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Welcome again. Any publicity is nice publicity, goes the saying. However I’m wondering if this holds true for Russia’s paramilitary Wagner group, whose position within the Ukraine battle, to not point out home Russian politics, is steeped in controversy? You could find me at tony.barber@ft.com.

Two incidents this week shone mild on the Wagner group, an organisation as soon as so secretive that it had no formal legal existence, regardless of endeavor operations on the Kremlin’s behalf in locations as far-flung as Ukraine, Syria, Libya and sub-Saharan Africa. Neither incident enhanced the fame of Wagner or its proprietor, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a warlord, enterprise tycoon and former convict with shut ties to President Vladimir Putin – so shut that he used to be known as “Putin’s chef”.

First got here the information {that a} former Wagner fighter had escaped to Norway, the place he promised to spill the beans in regards to the group’s marauding actions. This can be the primary instance of a Wagner member defecting to a western nation since Putin launched his invasion final February – though one other Wagner mercenary wrote, earlier than the Ukraine battle, about his experiences fighting in Syria and later requested asylum in France.

Within the second incident, President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia demanded that Russian web sites and social media ought to stop publishing Serbian-language advertisements during which the Wagner group seeks to recruit volunteer fighters. On this method, Vučić signalled that there are limits to how far Serbia will curry favour with Moscow because it pursues a overseas coverage balanced between the west, Russia and China — on which, please see Dimitar Bechev’s penetrating analysis for Carnegie Europe.

Prigozhin: Rasputin 2.0?

How are we to elucidate the rising affect of the Wagner group and Prigozhin? A few months in the past, the scholar Andrei Kolesnikov likened Prigozhin’s role in Putin’s circle of intimate advisers to that of Grigory Rasputin, the Siberian starets, or holy man, who was a strong and, to say the least, unconventional determine on the court docket of Tsar Nicholas II.

Grigory Rasputin,
Grigory Rasputin had one high quality that made him indispensable to Tsar Nicholas II and tsarina Alexandra: he appeared to have the ability to cease their son from bleeding to loss of life © World Historical past Archive/Alamy

It’s an intriguing comparability, value exploring a bit.

First, let me say that Prigozhin differs from Rasputin insofar because the latter’s affect was primarily not over Russia’s ruler however over his spouse, the tsarina Alexandra — as defined in Brian Moynahan’s full of life 1998 biography Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned. The empress was vulnerable to Rasputin, a self-styled faith-healer, as a result of she had failed for a few years to provide a male inheritor — and when she did, her toddler son Alexis turned out to be haemophiliac.

Nonetheless, the comparability works in different methods. Like Rasputin, Prigozhin wields affect regardless of holding no formal authorities place. And simply as Alexandra’s mind was addled by modish fin-de-siècle spiritualism, so Putin immersed himself earlier than and throughout the pandemic lockdowns within the works of mystical pseudo-historians such as Lev Gumilev.

Like Rasputin, Prigozhin is helping his grasp’s effort to make his most fervent hopes come true. The tsar felt he wanted Rasputin’s assist to cease Alexis from bleeding to loss of life. Putin, craving for victory in Russia’s battle of neo-imperial conquest, has allowed an expanded navy position for Prigozhin and his Wagner group — which, according to US estimates, now has 50,000 personnel in Ukraine, together with 10,000 contractors and 40,000 recruited convicts.

In fact, Rasputin got here to a sticky finish. Based on the tsarist police inquiry into his homicide in 1916, it took a dose of cyanide, three bullets to the chest, again and head, some kicking and clubbing of the physique after which immersion within the ice-cold Neva river in St Petersburg to complete him off. Prigozhin stays alive.

Maskirovka: the Russian method of battle

The short-term cause for the Wagner group’s prominence is that Putin’s navy marketing campaign has stumbled. Like Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, Prigozhin has positioned himself as a searing critic of navy, bureaucratic and enterprise elites who’re supposedly failing Putin with their half-hearted, incompetent strategy to the battle.

Wagner can do it higher, is Prigozhin’s message. In a video final Saturday, he boasted that his group possessed its personal plane, tanks, rockets and artillery, including: “They’re in all probability essentially the most skilled military that exists on this planet at the moment.”

Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin at the funeral of Dmitry Menshikov
Wagner, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, has turn into an more and more high-profile a part of the Kremlin’s offensive © AP

However a longer-term clarification is to be discovered within the wealthy Russian and Soviet custom of maskirovka, which might be translated as “battle by disguise or deception”. Till September, when Prigozhin acknowledged for the primary time in public that he had arrange the Wagner group in 2014, the organisation was an excellent instance of maskirovka in motion.

Check out the image below, obtainable on the Battle on the Rocks web site. It exhibits a 1923 copy of a Soviet journal, Krasnyi Maskirovshchik (The Purple Deceiver), with the slogan: “Maskirovka is just not solely the defend but additionally the sword of the Purple Military”.

A logo of a man with a shield, with the slogan:  “Mastirovka is not only the shield but also the sword of the Red Army
This copy of Krasnyi Maskirovshchik journal, dated February 1923, is from the Francis Lara Assortment on the Worldwide Spy Museum © Battle on the Rocks

From its delivery, the Wagner group fitted completely into the maskirovka custom. For years, nobody within the Kremlin admitted the group’s existence, whereas in observe its operations had been carefully related with Russian navy and intelligence models, as András Rácz wrote in 2020 for the Heart for Strategic and Worldwide Research.

The Wagner group’s fundamental facility at Molkino in southern Russia was additionally the bottom of a particular forces brigade of the GRU navy intelligence company. In Ukraine, the Wagner group has been preventing alongside the common Russian armed forces, though this has provoked tensions as the 2 sides have disputed who deserves credit score for latest successes.

Africa and the Wagner group

Wagner group models function in nations such because the Central African Republic and Mali as a part of what the Kremlin portrays as an effort to assist professional governments defeat rebels and jihadists. However there are motives of Russian revenue and energy at work as properly.

Because the FT’s David Pilling reported in December, corporations linked to the Wagner group have won control of a gold mine within the CAR in addition to entry to diamonds. In a Brookings Establishment paper, Federica Saini Fasanotti explains how Russian help for the counter-terrorism operations of African governments comes at a price — concessions for pure sources, business contracts and entry to strategic bases.

Even the ostensible objective of stabilising African governments appears elusive. On this vividly reported piece for the Associated Press, Sam Mednick quotes diplomats, analysts and human rights teams as saying that Islamist extremists have grown stronger because the Russian mercenaries arrived in Mali and indiscriminate violence in opposition to civilians is on the rise.

Prigozhin’s trolls

No account of Prigozhin’s profession is full regardless of his troll manufacturing unit, which began life below the wholly deceptive title of the “Web Analysis Company”. From its St Petersburg base, this operation has spewed out conspiracy theories and misinformation, mainly for the aim of damaging western democracies.

Because of this, the FBI put Prigozhin in 2021 on its wished checklist, with a reward of as much as $250,000 for data resulting in his arrest.

guide on this matter is Putin’s Trolls, by the Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro, who was relentlessly hounded by the Kremlin-backed creatures of her guide’s title due to her investigations into Russian on-line propaganda.

Wagner veterans and politics

Does Prigozhin harbour critical political ambitions of his personal? He brushed aside such rumours final yr.

However earlier this month, a member of the Russian parliament’s defence committee recommended that Wagner veterans — even ex-convicts — may serve their nation properly by going into politics. Really, the invasion of Ukraine is main Russian public life into a really darkish place.

Extra on this matter

Decoding the Wagner Group — a report by Candace Rondeaux for the New America/Arizona State College Way forward for Battle challenge

“We’ve conversations”: the gangster as actor and agent in Russian overseas coverage — an analysis by Mark Galeotti for the Europe-Asia Research journal

Tony’s picks of the week

  • The LockBit hacking group has a powerful declare to being the world’s most prolific ransomware gang, as proven by a latest assault on the UK’s Royal Mail, the FT’s Mehul Srivastava and Oliver Telling report

  • President Kais Saied’s erosion of Tunisian democracy is isolating the north African nation from overseas leaders, donors and traders, Thomas Hill and Sarah Yerkes write for the Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace

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