In a Mutiny or Coup, the Scramble to Persuade and Pick a Side Is Critical

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Coups are the ultimate fake-it-til-you-make-it endeavor. Talk to experts, and they’ll tell you that coup plotters’ most crucial task is to convince other soldiers and officers that success is assured, and that throwing their lot in with the putsch is therefore the path of prudent self-interest.

Those early moments of persuasion are so important because it’s very dangerous to be on the losing side of a coup. Failed plotters often face prison or worse. But those who stand by a failed government are often purged from power — and potentially exposed to retribution from whoever takes over.

The smart move is to choose the winning side, if you can figure out which that will be. So coup plotters tend to follow a predictable playbook to make their success look assured until it really is: a huge show of force, coupled with public statements from high-ranking officials, to show that the military and other elites support the plot.

Coup leaders usually seize major media channels and shut down the rest so that they can curate a public image of unchallenged success. Then, if they can, they often seize the ousted leaders themselves to prevent them from rallying supporters to their defense.

By contrast, signs that powerful people don’t support a coup are often enough to prevent its success. This helps to explain why there is so much interest in whether and when the Russian government might have arrested Gen. Sergei Surovikin.

Surovikin posted a video message early in the mutiny led by Yevgeny Prigozhin last weekend, denouncing it and warning others not to join. That most likely indicated to others within the military, even if they might have sympathized with the mutineers’ demands, that the uprising was unlikely to succeed — a major blow to whatever chances it might have had.

But if he has now been arrested or detained, as some reports indicate, that suggests that Russian officials may believe that he actually supported the mutiny at some point. That raises questions about what made him issue the video denouncing it, and what might have happened if he hadn’t.

The facts from Russia are still emerging, but you don’t need to wait to learn more about how coups work — or don’t — in general. Pick up two smart books by the experts I spoke to for Monday’s column: “Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups,” by Naunihal Singh, and “How to Prevent Coups d’Etat: Counterbalancing and Regime Survival,” by Erica De Bruin.

You don’t need to wait to learn more about the rules of political physics in Russia, either. “Putin’s People,” by Catherine Belton, traces how Putin and other former members of the K.G.B. rose to power and profit after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And “Between Two Fires,” by Joshua Yaffa, looks at how a middle tier of strivers navigates Putin’s Russia, where the government can offer benefits and threaten punishments as it requires.

In “The Future Is History,” which won a 2017 National Book Award, Masha Gessen argues that Putin has consolidated his control through a return to totalitarianism. And this week, in The New Yorker, Gessen wrote about the most striking consequence of Prigozhin’s uprising: that it showed the Russian public that there might be choices other than Putin, after decades of messaging that he was the only one who could or did wield power.

But Julia Ioffe, writing in Puck, offers an important note of caution. “The siloviki, the men of the various security forces, might be the source of future insurrection, but this weekend showed them that their chances of success are slim indeed,” she wrote. “It is likely best to lay low — lower, as the Russian saying goes, than the grass, quieter than the water.”

Logan Matthew Stickler, a reader in Huntington, W.V., recommends “The Shadow Docket,” by Stephen Vladeck:

This newly released title traces the ways that the Supreme Court has used procedural orders to settle controversial issues and make new law without every ruling on the legal merits. He places this in the context of the court’s larger history, and shows how this behavior has changed drastically over the past 50 years (and especially since the Trump presidency).

I found myself captivated by his analysis even when not actively reading, which was rare as I could barely put it down.

Thank you to everyone who wrote in to tell me about what you’re reading. Please keep the submissions coming!

I want to hear about things you have read (or watched or listened to) about status. That could mean more novels for my Summer of Snob reading list, but I’m also looking for your suggestions of more scholarly works about clout, caste and power.

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