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Editorial: Prigozhin’s putsch

By questioning the basis for the invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin has shown up Putin’s ruse, and the strongman will henceforth find it harder to rouse his people to the combat against fellow Europeans.

Editorial: Prigozhin’s putsch
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Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin. Reuters

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CHENNAI: The short-lived mutiny by the Wagner private military company against Russia’s army was an extraordinary event. In the manner it ended, as a farce of egos rather than a clash of titans, it portends a weakening of Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in the coming months and impairs, if not wrecks, the morale of the sovereign forces fighting in Ukraine. Although Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin has been exiled to Belarus and his fighters will be contracted by the Russian Army, it is only a pause in the rupture of Putin’s designs in Ukraine.

Russia’s war command stands exposed as a fractured entity with a leadership whose tactics have been questioned and a fighting force that must now accommodate as comrades the mutineers who heckled them as cowards. The fact that Russia’s southern military command in Rostov-on-Don caved in to Wagner without a fight, makes it doubtful whether Putin can achieve his war objectives any more. And the warm response of the people of Rostov to Prigozhin’s forces poses the question whether he has the support of the people of Russia at all. By questioning the basis for the invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin has shown up Putin’s ruse, and the strongman will henceforth find it harder to rouse his people to the combat against fellow Europeans.

Putin’s critics will find poetic justice in the fact that his decision to employ a private military company has returned to haunt him. He might call it a ‘stab in the back’, but it was his decision which almost brought Moscow to the verge of a civil war. But, this is not only an alarm for Putin. This episode has lessons for all countries that use non-state actors to achieve secret state objectives.

The practice of states using mercenaries is not new. Prior to the 17th century when standing national armies came into vogue, it was the norm in fact. What were the Knights Templar if not a militia with loyalty to the Catholic church? In medieval times, ports in the Levant were overrun by Viking Norsemen hired by European merchants and princes. During the Cold War, soldiers of fortune were used to foment coups in foreign lands or conduct sabotage in enemy terrain. It was in the 1990s that outsourcing of military functions accelerated. Western nations have been at the forefront of this acceleration, delegating progressively wider and increasingly vital functions to soldier-entrepreneurs. The motive might have been savings on costs but also the arms distance it provides from adverse fallouts. The latter has come to be codified as the principle of plausible deniability, whereby all blame for things gone awry can be pinned upon a contractor, as the US did for the tortures of Abu Ghraib.

The drafting of private soldiers to achieve war objectives sets up potential for a clash of disciplines and motives with formal armies. Privateers fight for profit, and state soldiers believe they fight for national honour. There can be difficulties in adherence to the chain of command as well. In all cases where military contractors have been employed in combat or combat-adjacent duties, there have been human rights abuses. In the worst-case scenario, as we have seen in the Wagner mutiny, the very objectives of a military campaign can be compromised. The developments in Russia must intrigue defence planners in India too although we are at an incipient stage along this trajectory. We do have ambitious plans for private defence production and have launched temp personnel recruitment schemes such as Agniveer. We must note the alarms raised by Prigozhin’s putsch before we go further down this path.

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