Russia’s private armies are endangering Putin’s monopoly on force
Yevgeny Prigozhin wants to give himself and his Wagner mercenaries a break after the very costly battle for Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine. After a helicopter ride, the commander of Wagner’s private army proudly shows a video of an underground camp in a sandy-soiled forest: dormitory, kitchen, dining room and sauna. Everything is built of wood somewhere in Russia.
There, the mercenaries are supposed to prepare for new combat missions in Ukraine. But these forces are by no means the only paramilitary organization in the war in Ukraine, although private armies are not permitted in Russia.
It is true that “Wagner” has by far the largest resources represented by tens of thousands of fighters, tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery, and it is also active in Africa, for example, but Prigozhin himself confirmed that he is not fighting alone in Ukraine. According to his data, the Russian state’s giant energy company, Gazprom, is active with private military companies, and it is assumed that it established 3 companies: the current, the flame, and the torch.
There are a large number of other organizations that not only question the role of the regular Russian army. There are now frank discussions about whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Western intelligence services are already talking about “paramilitary” in Russia.
The private military companies are called “Patriot”, “Storm”, “Redot” and “Ginot”, and according to experts, they are financed by an oligarch and large companies in the raw materials sector. Officially, these companies often appear as security companies for strategically important facilities, although the state security authorities are concerned with these tasks. But Russian media reports are now openly stating that private companies are thriving in the war against Ukraine.
“Private military companies are a system of outsourcing from the state – a new technology in the field of war management,” said an analyst from the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, Sergey Yermakov, in statements to the glamorous Russian magazine “Expert”.
These paramilitary companies operate in a gray area of the law. Legislative projects to legitimize it have not progressed for years. Kremlin opponents see private armies as mafia-like structures designed to help Putin win in Ukraine or at least ensure his and his entourage’s security in defeat, and at best secure his power.
Critics complain that these companies do not serve the interests of the state, but rather the interests of the oligarchy, groups and corporations that pay them.
The Wagner model in particular has been a longstanding example.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus – who is active himself with his fighters in Ukraine – expressed his passion for Wagner’s “iron” performance, announcing his intention to create such an army himself after leaving the civil service – to compete with his “dear brother Yevgeny Prigozhin”.
Media outlets close to the Kremlin continue to praise the quality, efficiency and success of Wagner’s organisation. Over a long period of time, the power apparatus in Moscow treated it as if Wagner was a ghost that had nothing to do with the Russian state. Meanwhile Prigogine is everywhere. The 61-year-old criticizes corruption, arrogance and bureaucracy in the Russian army, blaming Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his chief of staff Valery Gerasimov personally responsible for the deteriorating conditions and defeats. And while any ordinary Russian citizen would find himself in prison for years for uttering such criticisms, Prigozhin speaks out as if he were untouchable.
Russian ultra-nationalist and former intelligence officer Yegor Girkin — also known by the nom de guerre Strelkov — accused Prigozhin of declaring “war” on a section of the military and the elite — and of plotting a coup.
Girkin criticized Prigozhin’s unacceptable “insults” against the Russian army, considering it a crime, calling on the Kremlin to take action against those close to Putin. Kiev’s planned counteroffensive would threaten Russia with chaos by the end of summer.
Russian political scientist Tatiana Stanovaga still considers Putin himself relatively powerful enough to maintain the balance of power. “For the president, having a private military company is a characteristic of a great power with geopolitical ambitions,” she said. However, Stanovaja believes that the Wagner company has long developed its own approach – and this development also affected Prigozhin’s revolutionary views, as she said: “War breeds monsters whose cruelty and desperation can pose a challenge to the state,” explaining that with the smallest weakness, the system can to fall apart.
Fedayeen and saboteurs are infiltrating Russia in order to counter the Russian war machine. The Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, has been under attack for days, which has also caused a great deal of unrest. The governor of the region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, spoke of being personally shot. After fleeing and terrified citizens asked why the Russian state was waging a war in Ukraine without protecting its territory from attacks, Gladkov said he himself had more questions for the Defense Ministry.
Defense Minister Shoigu now promised tough measures. The ministry reported that more than 70 militants were killed in the Belgorod region. But there – as in other frequently attacked border areas – vigilante groups have long been formed to defend these areas, according to authorities.
Voices are now being raised demanding that these volunteer groups be supplied with weapons. Moreover, private military companies are forming in Crimea, which Russia has annexed – perhaps because the regular army is not trusted enough there.
With regard to the attacks in Belgorod, political expert Abbas Galliamov pointed out that for decades the apparatus of power has been declaring with full mouth that Russia is surrounded by enemies, and therefore the country is expanding and strengthening its defenses.
“Now that it’s a fait accompli, people are suddenly forced to defend themselves against the enemy,” said the former Putin speechwriter. In light of the difficult situation in the war and due to the large number of armed groups, Galliamov sees the country now as “on the brink of revolution”.