"Trust, but verify" is an old Russian proverb Ronald Reagan picked up on during his presidency. He used it to explain his position in negotiating with the Soviets over nuclear disarmament. It's allegedly a paraphrase of Vladimir Lenin, who said, "To test men and verify what has actually been done — this, this again, this alone is now the main feature of all our activities, of our whole policy."
In negotiations or building a state like the Soviets initially did, this makes sense. However, when reading through the morass of news and opinions on what happened in Russia during the 24-48 hours where an alleged coup occurred, we need to invert the proverb: "Verify, then trust."
From the Soviet Union to Vladimir Putin's police state in Russia, your eyes can only tell you so much, and you should never trust your ears. In the opening hours, the so-called experts who ran out and brashly declared that we were witnessing the downfall of Putin and a bloody coup was underway were rapidly proven wrong when Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin halted his march on Moscow and agreed to Putin's terms.
In truth, these are the same expert circles in the 1980s who thought the Soviet Union would never end and castigated Reagan for dreaming otherwise. We should work towards trusting but verifying anything "Russian analysts" have to say. If they didn't think a coup was possible but now think Putin's government is in its death throes, then they're nothing more than emotional reactors to the news.
On its face, Prigozhin's actions and march on Moscow appear to have weakened Putin, at least optically. Of course, this is the obvious conclusion of any coup attempt. If a coup is attempted, and the government survives, the natural belief is to see this as confirmation of internal rifts and challenges.
That could be true here: Putin foiled a coup attempt but allegedly needed the President of Belarus, a Russian puppet state, to mend the divide. There's also the reality that Prigozhin survived, as did the soldiers in his command, and they allegedly shot down Russian military aircraft during the Moscow march. Is Putin so weak he can't punish the leader of a military coup?
If you're rooting for the downfall of Putin in Russia, there are facts here to make a conclusion in your favor.
Alternative theories are possible too. For example, in 2016, tanks started rolling in the streets of Turkey, and we read reports of an attempted coup there. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the coup attempt to crush dissent and establish one-man rule, further cementing his power. That led to the belief among observers, both in the West and from Turkey, that his was a fake coup to establish Erdogan's power.
We'd be remiss not to consider the theory here. Erdogan used the fake coup attempt to flush out possible enemies and strengthen his rule over Turkey. Even further back, we know the Nazis used the Reichstag Fire to jail opposition and dissidents, allowing them to control the country. There are other examples, too; fake coups have a long history.
Putin could just as easily use this situation to ferret out potential opposition in his government. Velina Tchakarova, a geopolitical analyst who did have a coup in her predictions, said the moment news of the coup broke:
This is not a coup by Prigozhin. This is an inner war between the St Petersburg gang of Putin and the Moscow gang of Gerasimov and Shoigu. This is the beginning of Putin's election campaign to become reelected on March 17, 2024. His lapdog Prigozhin is masquerading a coup to put the blame on Gerasimov and Shoigu for losing the war against Ukraine. Prigozhin can always be scapegoated if he fails like this has happened in the past.
She also points out that when Putin was first installed as Prime Minister in 1999, there were several mysterious terrorist bombings that Putin used to consolidate power and take over.
Is Putin weaker than ever from this, or is this a broader plan to consolidate power among his inner circle? There are many opinions on the answer to this question. And in truth, it's impossible to know for now. And if you read the hot takes machine long enough, you'll see theories other than the two I've presented here.
Whether or not those other theories have any merit is another question. Because, in the end, you can't trust anything you see or hear in Russia. We can't trust them, nor can we verify much.
I will note this: it seems unwise to believe Putin is weak and treat him as such when the West is currently locked into funding Ukraine's defense against the Russian invasion. The outcome of that war is still up in the air. In the past, Russian analysts presumed strength where none existed with the USSR. Now, they seem to want to presume weakness without verifying there is any.
Verify first, then figure out what or who to trust.