Revenge is a dish best eaten cold, my father told me when I was young, or perhaps I read it in a Harold Robbins novel. The rather hackneyed line came to mind when the news broke that a plane thought to be carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, the private military force credited with key Russian victories in Ukraine, had crashed.
The real question is how Prigozhin remained alive for two months after what is widely regarded as an attempted coup d'etat. So many questions. Why did Prigozhin turn back when he was so close to Moscow? Why was he stupid enough to try it in the first place? Was it a negotiating tactic, an attempt to carve out more spoils of war, or, as he said, a gesture calling for better conditions for his soldiers?
In any case, Prigozhin, of all people, should have known better. The death toll of Russians who dared to challenge Putin, by radiation poisoning, nerve agents, or mysterious falls, would be considered over the top even in a Robbins potboiler.
Julia Ioffe of Puck magazine has been writing great articles about Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Here is what she wrote today:
Even as we waited for confirmation, and rumors of a second Prigozhin plane swirled on Telegram, Russians understood exactly what the boss was trying to tell them.
“It’s an absolutely clear signal to all the elites, really,” wrote the media personality Ksenia Sobchak, the untouchable daughter of Putin’s political mentor and former boss Anatoly Sobchak. “For everyone who had any kind of seditious thought, about the progress of the special military operation, and about anything at all.” Then, as someone who would know exactly how seriously Putin takes loyalty, she posted a clip from a 2018 interview with Putin, in which he is asked, “Do you know how to forgive?”
“Yes,” Putin says. “But not everything.”
“What is unforgivable?” the interviewer responds.
“Betrayal,” says Putin, his face turning dark.
Prigozhin had ordered his troops to march to Moscow on June 25 in what appeared to be an attempted coup d'etat. Then, abruptly, he released a video announcing that he was turning his forces back, after a deal reportedly brokered between Prigozhin and Putin by President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
In the lead up to the coup attempt, Prigozhin's criticism of Putin and the missteps of the Russian military had become vociferous. His greatest apostasy was likely the 30-minute video in which he accurately described Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a “racket” perpetrated by a corrupt elite chasing money and glory without concern for Russian lives. He challenged the Kremlin’s claim that Kyiv had been on the verge of attacking Russian-backed separatist territory in Ukraine’s east when Russia invaded.
“The war wasn’t needed to return Russian citizens to our bosom, nor to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine,” Prigozhin said, referring to Mr. Putin’s initial justifications for the war. “The war was needed so that a bunch of animals could simply exult in glory.”
After accusing Russian troops of murdering 2,000 of his fighters, Prigozhin seized control of Rostov-on-Don, a key military installation, and appeared ready to march on Moscow. But there didn't seem to be sufficient support among other military leaders for his rebellion, and shortly afterwards, he left the country.
Some said the rebellion underscored the weaknesses of the Russian state, hollowed out by corruption and buttressed by propaganda and fear. The threat was serious enough that Pravda reported oligarchs hurriedly boarding their private aircraft, yet many Muscovites seemed unfazed, counting on the capital's long-established defenses to repel the Wagner fighters.
As it turned out, the cynics were right. As Ioffe writes, the code for insiders in Russia is ponyatie; literally understandings. The inner circle knows the price of betrayal. Ioffe writes:
It was why, in announcing his putsch, Prigozhin made sure to clarify that he was not, in fact, a traitor. He had no issues, he claimed, with the czar, only with his corrupt and incompetent generals. He had no intent, he swore, to topple Putin from his throne. Perhaps, given what happened in the intervening two months, Prigozhin thought that he had successfully threaded that needle and convinced Putin that he was not, in fact, a traitor.
As Wagner mercenaries flood chat rooms with calls for revenge, perhaps this is the takeaway: Next time, if you're going to stage a coup, stage a coup. Better make sure you win.
After being released from prison, Yevgeny Prigozhin sold hotdogs on the street and met Vladimir Putin.
The rest is history, and there could very well be another chapter. Read about his background in The Intercept.
Ambassador Michael McFaul on Prighozin's Death
As Nation-States Wither, Bond Villains Proliferate
The rise of private military groups began in the 1990s, as national identities and civil society began to wither around the globe. As small-scale conflict multiplied, nation-states were increasingly reluctant to engage their troops, particularly in ground wars.
Enter the mercenaries. The U.S. is no stranger to the phenomenon, using high-level "white-collar" organizations staffed by former military and intelligence officers with close ties to the government, as well the unsavory Blackwater group headed by Erik Prince, the brother of Trump administration Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Blackwater and its subsidiaries received more than $100 million in contracts during the Iraq war, even though its soldiers were implicated, and in some cases, convicted of crimes, including the murder of civilians.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the mercs would become a force no longer controlled by their patrons. The Wagner Group took the mercenary business to a new level, both as an extralegal arm of the Russian government operating on four continents and, one could argue, as an independent political and economic force.
