Meelis Oidsalu: How many Prigozhins were rioting in Russia?

Meelis Oidsalu.
Meelis Oidsalu. Source: Kirke Ert/ERR

Estonian leaders proposed three different diagnoses for the so-called Prigozhin mutiny in Russia, even though "an attempted coup in Russia" and "an in-house quarrel of the Russian armed forces" are too completely different situations both in terms of the objective national security situation and residents' subjective feelings of safety, Meelis Oidsalu finds.

I received a call from the editor of ERR's "Aktuaalne kaamera" news on the morning of February 24 last year, a few hours after the start of full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine. They urgently needed someone to come on the air to comment on the situation in Ukraine.

I had left the Defense Ministry five months prior to become a small business owner and briefly commented on the security situation on a few occasions since then. I had no more information that what I could gather from the media.

I asked the editor to call the Government Office, Ministry of Defense or the intelligence services. I was told the government's representatives were indisposed as they were "sitting in the basement." The term describes the initial phases of a crisis when officials are scrambling to collect and organize information. Since no one from Sakala or Juhkentali streets was available, I eventually decided to appear on the news and – let us be frank here – spew nonsense.

Funnily enough, it all happened again that evening. I had just sat down to watch the Anniversary of the Republic reception with my family when I received another call from an editor of "Aktuaalne kaamera." Once more, I refused and asked them to turn to the authorities. Sure enough, the editor soon called back to tell me that no one was willing to come.

I appeared on the news again in a borrowed jacket. I had no way to source more information and what I said had even less substance than it had around noon. Allow me to clarify that I believe the "Aktuaalne kaamera" editor did nothing wrong, they were simply doing their job. It was the government that failed at a critical time.

A week ago, on June 24, "Aktuaalne kaamera" was once again forced to run specials during national holidays. This time, due to the civil war-like situation that had developed in Russia. The Estonian state was represented on a much higher level this time. The defense minister, interior minister and the PM all appeared on the news program one after the other. They were plain in admitting that they had no information about what was going on because Estonia's agencies knew no more than what had been published in the media.

Points for honesty. Not every politician could have admitted lacking a relevant picture as leaders tend to develop a certain kind of competency cramp in crises. A fear that they may be considered lazy or clueless if they fail to answer every question right away. The safe thing to do is to look informed in every situation.

But honesty counts for more than information in crisis communication. It is one thing I have learned from EDF Commander Gen. Martin Herem who always has the courage to admit it if there is something he does not know. It requires a measure of moral courage. Resolve is a very poor mask to wear in a crisis. Lying to be more informed than you really are in a crisis will sooner or later culminate in losing one's head in addition to losing face.

If there is anything we can criticize PM Kaja Kallas for in her June 24 "Aktuaalne kaamera" appearance it's lacking a coordinated message of what Estonia believed was happening in Russia. The PM revealed her pronouncedly "personal opinion" according to which it was a mutiny inside the Russian armed forces.

But President Alar Karis, commenting some time before the PM, had described the events in no uncertain terms as an "attempted coup." We do not know whether Karis' information was different from that of members of the government at the time, or whether he had simply donned the "mask of resolve."

One got the same impression listening to statements by Kalev Stoicescu, chairman of the Riigikogu National Defense Committee, who also talked about a Russian coup. The diagnosis provided by Marko Mihkelson, who heads the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee, fell somewhere between those provided by Kallas and Karis when he said the events constituted an armed forces rebellion that could grow into something more.

Therefore, Estonia's leaders aired three different diagnoses, even though "an attempted coup in Russia" and "an in-house quarrel of the Russian armed forces" are too completely different situations both in terms of the objective national security situation and residents' subjective feelings of safety.

More than a week later, our security policy elite has still not managed to agree on how to describe what happened and whether the so-called Prigozhin situation has been resolved in the first place. [Last] Monday's National Defense Council sitting should have provided the opportunity to coordinate messages.

Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur and Minister of Foreign Affairs Margus Tsahkna referred to the events as having taken place fully in the past in Wednesday's Eesti Ekspress, while the Riigikogu National Defense Committee chair is still talking about a coup attempt with the possible involvement of Russian special services, and that Prigozhin's mutiny was the opening act of a change of power in the Kremlin. (The opinion article was originally published on June 30 –ed.)

There is continued confusion when it comes to evaluating the aftermath of Prigozhin's mutiny, also in terms of what Wagner's banishment to Belarus might bring.

Foreign Minister Tsahkna told Delfi on June 28 that "we have lived next to Russia for millennia, and the fact that Wagner is now based in Belarus should not cause us any extra anxiety."

The New York Times published an overview of PM Kallas' meeting with the secretary general of NATO on the same day. The article echoes Kallas' warning that Belarus remains unpredictable and dangerous, and that Estonia is ready for all manner of additional developments coming out of the country.

It is likely Kallas was offering support to allies Poland and Lithuania that had somewhat anxiously called for greater NATO presence in the region to stay on top of developments in Belarus. But Foreign Minister Tsahkna and PM Kallas had not previously coordinated their messages.

The Estonian security community would do well to get together before the next extraordinary moment arrives. First, to coordinate messages in the so-called and possibly ongoing Prigozhin situation. Second, it would perhaps be expedient to introduce a routine of quickly coordinating urgent statements on situational awareness between the president, prime minister and the parliament.

Otherwise, one might be tempted to think that perhaps it is better if the situation is assessed by a commentator floating on the soft pillow of ignorance, appearing on the news with a downturned mouth and sleepy eyes. The role would be even better suited for an optimistic occultist or a pastor with an irresistibly sexy voice.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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