The existential question about Putin’s mercenary boss
    Opinion by Andreas Kluth

    REGION  03 June 2023 - 02:00

    In his piece for Bloomberg, Andreas Kluth wonders why Putin still tolerates the existence of Wagner Group's leader Prigozhin in spite of his accusations against Russia's top military brass.

    Yevgeny Prigozhin shouldn’t have said “grandfather.” But it slipped out. That was last month, during one of his vulgar and lurid rants against the Russian top brass. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company, was posing in warrior gear as a Slavic Rambo, straddling the corpses of his fallen comrades and spitting expletives into the camera.

    He was demanding ammo from the Russian army for his Wagner mercenaries, so he could finish the bloody siege for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. He blasted Russia’s overall war strategy. And then, apparently carried away by rage, he heaped scorn on a “happy grandfather” who “thinks he is good.”

    Up to that point, his Russian audience assumed that Prigozhin was, as part of his megalomaniacal shtick, only railing against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and top generals. But the “grandfather” sounded an awful lot like Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president and de facto Tsar. Challenge or threaten Putin, and you’re done.

    And yet, Prigozhin is still around. Having claimed victory over the rubble of Bakhmut, he seems to be regrouping his Wagner mercenaries. And Putin seems to tolerate his existence. Why?

    Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, DC, believe that Putin wants to keep Prigozhin in the wings as a counterbalance against something he, Putin, fears even more than an uppity mercenary: the Russian army.

    In his early years in power, the argument goes, Putin struggled to assert control over the brass. And as a former KGB man who thinks only in potential threats, he now worries that as his war against Ukraine drags on, a military putsch becomes more likely. Good, therefore, to have Prigozhin around to embarrass the army and keep them in line.

    I ran that thesis by Andras Racz, a Hungarian scholar at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. Racz has long been studying the Wagner Group, and private military contractors generally (including America’s Academi, formerly known as Blackwater). He reads the situation differently.

    First, Putin isn’t as worried about the loyalty of his own army as Soldatov and Borogan imply, Racz thinks. So Putin doesn’t need to maintain a counterbalance, and in any case doesn’t view Prigozhin as one. Nor does Putin fear Prigozhin, who has no support in the Russian elite. The president instead grows or prunes the Wagner boss’s stature as needed. And lately, he’s been clipping. One way he did that is with a new policy on hiring prisoners.

    Starting last fall, Prigozhin, himself an inmate in his youth, went into prisons and recruited convicts for the frontline, about 50,000 in total. He cynically used those men as cannon fodder, in Bakhmut and elsewhere. This was a big help to Putin, because it outsourced death. Given a choice between sacrificing regular conscripts and prisoners-turned-mercenaries, Putin preferred the latter.

    In February, however, Putin, trying hard to avoid another unpopular mass mobilization, prohibited Prigozhin from recruiting more prisoners. Now the Russian army hires them directly. So Putin has in effect throttled the supply of Wagner troops just as he may or may not have withheld ammunition.

    Prigozhin remains completely dependent on Putin, and both men know it.

    The other reason Putin doesn’t fear Prigozhin is the mercenary’s motivation.

    Prigozhin actually wants to get his men out of Ukraine, which represents a loss leader for him. He instead needs them in lucrative places like the Middle East and Africa, where Wagner hawks its violence services to any warlord who asks. In return, Wagner gets the rights to exploit local resources — such as oil in Syria, diamonds or rare earths in Africa.

    Putin likes these Wagner operations for their side effects. By spreading mayhem and unbearable human misery in regions like the Sahel, Wagner also causes mass migration to the European Union, which Prigozhin and Putin want to destabilize.

    The real question, Racz thinks, is therefore not whether Prigozhin will ever challenge Putin for power — he won’t — or whether Putin is thinking of eliminating Prigozhin — he isn’t. It’s whether Wagner as an outfit is now damaged goods and must be replaced by another group.

    One reason why countries outsource some warfare to the private sector is plausible deniability. The soldiers of fortune do the state’s bidding, but the government can claim it’s not responsible. For Wagner, however, that veneer of separation from the state is now gone. The whole world knows that Wagner is an extension of Putin’s regime.

    The larger tragedy in these developments is the spreading role of mercenaries in modern warfare generally.

    For much of history, mercenary war, which has been called the second-oldest profession, was the norm. It was soldiers of fortune who fought for Carthage in antiquity and Florence during the Renaissance, and who raped and pillaged in central Europe during the Thirty Years War. But then, with the rise of nationalism, states monopolized warfare for a century or so.

    Since World War II, and especially since the Cold War, that trend has reversed again. And Russia is far from the only culprit. America used contractors almost as enthusiastically in Iraq and Afghanistan, as do drug cartels, warlords, extremists and insurgents elsewhere.

    War is always hell, but wars waged by mercenaries — which the protocols to the Geneva Convention in 1977 tried to ban — are often more so. In “The Prince,” Machiavelli described mercenaries as “disunited, ambitious, without discipline, unfaithful; gallant among friends, vile among enemies; no fear of God, no faith with men.” He could have been thinking of Prigozhin — or any of the evil men who’d be happy to replace him.


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