This seems close to the truth – it is only now, as the Ukraine war drags on, that a prisoner sent into the meat grinder in exchange for his freedom has become the face of Wagner. Before, for many years, when Wagner fought in Syria, Libya and African countries, its units consisted of professional special forces soldiers, trained and educated incomparably better than the “ordinary” army.
From the standpoint of effectiveness, this division of the armed forces into “formal” and “real” is part of the tradition of “privatizing the gains and nationalizing the losses,” which Morozov also writes about. The “official” army is a cumbersome, inefficient structure, mired in corruption, bureaucracy and much more. Taking out the army that can really fight and giving it special terms may be unusual, though at the same time it is very Putin-like.
Wagner was fundamentally arranged in the same way as the other pet projects of the Russian leader – for example, the Skolkovo research center or the Sirius educational center, where a model institution is separated from the rest of the industry and put in ideal conditions both in terms of funding and the legal regime (Sirius is in Sochi but outside the purview of the city authorities). In historical terms, Wagner is a fighting “sharashka” (this is the name of the Stalin-era institutes and design bureaus controlled by the special services where prisoners who were engineers worked, tasked with the most important government matters such as building atomic weapons or missiles).No more guardrails against revolts
Seemingly, the inevitability of Prigozhin rebellion arose precisely at this early stage.
The Russian army, the direct successor of the Soviet army, has always been deprived of power and has never been a full-fledged state or public institution with its own interests. This model of organizing the army was developed by the Bolsheviks a century ago, when they were faced with the need to recruit politically disloyal military specialists who had served in the Russian Empire army. So that these potentially unreliable officers and generals did only their duties, following the orders of the political leadership and not staking claim to anything else, the Red Army was equipped with several additional lines of defense – a representative of the party, a commissar, was placed over each commander, and both were watched by a “special department” subordinated to the secret services.
For the Soviet Union’s 70 years of existence, this system never failed. The army never claimed a say in the country’s politics whatsoever, even during World War II, and there were only two instances when the political leadership of the USSR suspected the army command of, as it was then called, “Bonapartism,” and both times the Kremlin easily managed to get rid of the suspiciously ambitious military leaders. In 1937, Stalin had Mikhail Tukhachevsky and other marshals who might have plotted against him shot, and 20 years later Khrushchev easily got rid of Marshal Zhukov, who was also suspected of excessive political ambitions.
In the crisis years between Russia’s Soviet and post-Soviet history, the army twice found itself at the center of a political maelstrom, though neither time did it claim a say in politics – in 1991, the military followed the orders to bring tanks into Moscow and to withdraw them over a span of three days, while in 1993 it submitted to President Yeltsin and helped him crush the resistance of the parliament that he had dissolved. In all cases, there was simply no reason for a military leader to emerge.
Recall 1998, when General Lev Rokhlin, a hero of the First Chechen War, popular in the army and an MP, tried to create a military opposition movement and even seemed to be planning
a mutiny – it’s impossible to confirm this, because against the backdrop of the rumors about a conspiracy, Rokhlin was shot dead at his home under mysterious circumstances. In the last century, there were no other cases where you could even suspect a mutiny in Russia or the USSR. What has changed?
The answer lies precisely in the structural simplification of the “sharashka,” which had been effective because it freed the part of the army that moved into Wagner from everything superfluous, but in the end not only corruption and bureaucracy turned out superfluous, but also the usual forms of political control – the political workers and special officers stayed with Shoigu, while only real soldiers went to Prigozhin.