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Putin’s Creation: History of Russia’s Mercenary Wagner Group & Its Leader Yevgeny Prigozhin

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As part of our roundtable discussion, we speak with political science professor Kimberly Marten, expert on the Wagner Group, who says this weekend’s mutiny by the mercenary group and its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is part of a game of “smoke and mirrors” between Russian power players. She details Prigozhin’s long history as “Putin’s servant” and says Wagner “is not really a private military group,” but has a long history of being contracted by the Russian state. “We’re just at the beginning of what’s going to happen, but neither Prighozin nor Putin came out looking very good,” says Marten.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to Denis Pilash in Kyiv, we’re joined by Kimberly Marten, professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, who’s been working on the Wagner Group for years. As Denis Pilash talked about the far-reaching tentacles of the Wagner Group — and I’m wondering if you can talk about, for an American audience: Is this like Blackwater? Talk about its origins. Give us a description of who — what the Wagner Group is and its founder’s relationship with Putin.

KIMBERLY MARTEN: Thank you, Amy. Those are such important questions.

The Wagner Group is not really a private military group in the way that we think of them as in the West. It’s instead a contracting mechanism that has been used by the Russian military intelligence agency since 2014 for various purposes around the world. It was first used in eastern Ukraine in 2014. At that time, Prigozhin was not yet associated with it. It then took on contracting obligations in Syria as an infantry group, and it was about that time that Prigozhin took it over. There is some evidence that he may have taken it over in a violent raid from its founder, Dmitry Utkin.

At that point, in about 2017, 2018, Russia began to deploy the Wagner Group in various countries in Africa — in Sudan, in the Central African Republic, in eastern Libya to support the warlord there, Khalifa Haftar. There was an attempt to deploy it some places that didn’t work out so well. Recently, we’ve seen it go into Mali. And there are rumors that it also may be going into Burkina Faso and to Chad.

And what we have seen about it is that it is an extraordinarily flexible contracting mechanism. While we just heard about all the terrible human rights violations and murderous activities that Wagner has, in fact, committed, it has not done anything worse than the uniformed Russian military forces have done. And so I think we have to keep in mind that the uniformed Russian military forces have been absolutely abysmal, have never followed the Geneva Conventions in terms of their attacks on civilians in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, in Syria. And so, Wagner does horrible things, but it’s essentially manned by people who are coming primarily out of the Russian security forces. And it’s very flexible. It has pilots working for it that can engage in air attacks. It can be infantry. It can have very high-level, highly trained, highly disciplined snipers, as it did in Libya. And so, it’s not something that’s separate from the Russian state. It never has been.

And this leads us to the question of who Prigozhin is. Prigozhin has made himself seem more important than he actually is. He has never been Putin’s friend. He has always been Putin’s servant. He started out life being sentenced to 12 years in Soviet times in what was then Leningrad for common street crimes, robbery and burglary. He got out of prison two years early, which means at that time, from everything we know, he probably made some kind of a deal with what was then the KGB, what became the FSB, the internal Russian security services. At the time that he got out, Putin was the deputy mayor of what was then St. Petersburg. Putin was responsible for overseeing all the contracting that occurred as capitalism was coming to Russia in St. Petersburg, and so that means that Putin was responsible for overseeing the establishment of Prigozhin’s hot dog stand, his grocery stores, and then his restaurants. And when Putin was entertaining guests in St. Petersburg, he would bring them to Prigozhin’s restaurants. And then, when Putin went to the Kremlin, he brought Prigozhin with him to do catering in the Kremlin and then to have the catering responsibilities for the Moscow public school system and to do some military catering and then military cleaning work, all before he became the person who is responsible for military contracting.

Prigozhin has no combat experience. He is the middleman. He is the contractor. And what Russian social media sources have been saying recently is that people believe that the reason that Prigozhin has been kept on is that he has a long-standing relationship with the same organized criminal groups that Putin was associated with in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, and Prigozhin knows who to pay off when contracts happen. So, we have to keep in mind that everything is more expensive in Russia than it is in the West, because everybody has to take their top off the contract. And apparently, one of Prigozhin’s roles has been to figure who was to be paid what amount of money on all contracts that were involved with the Russian military.

