On analytic uncertainty

Threatologist Eurasia special: A war of illusions, or Prigozhin and the limits of OSINT


Diametrically opposed interpretations of this weekend’s events — which involved Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner private military company (PMC), marching troops across Russia — highlight the limits of open-source information and, consequently, open-source intelligence (OSINT). They should encourage analytic caution, not confident predictions.

Putin won: he successfully neutralised an opponent without bloodshed. Putin lost: his weakness has been displayed for all to see, and the end of his regime is just a matter of time.


Prigozhin won: he challenged the king and walked away. Prigozhin lost: he’s been forced into exile and should stay away from windows and tea for the foreseeable future.


Prigozhin was directly challenging Putin: he wanted to seize power. Putin was not directly challenging Putin: he wanted to be heard but remained fundamentally loyal.


The elites support Putin: Prigozhin gave up because he did not win support from any significant section of the Russian elite. The elites do not support Putin: their silence in the face of such a naked challenge to Putin’s authority, and Prigozhin’s survival, show they are looking for alternatives.


I won’t rehash the details of events: they are well covered in extensive media reporting (relive a bizarre day in Russia watching here). But, when available evidence can support diametrically opposed interpretations, and some of these interpretations are equally plausible, then speculation on What It All Means can be profoundly unhelpful. Particularly when determinations of plausibility are so heavily influenced by what we already believe, and suspiciously align with what we want to believe. Some of these interpretations will be right, but so too will my stopped clock, at least twice a day. Rather than add to the cacophony of commentary, it might be better to stop and reflect on what we know, and what we can know, about the topic that gives rise to these interpretations.

What we (don’t) know about Russian PMCs

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, PMCs — and Wagner in particular — have attracted a great deal of attention from the media, academics, and policymakers. What was once a marginal topic has now moved centre stage (for the record, I started working on them in January 2022, before they became popular!).


As a result, there are certain aspects of PMCs about which we know a great deal. We know about their ambiguous legal standing. We know a lot about where they are operating. We know about specific incidents they have been involved in. We know about the human rights violations they have perpetrated. And we know a great deal about their recruitment practices. Much of this information has come from Russian journalists and civil society actors whose work has been far from easy. There is now a wealth of information in the public domain that we can draw upon in our analyses.


There are, however, things that we know much less about. There is a whole universe of Russian PMCs beyond Wagner, of which many people seem wholly unaware. But, even with Wagner, we know very little about internal relationships within the group — whether that be the networks around Prigozhin and who his allies are or the more day-to-day relationships among the rank-and-file. We do not know how decisions are reached within the group, and how robust the command structures are. We do not know how many members are loyal to the ideas Prigozhin claims to represent, and how many are there for the material rewards. We do not know how these members will respond when their allegiances are tested (we never got that far on Saturday). Some of these things are knowable with more research. Some may be fundamentally unknowable.


The picture is significantly complicated by the illusion of knowledge — and the lack of critical reflection on sources, even from those who should know better. Far too many media articles have been published that basically consist of nothing more than a headline appended to a Prigozhin Telegram statement. If you watched Twitter over the weekend, and the journalistic output that went alongside it, you will have seen the same information reappearing time and time again — often originating from highly dubious sources. Some accounts focused on the technical side of digital verification without pausing to consider who was publishing that information, why, and how representative it was of anything (for a critique of this, I thoroughly recommend following Jeremy Morris’s blog Postsocialism, as well as reading his analysis here). People have offered definitive analytic conclusions about the significance of events, running far ahead of the certainty that available evidence allows (not linking to examples is a conscious decision throughout this post).


Reposting material from Telegram to Twitter is not analysis. Preceding a social media post with ‘unconfirmed’ doesn’t make it less of a rumour. Circulating the same information as everyone else contributes nothing. Wanting something to be true does not make it so.

Is all hope lost?

Does this mean we should give up trying to understand Russian PMCs and that all hope, analytically speaking, is lost?


Not really. In some ways, this weekend’s events bear similarities to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Lots of experienced, deeply knowledgable observers did not think it would happen; indeed, there were strong reasons to argue that it wouldn’t happen. It was a failure of prediction, but that is not necessarily the same as a failure of analysis. Many people viewed the invasion as unlikely because it was not in Russia’s interests. Sixteen months on, the foundation of that assessment — that it was not in Russia’s interest — still holds up pretty well.


The same is true of Prigozhin’s little march. Based on information available before the event, I would have offered the following judgement: Prigozhin does not have the support base to challenge Putin and it is not in his interests to do so. By contrast, the assertion that Prigozhin was a genuine rival to Putin was evidentially suspect. Neither assertion necessarily requires revision. The problem is that we are dealing with human beings acting on imperfect information. Without rehashing the many weaknesses of Rational Actor models, there is a wealth of information that points to actors (a) not knowing or misjudging what is in their interests and (b) acting in ways not in accordance with them. These problems are only exacerbated in an information environment such as that which prevails in Russia today.


This weekend’s events should, ideally, encourage two things. 


First, embracing good analytic tradecraft. Be clear on what you know, and what you don’t know. Verify the sources of information — not just whether they say what they claim to say, but also the agendas behind them. Be clear on your levels of confidence. When information is ambiguous, how you reached your conclusions will be just as informative as the conclusions themselves.


Second, acceptance of a degree of uncertainty. There are things we know, and things we do not or cannot know. Wanting an answer should not drive you to accept any answer. (My second recommendation, in the sea of articles on the topic: Sam Greene’s TL;DRussia frequently reflects on the need for academic humility).

If men define situations as real…

The so-called Thomas theorem — named after two sociologists, Dorothy Swaine Thomas and William Isaac Thomas — holds that “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Put another way, interpretations of events are just as important as any supposedly “objective” reality. 


Perceptions play a critically important role in Russian politics, where institutions are often weak and authority is not rooted in Weberian bureaucratic structures. Take two of the most influential and widely respected theoretical models used to explain Russia: Henry Hale’s patronal politics and Alena Ledeneva’s sistema. In Hale’s model, the client needs to be confident that the patron can serve their interests; otherwise, their allegiances may shift. Elections, for example, offer actors an opportunity to demonstrate that their power is not illusory and that they can mobilise people. In Ledeneva’s model, players spend a lot of time trying to understand the unwritten rules of the game, and their choices within the system are shaped by interpretations of who holds power at any given time. Without getting into the weeds of these theoretical interpretations — which are both more nuanced than can be covered here and overlap in a number of areas — we can see that perceptions play a huge role in determining the behaviours of people.


This weekend’s events were undoubtedly significant, because, to put it crudely, you can’t march armed formations across a country in defiance of its military leadership without impacting people’s perceptions. Even by Russia’s recent standards, what just happened was weird. But, to bring us back to where we started, it is precisely because the evidence can support diametrically opposed interpretations that we cannot say with any confidence What It All Means. We do not yet have enough evidence of which interpretation will be adopted by which actors, let alone how it will shape their behaviours.


That, however, won’t stop people offering certainty in uncertain times. So let me conclude with the words of the great philosopher Billy Joel: “The only people I fear are those who never have doubts. Save us all from arrogant men and all the causes they're for.”

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