Showing posts with label Wagner Group. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wagner Group. Show all posts

13 September 2023

The Prigozhin Effect


Yevgeny Prigozhin didn’t fall out of a window; he fell out of the sky.  In a terrifying nosedive, from 28,000 feet.  I hope he had just enough time left to know who ordered it.  And just for shuffles and grins, they took out Dmitri Utkin too, the guy who gave Wagner its name, after his callsign.  Few people, inside Russia or out, are in any doubt that Putin pulled the trigger.  The Kremlin issued a denial, but that’s what plausible deniability is all about, a smooth lie and a sly wink.  The point of the exercise is its utter shamelessness. 

Putin eulogized his onetime best bud as “a man of difficult fate,” which is an interesting locution.  If a literal translation, we might put a different construction on it, someone who sailed under a troubled star.  They went back a ways together, to Leningrad in the late 1990’s, the Boris Yeltsin years, when the oligarchs were raking in cash, over and under the table, and the siloviki – current and former members of the defense and security apparat – had both feet in the trough along with them.  This is what’s come to be known as gangster capitalism, and Vladimir Putin is now the capo di tutti capi.

Wagner Group certainly had its uses.  Murder for hire in Syria and central Africa, leveraging gold, oil, and diamond concessions.  It generated high yield at low risk, even as they normalized war crimes, terror a common instrument, but Wagner wasn’t a state actor, at least on paper.

What seems to be happening now is that they’re being brought under discipline, specifically the central military intelligence chain of command.  There’s of course a lot of intentional confusion about Progizhin’s death and who authorized it, but reliable indicators suggest the job was assigned to Gen. Andrei Averyanov’s special purpose unit inside GRU.  This is the crew that went after defector Sergei Skripal in the UK, with a nerve agent, five years ago.  They’ve never been known for subtlety.  And as luck would have it, Gen. Averyanov has reportedly now been given command of Wagner’s Africa mission.

On a different front, in what we can consider the Russian asymmetrical war effort, Prigozhin was also the founding partner of the Internet Research Agency, the Leningrad troll farm best known in the U.S. for social media influence operations to promote Trump for president.  IRA is supposedly being dismantled in the wake of the Prigozhin mutiny, but we can be sure its assets will be repurposed. 

In other words, although the Wagner coup attempt was widely heralded by Kremlin-watchers as seismic, an exposure of Putin’s fatal weaknesses, it seems more like a fart in the bathtub.  Nothing much has really changed.  “Death is our business,” Wagner’s recruiting pitch went, “and business is good.”  Is it ever. 

Putin’s murderous war in Ukraine grinds on, and Russia’s weakness makes it even more dangerous, like a wounded animal in a trap.  The disinformation campaigns are being redoubled (with China slipstreaming alongside), and God help us, we’ve got Trump taking up all the air in the room, again.  If anything, Putin is stronger than he was before Prigozhin’s mutiny.  No amount of wishful thinking can make this go away. 

28 June 2023

Dead Man Walking: Prigozhin's Mutiny

For those of you wondering what the hell is going on, trust me, nobody else knows much more than you do. 

A cheat sheet. 

Wagner Group was founded by a Slavic fundamentalist  and neo-Nazi knuckle-dragger named Dmitri Utkin, a former GRU spec ops tactical who later contracted out in Syria as private security.  Back-door finance courtesy of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who maintained deniability while Wagner recruited from Spetsnaz, airborne, and OMON militia assault teams, along with other dedicated special warfare units.  Using regular army logistics and support, Wagner deployed into Crimea and the Donbas, and then to South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mali.  Often suspected of war crimes, their general M.O. in Africa was to corner the export market in a given natural resource.  Uranium and gold, for example, in Darfur.  Profit aside, this allowed Wagner to maintain the fiction of a private contractor and independent business entity, although it’s common knowledge they operated out of Putin’s hip pocket. 

