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Cause for celebration in states that suffered Wagner’s brutality

With Wagner funds seized and his official connections severed, Yevgeny Prigozhin has become a spent force. (AP)
With Wagner funds seized and his official connections severed, Yevgeny Prigozhin has become a spent force. (AP)
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27 Jun 2023 03:06:25 GMT9
27 Jun 2023 03:06:25 GMT9

Yevgeny Prigozhin was one of Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants from the earliest days of his presidency, which makes the developments of the past days profoundly damaging for the president’s authority. Far from the rejuvenated Soviet empire Putin aspired to on the eve of his Ukraine invasion, Russia today resembles a diminished and chronically unstable banana republic.

As recently as a decade ago, post-Soviet Russia wielded little diplomatic influence in the Middle East and Africa. Moscow’s current dominant position across these areas had been wholly due to Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary organization.

Wagner came wading in to shore up Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Syria, enabling the Damascus regime to re-entrench itself throughout much of western Syria as Wagner planes reduced entire cities and regions to bones and rubble. Wagner likewise came bloodily marching into the Libyan morass. There were even fears in Lebanon of Moscow and Wagner exploiting the political chaos to leverage the establishment of additional Mediterranean military bases.

In recompense for Wagner’s services, the revenue-hungry Prigozhin frequently negotiated control of oil reserves, and mines for precious minerals and resources. In Central African Republic Wagner received unrestricted logging rights and control over gold mines. Gold was also the key prize in Sudan, where Wagner sided with the paramilitary leader Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, fueling the bloodshed there with weapons funneled through the Darfur region.

Across West Africa, Wagner unleashed a major propaganda campaign against French and Western influence, facilitating the group’s maneuverings to become the powerbroker of choice. In the guise of waging an anti-militancy campaign alongside the Malian army, Wagner is culpable in the indiscriminate murder of hundreds of civilians, making the security situation infinitely worse.

Putin also appointed Prigozhin to run massive cyber-troll farms, spreading disinformation, undermining democratic processes and staging cyberattacks against critical infrastructure. Some experts believe that these activities at the time of the 2016 US presidential election played a significant role in swinging the vote in favor of Donald Trump.

In the Ukraine conflict, however, Prigozhin massively overplayed his hand. After the cream of his elite forces were butchered in the Bakhmut meat grinder, tens of thousands of convicts were thrown into the mix as cannon fodder. As the death toll soared, it was widely assumed that Prigozhin’s foul-mouthed attacks on the Ministry of Defense had Putin’s tacit approval, including threats that “those who don’t give us ammunition will be eaten alive in hell.”

The events of the past few days not only constituted a real-time diminution of Russia’s global prestige, but also exposed the Wagner mercenaries as dangerous and unpredictable liabilities.

Baria Alamuddin

Nevertheless, after Prigozhin occupied the key city of Rostov and deployed his tanks toward Moscow, Putin denounced him as a traitor who had delivered “a stab in the back to our troops and the people of Russia.”

With Prigozhin now to be exiled in Belarus, it is inconceivable that Wagner can survive as an independent entity. Fighters whose loyalty isn’t in question are likely to be subsumed within the moribund control of Moscow’s myriad security apparatuses. Having witnessed the monster he created marching upon the gates of Moscow, Putin is unlikely to repeat the mistake of allowing any ally or paramilitary movement to enjoy such autonomy.

Although Prigozhin has gained messianic popularity among nationalist Russians frustrated with the failures of conventional military leaders, the seizure of tens of millions of dollars of Wagner funds, and severance of his official connections, appear to render him a spent force. Given the unaccountable tendency of Kremlin critics to carelessly fall out of upper windows, or come into contact with fatal toxins, how long will Prigozhin even be allowed to remain alive, exiled in a state that has become an appendage of Mother Russia?

The events of the past few days not only constituted a real-time diminution of Russia’s global prestige, but also exposed the Wagner mercenaries as dangerous and unpredictable liabilities. Consequently, Bashar Assad in Syria, Khalifa Haftar in Libya, Dagalo in Sudan, and all the other dictators and warlords who relied on Wagner for military muscle will be nervously wondering what this means for them. Distracted as he is with a losing war in Ukraine, would Putin even desire to retain fingers in so many pies in these unstable and problematic locations? A sanctions-encumbered Iran can’t secure Syria on its own, so the status quo there could quickly unravel.

When paramilitary armies are allowed to mushroom to a size at which they can outgun the regular army, it is difficult to envisage any happy ending. Such militias are originally created to compensate for glaring weaknesses or lack of ideological zeal within the army, but their establishment exacerbates the underlying problems by further undermining the army’s prestige and monopoly over the use of force — so the logical end-point for such movements is to confront and ultimately forcibly replace the army.

In Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen we have exactly this scenario, with massive Iran-backed militias. Iraq’s Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi has nearly doubled in size to about 230,000 fighters in the past couple of years, with a significantly expanded $2.7 billion budget and large parts of the economy under its control — making Iraq truly a militia state. Developments in Russia have remarkable parallels with events in Sudan, where the army and an armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary organization embarked upon war against each other, at catastrophic cost to the country.

When militia movements are allowed to recruit tens of thousands of fighters and deploy multimillion-dollar budgets, their commanders will never be satisfied with being an uncouth appendage of the army; they will always seek to convert paramilitary muscle and ill-gotten wealth into supreme political power.

Such entities will continue to act as a murderous sword wielded over our heads until — as with Prigozhin — menaces such as Hassan Nasrallah, Dagalo, Esmail Qaani and Qais Al-Khazali are consigned to irrelevant and ignominious exile.

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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