March 1, 2018
On February 7-8, Syrian soldiers and Russian private military contractors attacked a base in Deir Ezzor, Syria, held by Kurdish forces and where US military advisers were present. Although the Russians knew that the Americans were in the vicinity, they nevertheless attacked on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino. US forces retaliated with air strikes inflicting a heavy toll on the Syrian-Russian force.

Wagner, the Russian private military company, gets its name from the German composer whose operas the company’s founder, Dmitry Utkin, enjoys. The firm claims to be modeled on US military contractors such as Erik Prince’s Academi, formerly known as Blackwater. 

Wagner is, however, an arm of the Russian state and armed forces. It appears to be part of the chain of command of the GRU—Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency—and under the control of Yevgeny Prigozhin.

If that name rings a bell it is because Prigozhin is one of thirteen Russian individuals to be indicted in connection with special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.

Prigozhin is a former con who made good as a purveyor of fast food. He went on to became an oligarch earning the nickname “Putin’s cook” because of his proximity to the Russian president. He is, not coincidentally, the man who bankrolled the Internet Research Agency that has been also been indicted in the 2016 election case. 

But Prigozhin is only one of several oligarchs who have made their funds and corporations available to Putin for so-called black operations. Konstantin Malofeev, another oligarch,

bankrolled Russian foreign interventions in Crimea and the Donbas.

The use of such private forces allows Putin to keep these operations separate from the official state budget while lending a veneer of plausible deniability. This supposedly new form of war actually embodies a medieval approach to governance. 

The prominence of men like Prigozhin and Malofeev demonstrates the endurance of the Russian service state and patrimonial Muscovite autocracy dating back to medieval Russia where the right to property was conditional, depending on the performance of service to the tsar. 

Prigozhin and Malofeev represent the phenomenon of men recruited from a range of social classes, or to use the ancient Russian term, estates, including the criminal class, to become favorites of the tsar and phenomenally wealthy  based on their service, abilities, and contacts. 

They operate outside the confines of the regular state. By virtue of their status as Putin’s favorites they are able to perform missions that might otherwise become entangled in bureaucracy or encounter international complications. 

This, too, is another sign of the enduring traditional aspects of tsarist governance. The tsars, like Putin, held absolute, unchecked power that was and is unaccountable to anyone or any institution.  At the same time, especially after Peter the Great, tsars endeavored to build regular, European-style states and to give them rules and regulations, if not laws, by which to operate. 

Yet, time and again, tsars had recourse to favorites and other shadowy operators working outside any bureaucratic control or restraint who performed missions desired by the tsar while enriching themselves. 

Prigozhin evidently had a contract with the Syrian government to take a cut of the profits from oil refineries liberated from the Islamic State and in the process make several million dollars. Whatever strategic grounds existed for the attack on February 7 they were certainly commingled with rather more prosaic goals of enrichment.

In other words, Putin reverted, as he has often done, to extra-legal and extra-systemic operators who, not unlike the adventurers who helped lead Nicholas II into the Russo-Japanese war, had their own axes to grind even as they sought to fulfill the tsar’s commands and missions. 

Evidently, the commander in Syria, Col. Sergei Kim, in his communications bypassed the Russian Ministry of Defense and the regular army and went to Prigozhin and Vaino, i.e.  Putin. Predictably, when amateurs challenge superior armed professionals the results are catastrophic.

Beyond the resort to favorites to undermine or circumvent regular governmental channels, the attack in Deir Ezzor clearly shows how such favorites can merge their own private interests with that of the state and lead it into disaster. But this episode goes further and forces us to reckon with the reality of multiple militaries in Russia operating under shadowy, unaccountable (even to the regular bureaucracy) organizations. 

Wagner is only one of many quasi-military formations set up under Putin to defend the state against domestic unrest. The expansion of such private contractors is widespread.  The Russian energy giant Gazprom, for example, has its own armed forces while groups like the Internet Research Agency carry out black operations and information warfare abroad outside of the regular armed forces. These forces also merge with Russian organized crime as they did in the 2008 war against Georgia and make a mockery of the idea of civilian, let alone, democratic control over the armed forces. 

Not only is the potential for disaster—as was the case in Syria—immense, the opportunities for corruption are enormous.

The existence of multiple militaries signifies that the state neither can fully rely upon its regular armed service nor afford it.  Since private operators like Wagner are funded by their contractors or owners under state direction, the oligarchs who manage these units do so at their own expense. By doing so they serve the state, even if they are compensated with “rents” from the state.  Those “rents” can be other properties they covet or foreign oil profits, as in Prigozhin’s case. 

The foreign policy implications of such operations are far-ranging.  In Deir Ezzor, Putin authorized the attack without concern for the consequences.  Presumably he thought that the Americans would either be defeated or simply take it. 

This brazenness is also manifested in the far-ranging scope of Russian intervention in the 2016 US elections—also allegedly bankrolled in part by Prigozhin. It further shows that this medieval governance template is linked to a belligerent assessment of the West as being weak and susceptible to force and pressure.  This suggests that more, rather than fewer, such operations are likely in the future. 

Putin’s KGB evaluators noted that he had an excessive tolerance for risk.  Prigozhin might retreat temporarily into the shadows following his indictment, but sooner or later there will be others like him to serve Putin’s agenda. 

As a military strategist might say, we have had early warning and we should take it to heart. 

Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

RELATED CONTENT