I have no idea whether the Wagner Rebellion in Russia is going to have any lasting impact, but I do know that it was pre-empted in over a dozen films and TV shows that were supported by the Pentagon and CIA. As Vladimir Putin promises swift (and presumably merciless) retribution against the mutiny, this is an appropriate time to trace out this popular meme over the last few decades of the post-Cold War world.
The Renegade Russian or Russian coup faction or mutiny of Russian soldiers loyal to a breakaway leader will be immediately familiar to you – because you’ve seen it so many times. TVTropes has an excellent list of films and TV shows where this plot device or characterisation has been deployed. Let’s run through the major productions and look at the proportion that were supported by the US military and/or the CIA.
Rogue Ruskie Rebels in James Bond Films
For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, Goldeneye and The World is Not Enough all have some version of this, whether an individual Russian or a wider faction. TVTropes also includes From Russia With Love, Die Another Day and Tomorrow Never Dies in their list, though they are either non-Russians or are Rosa Klebb. Several of these films – most notably Goldeneye, which helped shape the post-Cold War cultural landscape – had Department of Defense assistance. There was also an extensive argument with the DOD over the title ‘Octopussy’ before someone in the military saw sense and pointed out they’d helped out on Goldfinger, which has a character named ‘Pussy Galore’, without any objections.
Wagner Rebellion in Tom Clancy (and other movies)
The most prominent example is Colonel Sean Connery (Marko Ramius) and his officers from The Hunt for Red October, where Ramius is a defector who the Soviet government brand as a rebel in the hope the US navy will sink him and the brand new submarine he steals when he defects. There were significant script discussions with the Pentagon over the movie version, most notably over Ramius’ reasons and motives for defecting. The DOD wanted his reasons to be clearer, including blaming the Soviets’ poor medical services for the death of his wife and a historical distrust of Russians by Lithuanians such as himself.
While Ramius is technically a defector, he is still a military officer who mutinies, fails to follow orders, and opposes his government. Similar characters also appear in Salt, which came out in the summer of 2010, just in time to coincide with a real-life Russian spy rings being busted inside the US. Salt, like Jack Ryan, was supported by the CIA. And has a similar storyline to Telefon, which was also supported by the CIA. One Cold War-era, one arriving at the right moment to help kick off the New Cold War.
Naughty Ruskies in Crimson Tide
Another mid-90s film that reinforced the messaging in Goldeneye and Red October was Crimson Tide, though this time there’s a mutiny on both sides. A Siberian separatist and his band of officers take over a nuclear base and threaten to launch, but the US counter with a mutiny of their own on board a US Navy submarine. Somehow, it’s all alright in the end, because Denzel Washington.
Unsurprisingly, the US Navy themselves had no problems with the depiction of a mutiny in Russia that threatens a nuclear war, but they couldn’t tolerate more or less the same thing happening on board one of their own submarines. They demanded a major rewrite, that removed the mutiny and any suggestion that nuclear weapons aren’t safe, but that was not forthcoming so Crimson Tide got the thumbs down.
And then the Navy went around saying they don’t request script changes, and generally lying about why the movie got rejected.
Air Force One’s Reel Bad Ruskies
As the 1990s meandered on we got another entry, this time combining the naughty Russians with terrorists, who take over Air Force One and necessitate an absurdly unrealistic mid-air zipline transfer to another plane (which then becomes Air Force One, since that’s a generic name given to any plane that carries the president, thus making the title stupid and irrelevant).
Among those having input on the Air Force One script were the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose notes include the query:
Pg 60, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY, LISTENING POST — Doesn’t have to be a model, but why “grossly overweight?”
Wagner Coup in post-9/11 TV Shows
In the wake of 9/11 the major villains on TV were Al Qaeda or similarly Middle Eastern-looking terrorists, but even amongst all the suicide bombers they still found room to keep the rebellious Russian meme alive and well. 24, NCIS and JAG – all supported by the DOD, and in the case of 24 and JAG by the CIA as well – recycled story beats and characters from the 1990s films mentioned above.
We also got the final season of Spooks – a British spy show that was supported by MI5 and had former MI5 and MI6 officers as consultants. Much like in the book for Red October, the renegade faction is trying to trick the British authorities into shooting down an incoming jetliner from Russia, provoking a war and providing a pretext for their coup in Moscow.
Keeping the trend going, the first season of Michael Bay’s The Last Ship (which is all about a global pandemic that the US military saves us from) has as its primary villain a rogue Russian ship captain who refused to return home when the virus reaches Russia. He now seeks the cure to the virus so he can create a new world order in his own image.
The US Navy were so deeply involved in The Last Ship that we have to call them co-producers. As a report from their entertainment liaison office from September 2013 notes, they were concerned about ‘continued dark character and story arcs’ and arranged ‘phonecon between OSD, NAVINFO West, TNT, Michael Bay and writers.’
Following a ‘reset meeting’ that a subsequent report called ‘productive’, the Navy commented:
Writing team and Navy team on same page in regard to thematic items.
Jack Ryan and the Wagner Rebellion
The most recent example of this phenomenon comes courtesy of another Clancyverse production exploring similar themes (evidently inspired by The Hunt for Red October) namely Jack Ryan Season 3, which debuted last December. The season-long storyline focuses on a Russian coup faction working to provoke a third world war, overthrow the government, and in some way recreate the Soviet Union. It’s a bizarre and convoluted delusion, turned into a TV show, and naturally Jack, Greer and black CIA lady successfully stop World War Three by working with the good Russians to sort the situation out.
So far, all three seasons of Jack Ryan have had CIA support, and while season one was rejected for DOD production support it was given a big promotional effort, and the Pentagon helped make season two before handing off to their NATO partners here in Europe for the third go round.
They’re following up with a fourth season – it comes out in less than a week and will presumably be an eight-episode livestream of the Wagner coup attempt as it unfolds, with Jack and the guys helping them overthrow that nasty Putin-esque president.