Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 4 April 2023. © Richard Kemp
Are we seeing the beginning of a Night of the Long Knives in Russia? In the summer of 1934, Hitler ordered the murder of leaders of the SA, a Nazi private militia that was running out of control and threatening his power. The apparent assassination of Maksim Fomin, aka Vladlen Tartarsky – a vocal pro-war critic of the Kremlin’s handling of the invasion of Ukraine and cheerleader for the Wagner Group of mercenaries – has been interpreted by some as a shot across the bows of Wagner’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin is sometimes spoken of as a potential successor to Putin and in recent months has frequently crossed swords with Putin’s inner circle, publicly alleging incompetence and even accusing defence minister Sergei Shoigu of treason. This appears to have rattled Putin as well as the military top brass to the extent that the army has been accused of deliberately and needlessly expending Wagner mercenaries’ lives and depriving them of ammunition in order to clip their wings and even get rid of them.
Now the UK Ministry of Defence reports that Russia is looking to sponsor and develop alternative private military companies (PMC) to replace Wagner in Ukraine. Wagner, with 30,000-50,000 fighters in the country, has been essential to Putin’s faltering war effort, undertaking missions the regular army wouldn’t do, and so the apparent moves against the group indicate just how great a threat Putin must believe Prigozhin poses.
Wagner will not be easy to replace. Aside from its activities in Ukraine, its web, entwined with Russian foreign and economic policy, extends from Syria to Africa, Europe to Latin America. It was fed and engorged by this war, and has arguably become too large to eradicate entirely.
Yet while Putin may be better off dispensing with private military outfits and the internal risks they represent, they bring him many benefits. For one, he knows that past Russian leaders have been brought down by high casualty rates and his desperation to avoid even heavier losses helps account for Russia’s apparent caution in its current offensive and the Kremlin’s reluctance to order a full mobilisation. Mercenary deaths don’t have to be officially reported and their body bags do not attract anything like the emotions of returning military casualties.
Wagner has also shown beyond doubt, especially in Bakhmut, that private companies can sometimes operate more effectively, unsaddled with the bureaucracy and institutional sclerosis often characteristic of regular forces. Although their owners are motivated by profit, PMCs are also cheaper, without the heavy costs of extensive training, pensions, disability payments and higher salaries.
A major consideration in this war is that PMCs and their fighters are not legally accountable. In fact, under Russian law, they are illegal and therefore deniable. They are not commercially registered, do not pay taxes and do not officially exist. Wagner has shown a level of ruthlessness even greater than most regular Russian forces: raping, looting, torturing and murdering prisoners and civilians with little fear of ever being brought to justice.
Putin will be looking to combine these advantages with an ingredient that is perhaps of greatest importance in a war that is not going to plan: loyalty. This is where Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the target of Prigozhin’s wrath, might step in. It sounds bizarre to Western ears, but even Shoigu is believed to have his own private army in Ukraine, Patriot, an illegal organisation fighting for profit alongside the state forces he legally directs.
Perhaps Patriot will become the anointed successor to Wagner. Shoigu is a long-term friend of Putin whose loyalty is unquestioned, his own fortunes bound into Putin’s, and the future of both dependent on the outcome in Ukraine.
Rapid transformation of Russia’s PMC scene, and especially the removal of Wagner from the battlefield, could offer Putin a trump card as the elimination of the SA did for Hitler; failure to do so could spell his end. Either way, all this is bad news for the West, which in the coming years will no doubt feel the growing effects around the world of a battle-hardened network of Russian mercenary groups.
Image: Richard Wagner. Royal Opera House, Flickr