Vladimir Putin could have lived out his life in luxury, committing serials murders with impunity, and spending his country’s wealth fighting tigers in Siberia and chilling with his “romantic partner”—a former gymnast once known as “Russia’s most flexible woman”—at his suburban Moscow mansion or his Italianate palace on the Black Sea.
But when he looked in the mirror, he saw a 21st century czar. (The word derives from “Caesar.”) That meant he had a mission: to restore the Russian empire, not leave it as “a gas station masquerading as a country,” in the immortal words of Sen. John McCain.
Imperialism requires warfighters. They must be loyal to the emperor, though not necessarily to each other.
Which brings us to Yevgeny Prigozhin, about whom you may have heard in recent days. His career path has been unconventional.
In 1981, at the age of 20, he was sentenced to prison for theft and other crimes. Nine years later, back out on the street—figuratively and literally—he sold hot dogs in an open-air market in Leningrad.
From there, he moved into the grocery business, then opened a gambling casino, then restaurants, then a catering service, which in around 2001 won lucrative contracts to supply meals to public schools.
Somewhere along the line, Putin took a shine to him, or at least saw him as a useful vassal and factotum. He arranged for Prigozhin to feed the Russian military. Prigozhin soon became one of the richest men in Russia, an oligarch. But, like Putin, he was not satisfied with that. So, he became a warlord.
In the media, it’s often labeled a mercenary group, but that glove doesn’t really fit either, because the term implies soldiers of fortune, guns for hire, warriors motivated solely by profit.
Prigozhin has consistently maintained that Wagner acts only and always to further Russian interests. And, as noted, he didn’t need Wagner to make money.
Footnote: The group’s name pays homage to Richard Wagner, the 19th century German composer beloved by Hitler.
Wagner fighters were among the Russian soldiers wearing uniforms without insignia—the “little green men”—who invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, sparking a chronic insurgency.
In 2015, Wagner was deployed to help Bashar al-Assad slaughter Syrians dissatisfied living under a dynastic dictatorship. In exchange, Putin has been able to utilize naval bases in Syria to make Russia a Mediterranean power, as it was in Soviet times.
In 2017, Wagner began showing up in African countries, providing security for dictators in exchange for a fat cut of those countries’ gold, diamonds and other natural resources.
In 2018, several hundred Wagnerians attacked a military outpost in Syria, a base for Americans fighting Islamic State. The Americans eliminated the attackers with dispatch. Putin said not a word about it.
That same year, Prigozhin was indicted by an American federal grand jury because another of his businesses, the Internet Research Agency, had utilized social media to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Only last year did Prigozhin publicly acknowledge that he heads Wagner, which he registered as a “management consultancy.”
Wagner has given Putin plausible deniability—at least to the credulous—for a multitude of crimes. And Putin doubtless thought he could play his military honchos and henchmen off one other, thereby complicating any plots to dethrone him.
The flaw in that strategy became apparent last month when Prigozhin led his troops from their field camps in Ukraine across the border into Russia. Encountering no resistance, they entered Rostov-on-Don, where they occupied the command center for Russia’s war on its neighbor.
Prigozhin said his complaint was not with Putin but with the dictator’s advisors, in particular Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He accused both of incompetence, corruption and bombing Wagner troops. Inter alia, he made clear that NATO never posed a threat to Russia. (So, can we please put that tired theory to rest?)
Also provoking his fury: In June, the Kremlin instructed all “volunteer formations” to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1. That would have meant surrendering power to Shoigu.
From Rostov, Prigozhin sent thousands of Wagner rebels streaming north toward Moscow, plowing through roadblocks and blasting out of the sky Russian military aircraft attempting to impede the column.
Then, just 125 miles from the capital, Prigozhin suddenly aborted the mission, accepting a deal that Aleksandr Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator and Kremlin toady, claimed to have brokered.
Putin reassured Wagner fighters that he was not angry with them, only with those who had misled them. He indicated that they were free to sign up with the regular Russian army, go home, or decamp to Belarus.
That’s where Prigozhin flew in his private jet. Is he safe there from Putin’s prosecutors and assassins? Will he now serve Lukashenko as a military commander and/or caterer?
If Wagner is disbanded, as now seems almost certain, will its forces in Syria, Africa and elsewhere don Russian uniforms and take orders from Shoigu?
And what will happen when Wagnerians occupying Ukrainian territory are integrated with Russian troops whose morale, never high, must be declining further?
The answers to such questions should inform the policymaking of the United States and its allies. Because the outcome of Russia’s imperialist war on Ukraine will have ramifications far beyond the borders of those two troubled nations.