebellion, who will use that force to attain a political objective. It's just that in this case, that political objective stops just shy of the removal of the president.
Brandy Zadrozny: When you spoke to OTM in 2016, it was about a coup attempt in Turkey. You said then that coups are about making the outcome seem inevitable and putting out the message that they've already succeeded in overthrowing the people in power. Did Prigozhin do that?
Naunihal Singh: No, Prigozhin did not. It's one of the ways in which he avoids being accused of mounting a coup. He never says, my intention is to take over. He never says, I've already succeeded in taking over. In fact, his first target is Rostov rather than Moscow. He says he intends to go in and remove the top people at the Ministry of Defense. He doesn't say I've already succeeded in doing so. However, he does do half of it. If you're going to create a narrative that your seizure of power is a fait accompli, that your success is inevitable, the first half of doing that is that you have to demonstrate that the state is no longer in control. That's the part that Prigozhin does do.
Brandy Zadrozny: You warn that in the case of a coup or a mutiny, each side is battling to seize the narrative. What are the competing narratives here?
Naunihal Singh: You are seeing a lot more narrative creation now that things are over. Prigozhin wants to make it seem as if he could have succeeded. Putin is trying to make it seem that Prigozhin's activities were highly threatening to the state, but he was in control all along and that he still in control. Both sides want to create an impression to create an understanding of what occurred because of the consequences for their existing position. If Prigozhin can make it seem like he came very close to succeeding, it'll make it a little bit harder for people to assassinate him because if they assassinate him, maybe his troops will rise up and maybe they'll overthrow the government.
Brandy Zadrozny: You've also said it's important to pay attention to who controls the broadcast stations, but what about the rise of social media? Was Prigozhin getting his message out via Telegram? Was that equally effective?
Naunihal Singh: I think that Prigozhin's use of Telegram was very important here. He, in a series of voice messages, has been increasingly critical of the state of the Ministry of Defense and this is how he put his case forward. However, I don't think that social media operates as a substitute for the regular media here. It was necessary for Prigozhin's message to be picked up by broadcast media sources.
Alone on Telegram, it would not have had the same impact. The reason is this: when there is a mass broadcast, when somebody is on TV and they say, "We've taken over the state," you know that pretty much everyone else has seen that. It serves as a coordination mechanism. When something is on Telegram, if you're a general, you don't know if everybody else has heard that. What's more you don't know that everybody else knows that everyone else has heard that. You need this publicness and that allows for common action.
Brandy Zadrozny: You wrote on Twitter that coups tend to be bloodless in part because coup dynamics are driven by a desire to avoid civil war. Most successful coups are also fast. I think that's what was so shocking to some about this weekend. It's just that things felt like they were going so quickly and then suddenly just stopped.
Naunihal Singh: This is one of the places where you do see coup-like dynamics. For one thing, there was very little to no fighting. There may or may not have been some helicopters that were shot down, but near, as I can tell, the bloodshed from this very serious threat was almost zero and maybe entirely zero. Secondly, the whole thing happened and was over so quickly. The reason here for all of that is that the pressure to both disturb normality and then return to normality is very, very strong. You want to disturb normality because that's what allows you to create a new order to change what's going on. Then the minute there's any sort of resolution, it's in the interest of the state, it's in the interest of the president to move back to regular order as quickly as possible. The result of this is that as an observer, my head was spinning.
Brandy Zadrozny: Same. I think we also saw at least on social media, a lot of early celebrating. There are many who'd be very happy to see Vladimir Putin go, but why should listeners reserve judgment before acting as Prigozhin's cheerleader?
Naunihal Singh: Prigozhin is a war criminal. You look at the actions of Wagner within Ukraine and they are horrific. If Prigozhin had, for example, been appointed Minister of Defense and been put in charge of the war effort in Ukraine, it is very possible that the war would've become even more bloody and aggressive and involved even more human rights violations than what we've seen thus far. Just because we have very good reasons to be critical of Putin and want to see him removed, doesn't mean we should ignore the question of who or what comes after Putin.
Brandy Zadrozny: Stephen Kotkin wrote for Foreign Affairs that, "There is one thing that all dictators properly fear, an alternative." In his videos and voice memos, Prigozhin has been putting forth populist messages and claims that he knows the truth about Russia's elite and how they've lied. Has Prigozhin presented himself as a viable alternative to Putin?
Naunihal Singh: It's hard to tell. Prigozhin is one of the few people who has been able to engage in a sustained political critique of the current situation. It creates space for there to be future challenges to Vladimir Putin. It'll be very interesting to see what occurs in the next few weeks to months in terms of Putin's ability to retain his hold on power. He's going to want to consolidate it, and at the same time, he knows he has very few people he can trust. The more oppressive he becomes to members of his own state security apparatus, the more incentive he gives them to either shirk or act against him. Russia is still a nuclear-armed power. They've one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. This is a very dangerous period for the world.
Brandy Zadrozny: Naunihal, thank you very much.
Naunihal Singh: Thank you so much.
Brandy Zadrozny: Naunihal Singh is the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. You'll find a breaking news consumer handbook military coup edition and all of our handbooks at our website onthemedia.org. Coming up, How to Cover Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.