According to the British newspaper, the Telegraph, Wagner has been active in the Central African Republic, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Mozambique, and Ukraine. Wagner has been accused of committing atrocities, and on the political front, Prigozhin boasted about founding the International Research Agency, the troll farm sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for interfering in U.S. elections.
“Gentlemen, we interfered, we interfere and we will interfere,” Prigozhin said in 2022, one day before the U.S. midterm elections. “Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know how. During our pinpoint operations, we will remove both kidneys and the liver at once.”
The Wagner Group, acting as an arm of Russian foreign policy, made Prigozhin very rich, but money, apparently was not enough. The organization and its head bore a rather odd resemblance to the bad guys in vintage Bond movies, bombastic men with a yen for world domination. Prigozhin is gone, but there is always another Goldfinger.
As civil societies grow increasingly weak, more brutal but effective paramilitary organizations may redefine themselves as both parastatal and corporate with no James Bond in sight.
The Wall Street Journal's Documentary on Wagner
Not Your Dad's Mercs
No time? Get the gist from the trailer: "This is a business story"
David Remnick On Prigozhin
Prigozhin, like Putin, was born and raised in Leningrad, which was renamed St. Petersburg as the Soviet Union was crumbling. As a young man, Prigozhin was a petty criminal and was eventually arrested and sentenced to twelve years in prison for robbing apartments. He was released after nine years.
The rest of his biography resembles that of so many around Putin. After making some money selling hot dogs at the local flea market, he got involved in the grocery business, then casinos, construction, catering, and restaurants. He formed a close relationship with Putin, a frequent diner at his establishments, and that put him in a position to increase his good fortune. Private planes, helicopters, and immense residences soon followed—as did the founding of troll farms in St. Petersburg and the Wagner Group, a military contractor that was heartily supported by Putin as a way to help assist Russian Army troops and also, according to Zygar, as a way to counterbalance the power of figures like Sergei Shoigu, the Defense Minister.
The relationship between Putin and Prigozhin ruptured during the war as Prigozhin repeatedly went on social-media platforms, particularly the messaging app Telegram, and, in profane, blunt language, lambasted the Russian military leadership for betraying the Wagner Group, denying them ammunition and support, and, generally, botching the war effort against Ukraine.
“They split the moment when Prigozhin started believing he was popular,” Zygar said. Last fall, as Prigozhin criss-crossed Russia recruiting prisoners for the Wagner Group, “he felt like a rock star.” His gift was that he “spoke with them so effectively in their language,” Zygar said. “There came a moment when Prigozhin was no longer Putin’s puppet. Pinocchio became a real boy.”
This Ain't No Party, This Ain't No Night Club
Human Rights activist Drew Pavlou has compiled a list, published on Twitter, of the Wagner Group's abuses. It's impressive, and not in a good way.
Drew Pavlou @DrewPavlou
Jun 24 • 8 tweets • DrewPavlou/status/1672593390226251776
THREAD. List of Wagner military atrocities and war crimes in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine.
1. The Moura Massacre, Mali. Wagner murdered up to 500 civillians and buried them in mass graves. March 27, 2022 –
March 31, 2022.
The Moura Massacre: One resident told Human Rights Watch they counted 241 men buried in common graves. They executed hundreds of men before dumping them into death pits
2. The Aigbado Massacre, Central African Republic. At least 65 civillians murdered, including women and children. Wagner shot into crowds indiscriminately and burned down at least a dozen houses. January 16-17, 2022.
3. The Bongboto Massacre, Central African Republic. July 21, 2021. Wagner fighters summarily executed at least 13 unarmed male civillians, shooting them in the head before dumping them in the road.
4. Wagner war crimes in Syria.
Ever seen the Wagner sledge hammer symbol? Wagner used a sledge hammer to torture a Syrian Army deserter to death in 2017. They crushed his extremities before beheading his lifeless body, cutting off his arms and lighting it on fire.
The Syrian Army deserter's name was Hamadi Bouta. Wagner fighters posed with his body after beheading him and lighting him on fire. They sent the video around on WhatsApp and the video was eventually sent to Hamadi's family.
5. Wagner war crimes in Ukraine.
Wagner would follow up the execution of Hamadi Bouta by sledge hammer with the execution of convicted Russian murderer and Wagner fighter Yevgeny Nuzhin. Again they filmed it and shared it everywhere
Perhaps the most egregious and beastly Wagner war crime in Ukraine: ex-Wagner fighters testified to executing entire basements filled with Ukrainian women and children on the orders of Yevgeny Prigozhin.
One fighter recounted shooting a screaming 5 year old girl in the head