Prigozhin maintained his distance from Wagner until the war in Ukraine, when it began to suit his purpose to take credit for successes the mainstream Russian military couldn’t claim.  The problem, obviously, is that Prigozhin began to believe his own press – or his own podcasts.  When his enemies in the defense establishment, Shoigu and Gerasimov, effectively engineered a coup against Wagner, by requiring private contractors be subordinated to the Army chain of command (and Prigozhin’s supposed patron Putin signed off on it), the handwriting was on the wall.  Prigozhin moved against the garrison in Rostov-on-Don, and redeployed mobile units toward Voronezh – and Moscow.  It looked like a show of strength, but it mostly served to show Prigozhin had lost touch with reality.  It’s like the guy who climbs out onto the ledge of a tall building and threatens suicide.  If they call your bluff, the only thing left to do is jump. 

I doubt if Prigozhin is dumb enough to take refuge in Minsk.  Lukashenko would happily send his ears to Putin on a string, brokering the truce be damned.  His other options are limited.  He can’t go to any Western capital; it would only be a matter of time before the Hague asked for his extradition.  The former Soviet republics are out, or anywhere that has diplomatic relations with Russia.  And the Kremlin has a long reach, look at Trotsky, or Alexander Litvinenko.  Maybe the Saudis, or the Emirates. 

That’s the trouble with being an apex predator who loses his nerve, or thinks himself safe.  There’s always somebody lurking, in the deep water. 

12 October 2022

Holding Back the Tide (Putin's Folly, Pt. II)

The story of King Canute trying to hold back the tide by royal decree is sometimes framed as a fable of kingly vanity, but it’s in fact the reverse.  Canute was rebuking the flatterers in his court who pretended to believe the king’s powers were so absolute he could command the waters to obey.  Canute plunked his throne down on the shore and waited for the tide to come in, and of course got his feet wet.  His point being that only God had the final word, and the power of kings was for naught.

It’s nothing short of amazing that the vanity of princes keeps leading the rest of us to the precipice of doom.  Mitch McConnell clearly thinks Trump is a parasite and a clown, and a danger to the republic, but you won’t hear him say it, because Trump’s base are still useful idiots. A similar paralysis apparently holds sway in the upper reaches of the Kremlin apparat. Putin is dangerous to Russia because Putin has a dangerous idea of Russia, rooted in an imperialist, pan-Slavic, and imaginary czarist past. 

The clamor and the crazy don’t abate.

The voices on the Russian nationalist right are only getting louder.  I don’t know whether Ramzan Kadyrov, the puppet caudillo of Chechnya, or Yevgeny Progozhin, shadow commander of the Wagner Group, are trying to give Putin cover from the right wing by sounding crazier than he does, or positioning themselves as kingmakers for the succession, but their public rhetoric probably mirrors private sentiment, namely, Off With Their Heads, with no lack of fall guys.

Not that heads haven’t already rolled.  No fewer than eight one- and two-star generals have been killed in action this year in Ukraine.  This is a consequence of the Russian army’s institutional dysfunction: there is no professional NCO corps, and junior officers aren’t trusted to make command decisions; generals have to be on the battlefield, which gets them killed.  More to the point, the actual theater commanders are being relieved, retired, or packed off in disgrace.  Dvornikov, given ground command in April, was fired in June.  Serdyukov, commander of the airborne, shown the door.  Zhuravlev, commander Western Military District (responsible for the security of European Russia), got the boot last week. 

The new guy, and the first Russian general in Ukraine to be given sole command and complete responsibility, is Sergei Surovikin, known for tactics in Syria that included two months of airstrikes on Aleppo.  What this means for the war in Ukraine is anybody’s guess, but the Kremlin seems to measure success by the numbers of Russian dead.

Which brings us to the media hysteria.  It’s tempting to compare this to the MAGA bubble, the Fox echo chamber, but we’re not talking about Rupert Murdoch, we’re talking about Russian state media.  RT, Russia Today, is supposedly independent, but that’s a complete fiction, they channel the Kremlin id. Just today, after Russia went after dozens of targets across Ukraine, many if not most of them obviously non-military, Putin’s on-air cheerleaders were nothing if not gleeful.  Labeling the attack on the Kerch bridge an act of terrorism, they eagerly recommended a scorched earth policy, and targeting Zelensky and members of his government specifically and personally, to rid us of these “roaches.” 

I don’t know how to read this as anything other than panic. I think they’ve actually lost their marbles. Putin’s position, both inside and out, is now so weak that his stooges are using language that sounds like a parody of Kim Jong-un’s scripted praise.

I said this before, and I’ll say it again. Putin is a dead man walking. It can’t happen soon enough.