Stalin had a favorite slogan for why he murdered his rivals for power. “Nobody, no problem,” said the Soviet dictator.
Today Vladimir Putin, who sits in Stalin’s office in the Kremlin, may well relish the mass murderer’s favorite aphorism.
Wednesday’s dramatic plane crash and reported death of warmonger Eugene Prigojine and his top aides – who led the sinister Wagner mercenary group – certainly appear to have been a settling of scores straight out of the ‘gamebook’. Man of Steel” not lamented.
But now several questions arise. Has Putin secured power? With the elimination of the man, has the problem disappeared? And what does Prigozhin’s death mean for the Wagner Group, which only a few weeks ago was about to launch a revolutionary assault on Moscow?
There is an essential difference between Putin and Stalin. The Soviet leader purged his generals before the war, not in the middle of it. And when, two months ago, Prigozhin launched his short-lived and ill-fated mutiny, it shattered Putin’s image as Russia’s undisputed boss.
The short-lived and ill-fated mutiny of Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) shattered Vladimir Putin’s (left) image as Russia’s undisputed boss.
Putin’s initial – and unprecedented – pardon now looks like a simple chess move
Today, the dictator’s initial – and unprecedented – pardon for such a challenge simply looks like another blow of failure. Putin pounced as the Wagner boss felt safe again and was once again doing the president’s dirty work for him.
In Wednesday’s crash, Putin also appears to have eliminated Wagner co-founder Dmitry Utkin and named him after Hitler’s favorite composer because, according to investigative site Bellingcat, he had “an obsessive fascination for the history of the Third Reich”.
The problem for Putin is that tens of thousands of seasoned Wagner soldiers, who fought – and in many cases remain totally loyal – to Prigozhin and Utkin, are now scattered across theaters of operations, from Bakhmut in Ukraine to in sub-Saharan Africa.
To view them as mere mercenaries driven only by money – that is, simply weapons for hire – would be shortsighted.
It is true that Prigozhin recruited tens of thousands of prisoners to fight and die for him. But when men take up arms together, even for a rotten cause – think Hitler’s Waffen SS – they develop bonds of camaraderie, an esprit de corps. Cutting off the snake’s head, as Putin clearly hoped, is often tantamount to finding a new, hideous hydra hissing in its place.
In the past, Putin’s policy was to eliminate certain rivals when they began to pose a threat to him. As the murderous Chinese Chairman Mao remarked, “Kill one, scare ten thousand.” But assassinating the leaders of a loyal armed militia is another story.
Putin threw himself in just as the Wagner boss felt safe again and was once again doing the president’s dirty work for him.
Even if NATO forces have little to fear from another head-on clash with Wagner’s thugs, Putin should still be afraid of them.
Prigozhin imposed brutal discipline, but his men learned not only how to kill and avoid being killed, but also the saving value of loyalty. Putin will not break these ties easily.
Since June, the Wagner Group has lost its tanks and artillery, returned to the Russian regular army. Its men are mostly found in organized units away from Russia, in Africa, where they play a valuable role in guarding gold mines and other minerals.
They certainly represent a danger for the local population, but not directly for the West. In the only direct firefight between Wagner’s mercenaries and the US military in Syria in February 2018, the Russians suffered heavy casualties.
But if NATO forces have little to fear from another head-on clash with Wagner’s thugs, Putin should still be afraid of them. They will prove difficult to control from Moscow, often thousands of miles from the battle front. And some violent Wagner men, fanatically loyal to their slain leaders and ready to serve a new boss who hates Putin, could quickly form a formidable kill squad.
Some Wagner fighters have already posted threatening videos on Telegram, warning: “We are starting, get ready for us. »
Divide and conquer has worked for Putin – so far. Now Russia’s highest military ranks will be wondering who will be chosen next – and that can only lead to further chaos.
Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford