Warlords and PMCs: Is Russia Heading for Another 1917?

When Vladimir Putin ordered the largest invasion force in Europe since WWII to invade Ukraine, he envisioned a quick capitulation and restoration of a new Russian Empire under ‘Novorossiya.’ Instead, the faux Tsar’s glory has unfolded in front of his eyes.

Ukraine’s resistance has been much more valiant than expected, and Kyiv scored major victories in Kharkiv and Kherson. Russia’s goals of demilitarization and making Ukraine landlocked have failed. The energy war has failed with natural energy prices at its lowest in two years and Europe has experienced one of its warmest winters in history.

Wagner and MoD Shadow Conflict

Needing help as the Russian Ministry of Defense lacks the experience and organization to conduct a large-scale war, Putin has resorted to his hardline inner circle to turn the tide in his favor. One of these hardliners is Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose PMC, the Wagner Group has conducted personal offensives in Soledar and Bakhmut. The group is infamously known for its executions with the trademark sledgehammer in Syria and against defectors in Ukraine.

Prigozhin, though close with Putin, has not drawn the reciprocation of friendship amongst the Ministry of Defense. For the past several months, he has had a shadow conflict with Shoigu and Gerasimov, both of whom have commanded the war for regular Russian Forces.

This conflict has had its effects on the battlefield, with Wagner attempting to beat the MoD on strategic objectives to present themselves as Russia’s only valuable fighting force — especially as the regular elite troops such as the VDV and paratroopers suffered catastrophic losses earlier in the war and in the Donbas region.

In lieu of Wagner’s growing influence, Putin demoted General Surovikin, also known as “General Armageddon” and put Gerasimov in charge of RF Ukraine. This can be seen as significant as Surovikin was a favorite amongst the warlords such as Kadyrov and Prigozhin, as he is known for his indiscriminate bombing campaigns in Syria and Ukraine. By putting a general who already led forces into disaster earlier in the war, Putin has signaled his concerns amongst the hardliners gaining too much power and prestige.

World War I Tactics

Seeing their original objectives upended by Kyiv with Western help, Moscow has returned to the methods it knows best throughout its history — suicidal frontal assaults.

Wagner, who for months recruited convicts from Russian prisons en masse, regardless of their crimes, had a single use for them as cannon fodder against the ZSU in Soledar and Bakhmut. Having the recruits advance in a field of fire to scope out Ukrainian artillery positions and trenches has had some effects, with RF gaining their first victories in six months from the tactics. Nonetheless, this has also backfired with signs of manpower issues today.

The Russian MoD recently cut off Wagner from convicts, stating for now on they will recruit them only — signs that both organizations have exhausted their manpower. In Vuhledar, a much hyped Russian offensive failed with similar methods used by the MoD to disastrous effects.

During the Vuhledar offensive, an entire elite paratrooper brigade full of newly mobilized conscripts was wiped out to entrenched ZSU. Wagner notably condemned the disastrous planning of the MoD and Shoigu would promote the commander in charge after the failed assault, further showing Putin’s need to keep loyalists close more than the ambitious.

Warlords and Oligarchs Creating their own Private Armies

Wagner is not the only PMC operating in Russia and with a weakening influence in the Kremlin, other private militaries have emerged. Moscow’s gas front and energy giant, Gazprom, is now in the stages of creating its own PMC. Only a few weeks after this announcement, Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov also stated he’s in the process of creating his own.

Mercenary organizations are temporarily illegal under Russian law, but as the MoD’s capabilities have been significantly weakened, other oligarchs and warlords have taken up a power vacuum. The Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu deployed his own private army to Ukraine in the wake of Wagner’s growing influence.

During the disastrous Battle of Vuhledar for RF, Shoigu’s Patriot PMC was also involved in the catastrophe, taking heavy losses alongside the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade. It should be noted Wagner’s telegram channel heavily criticized the MoD for this loss and perhaps Shoigu attempted to help Gerasimov’s reputation to keep the warlords at bey.

A country full of private militaries and militias is a recipe for disaster, especially when the central power is weakened significantly in the federal government. As seen in wars in Yugoslavia, Yemen, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, warlords with their own private armies with separate motives outside of the state make conflict inevitable and with Putin’s strongman persona waning, more ambitious figures will look to ascend.

Unmotivated Troops

Originally estimating the invasion of Ukraine to be short with minimal casualties, the war has become bloodletting for both sides. Facing equipment and weapons shortages, the ‘second army of the world’ has turned to Iran and North Korea to bolster their artillery and ammunition stockpiles. RF on numerous occasions have been caught pillaging washing machines, money, and other items showing a lack of discipline amongst the officer corps to their conscripts.

Over the past several months, there have been reports that Russian conscripts haven’t been paid on time and in some cases, not at all. Wagner has given higher salaries than the MoD, swelling its ranks with recruits that the Kremlin desperately needs. In WWI, unpaid conscripts played a major role in the Russian Revolution and subsequent wars thereafter.

In Ukraine’s east, the winter hit the hardest with trench warfare not seen since the First World War. Conscripts have suffered from hypothermia and numbness, allowing the ZSU to drop homemade bombs from makeshift drones on Russian positions where the troops freeze and often bundle together.

Though Putin controls every aspect of the state, his inner circle have not been honest with the Russian public about the fate of military personnel lost in Ukraine. The longer the war goes and if pay and logistical issues continue, the more troops, and particularly the conscripts will be unwilling to fight.

Envisioning a Neo Russian Empire, Moscow finds itself in the late stages of World War I, with casualty figures and lack of progress akin to Tsar Nicholas’ imperial army. Unless Putin can convince the West and Kyiv to freeze the war favorably under his terms, the Russian President’s power and prestige will continue to diminish under a prolonged and humiliating war.

Vladimir Putin, who considers himself a reincarnated Peter the Great could very well be in the late stages of Tsar Nicholas II and the imperial dreams could lead to civil war with the warlords gaining influence under his nose.

[Photo by CorbeauNews, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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