Opinion: What we know — and don’t know — about the Russian rebellion

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What we’re seeing in Russia this weekend appears to be the most direct challenge to the near-quarter-century rule of Vladimir Putin. It is the direct result of the bungled war he launched against Ukraine 16 months ago today.

That his onetime ally Yevgeny V. Prigozhin — whose quasi-private army, the Wagner Group, has turned on the Kremlin leader is nothing less than extraordinary. Putin Saturday took to the airwaves to brand Prigozhin — without using his name — a traitor who has stabbed Russia in the back.

See: Wagner Group in Rostov, heading to Moscow as Putin vows to punish armed rebellion

The shadowy 62-year-old Prigozhin — a lifelong thug who spent nine years in a Soviet prison for crimes ranging from armed robbery to fraud — is not well-known to most Americans. His work, however, is.

For nearly a decade Prigozhin has done much of the Kremlin’s dirty work in Syria and Ukraine, where his so-called green men (named for their unmarked army uniforms) helped seize the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The Wagner Group’s bloodthirsty work in eastern Ukraine over the past year and a half has brought incalculable suffering and wholesale destruction.

Americans have also been directly affected by Prigozhin’s maliciousness. His so-called Internet Research Agency was responsible, the U.S. and other Western governments have concluded, for Russia’s huge and sophisticated international disinformation operations. Using a firehose approach, the IRA has swamped social-media platforms with false narratives on combustible issues like race relations, immigration and abortion, the net result of which has been a further widening of our own social divisions. The IRA’s tentacles are as long as they are malicious.

Americans should also understand that the Wagner Group has a huge footprint in Africa, where the U.S., Russia (and China) are competing not just for political influence but for the raw materials that are essential to our 21st-century economy. In addition, the Kremlin is cleverly using Western sanctions on Russia to its advantage, blaming them for soaring food prices in Africa. In a series of United Nations votes since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, dozens of African nations have refused to condemn Moscow’s actions.

See: Who is the head of the mercenary group calling for an armed rebellion in Russia?

Thus the drama that’s unfolding this weekend is more than an apparent power struggle in Russia. Its outcome could have impacts that reach far beyond the redbrick walls of the Kremlin.

This is where things get even murkier than they are today. After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept, 11, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld, who served as secretary of defense under Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, famously said, “There are known knowns, things we know that we know; and there are known unknowns, things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns, things we do not know we don’t know.”

There is much we don’t know today. What might Russia’s uncertainty — and the possibility of turmoil — do to oil and gas prices, for example? Energy facilities, chemical plants and other critical infrastructure deep within Russia have been the targets of still-unexplained attacks in recent weeks. Are Ukrainians to blame? Russians who are opposed to the Putin regime? We cannot say with any clarity.

Market Extra: Rebellion in Russia could trigger selloff in U.S. stocks and flight to safe assets, analysts say. Here’s what investors should know.

We must also be concerned about the security of Russia’s large arsenal of nuclear weapons, currently estimated at approximately 4,489 warheads, as well as its chemical and biological weapons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — I was working in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow at the time — these were huge worries, and efforts were made, in conjunction with the new Russian government led by Boris Yeltsin, to make sure that all was secure.

Given the collapse in U.S.-Russian relations since Putin invaded Ukraine, the lines of communication have been badly frayed.

And what of the event that sparked this weekend’s drama — Putin’s bungled war in Ukraine itself? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, not surprisingly, has used it to taunt the Russian leader, saying Saturday that “Russia’s weakness is obvious” adding on Twitter: “Everyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself.”

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