And what seems to have happened is that Prigozhin’s head got too big. He was being protected by Putin, and so he believed he was more important than he actually was. And this was just the latest step in a long-standing feud that he had had with the Russian Defense Ministry. And what we’ve seen is that he essentially got stopped in his tracks. We don’t know what’s going to happen to him. One thing we have to keep in mind about everything we’ve seen in the last couple of days is that everybody we’re analyzing is very skilled in disinformation and deception. And what we’re seeing on the surface may not be what’s happening really in the background.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you believe — can you see Prigozhin going to Belarus? Also, the role of Lukashenko in all of this? And finally, on the issue of what has been agreed to now, there are some who are saying this came to a head because by July 1st, Shoigu was insisting that these military groups had to renew contracts. The deal that’s being made now, that some of these men, the fighters for Wagner, could be incorporated into the Russian military. You’ve also — you didn’t mention the deal that Prigozhin made to get convicts out of prison to fight in Ukraine.

KIMBERLY MARTEN: Right. A lot of complex questions you raise, and I’ll try to address them.

First of all, the only statement that we have about any deal being made came from Putin’s spokesperson, Peskov. And so, it was a very general statement that was made. We don’t have any more information about that. Certainly, nothing has been written down.

Again, what is coming across on social media and also a really good Russian independent press source called Meduza is that Lukashenko was primarily playing a role in all of this. He was an actor, a prop, who was being put forth as the person who was doing the negotiation, when in fact the negotiation was probably happening by various members of Putin’s administration. What Meduza has said is that Putin actually refused to speak with Prigozhin, that Prigozhin asked to speak with Putin, and Putin wouldn’t speak with him. So it was various members of the Putin regime that were instead making this deal. One of the names that some people have been putting forth is Aleksey Dyumin, who is a lieutenant general who’s had a lot of military experience, a lot of security experience. He was the chief of Putin’s security guards at one point. He’s now the governor of their region of Tula. So, it’s not really clear what happened with the negotiation or what the actual parameters of whatever agreement was reached are.

But we can imagine all kinds of things happening with Belarus. We can imagine, first of all, that this just gets forgotten, that Prigozhin gets bumped off and disappears, and we never hear from him again. We can imagine him flying to Belarus and then flying to Africa to take charge of his forces that are in Africa, with the understanding that now he is to stay outside of Russia’s immediate sphere of influence and never be seen again that way. Or we could see him going to Belarus with a group of his forces, which is what The Wall Street Journal has suggested, and now establishing a new Russian presence in Belarus, perhaps for the purpose of helping Lukashenko stay in power. Now that there has been this obvious instability in Russia, we’ve seen that it is something that is giving some more hope to the opposition forces in Belarus, and maybe the deal that was reached is that now Prigozhin will go to Belarus to help Lukashenko stay in power by adding some to the Belarusian security forces. But at this point, it’s all smoke and mirrors. We don’t actually know what’s happening.

And the most important thing to keep in mind is that Prigozhin, as an individual, has never been quite as important as people have made him out to be, and he overstepped his bounds over the last couple of days. And it is very unlikely that Prigozhin comes out somehow on top in all of this. What it has shown is that Putin has been willing to allow himself to look weak. And so, the general sensibility is that even if it’s not Prigozhin that threatens Putin going forward, now people within Putin’s inner circle are going to be emboldened in a way that they haven’t been before, because Putin did not come out of this looking like somebody who was strong, who understood how to deal with things.

And I would just point out, before I stop here, that it was not a bloodless event. What the Russian military reported on Saturday is that 13 Russian airmen, mostly helicopter pilots, a couple who were flying fixed-wing aircraft, were shot down by the Wagner forces as they flew overhead. And that is something that the Russian military is not going to forget or forgive. It was not bloodless. There was the blood spilled by Russian military forces. And so, I think we’re just at the beginning of what’s going to happen, but neither Prigozhin nor Putin came out looking very good.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Denis Pilash in Kyiv, we just have one minute, but Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Are you concerned that Putin, who has clearly been embarrassed by this, would want to distract attention, as he says he’s moving tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus? Are you concerned about this in Ukraine?

DENIS PILASH: We are mostly concerned both with this and also with the fallout after the Kakhovka Dam destruction, that was obviously made by the Russian explosion from inside. And now there are reports that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant station, the biggest one in Europe, has been also mined. So, this nuclear leverage is clearly on the table.

And the big problem is also about this general chaos in Russia, because Prigozhin is not the only oligarch with an army of his own at his disposal, and almost every major corporation, starting with the fossil fuel giant Gazprom, in Russia has its own private military company. And then you have regional governors with their military units, as well. So, this can spill out to even more chaos. But this also means that the myth of stability, one of the pillars of Putin’s regime, has eroded completely.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. I want to thank Denis Pilash, joining us from the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv. He’s a Ukrainian political scientist. Kimberly Marten, professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. And in Moscow, Nina Khrushcheva, who is professor of international affairs at the New School, great-granddaughter of the former Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this.

But coming up next, on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, we’ll get an update on the state of abortion access in the United States with Amy Littlefield. Back in 30 seconds.

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