Last weekend when Yevgeny Prigozhin launched his abortive attempt at marching on Moscow at the head of the Wagner Group militia army, he did not know that it was on the same day, June 24, 1812, that Napoleon had launched his forlorn march towards the Russian capital.
Another thing that the self-styled warlord didn't know was that Rostov-on-Don, his hometown and the launching pad for his insurrection, was also the town from which Cossacks had started their rebellion against Catherine the Great two centuries earlier.
However, Prigozhin did know two things: First, that in Russia power changes hands only through force; smooth transitions belong to "decadent" Western Europe. Next, while in the West, notably in America, if you have money, you can get power, in Russia you can get money only if you have power.
In other words, the "incident" as Russian propaganda likes to call it, was a very Russian affair.
President Vladimir Putin knew that. This is why he initially panicked, comparing the "incident" to events in October 1917 when Lenin's Bolsheviks seized power by fielding a few dozen armed men in Petrograd. Unwittingly, a visibly shaken Putin cast himself as Alexander Kerensky, the custodian of the "constitutional order" and Prigozhin as Lenin. Obviously confused about historic parallels, he also spoke of "civil war" as if Kolchak and Wrangel had risen from the dead at the head of royalist armies.
In the absence of a mechanism for legal transfer of power, Russian history consists of a series of coups both under the tsars and during the Soviet Empire. In most of those "incidents", the transfer was from bad to worse. And this is the point that policymakers everywhere, especially those who pray and work for ending Putin's reign, should ponder.
Wagner is a monster that Putin created and, for almost a decade, denied that it even existed. Now, however, he has assumed ownership of the creature and is trying to integrate part of it into the Russian regular army while keeping another part for profitable adventures abroad.
Mercenary armies have existed from the dawn of history and, in numerous cases, have succeeded in seizing power for themselves and even founding durable dynasties. But it was only in the 1990s that, with the start of globalization, that the idea of privatizing war, once again, became fashionable. All Western democracies had ended national service schemes and relied on professional armies.
And, yet, they knew that the new homo-consumeris they had created didn't like to see its sons, and in some cases daughters, die on the battlefields in distant lands. Thus, privatizing war became a legitimate enterprise and a lucrative business. In the United States, Blackwater, a private war company, emerged as a tool for use in especially dangerous missions including in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Britain, though on a smaller scale, the Aegis Group achieved a similar status. It is now certain that, when he decided to create his own private army, Putin had those two models in mind.
The difference, however, was that Wagner was created by a head of state, not private entrepreneurs. Initially, Putin wanted Wagner as a means of reviving Soviet influence in the so-called "Third World". This is why Wagner was never given a legal status in Russia itself. Its initial status as a cultural organization based in Saint Petersburg was kept as a façade. Later it added a new company supplying the Russian army and numerous schools across the country with food.
Putin knew that the 10-year war in Afghanistan had contributed to the fall of the Soviet Empire because Russian families didn't understand why their sons should die in the Hindu Kush. At the same time, with the USSR, the "mother of revolution" in history's dustbin, Putin could no longer rely on local revolutionaries to do Russia's dirty work under the banner of Marxism-Leninism.
Within a decade, Russian influence in Latin America, Africa and Asia had evaporated like snowflakes in August. There were no guerrillas to fight in Central America, the Horn of Africa, Angola and Mozambique, Dhofar and Pakistani Baluchistan, let alone to sow sedition in more than a dozen other "Third World" countries. Claiming the position of a world power, rather than a "regional" one as US President Barack Obama had labeled it
; , Russia needed a presence in at least some of the areas where the defunct USSR had been a big player.
Without Wagner, Putin would not have been able to emerge as a big player in such places as Libya, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Mali and, more recently, Burkina Faso with the possibility of expanding further in west and east Africa. Even in Syria, where Putin used Iranian troops and their Afghan, Pakistani and Lebanese mercenaries as his boots on the ground, Wagner was actively present as President Bashar al-Assad's praetorian protector and prison warden. More recently, Wagner also established a presence in Venezuela and Nicaragua, reviving memories of a time when Russia, as the USSR, was able to do mischief in United States' backyard.
Putin's choice of one of his closest allies, Prigozhin, as Wagner's leader was no surprise. The oligarch had known Putin since their Saint Petersburg days and is said to be one of the few intimates to know the location of at least part of his boss's fortune.
Prigozhin proved to be a shrewd businessman, a master of communication and palace intrigues.
All this might explain why Putin, badly shaken by the "incident" has been unwilling to unleash his thunder bolt against Prigozhin and Wagner. In his strange TV address last Sunday, he didn't even name Prigozhin and thanked Wagner for "having prevented bloodshed". Later, he assured Wagner men that, despite their involvement in briefly fighting against the regular army, there would be no moves against them.
What emerges from the "incident" is a badly weakened Putin. The fantasy about him as a "strongman" has been punctured.
But is that good news for all those who wish to see the back of him? Not necessarily. The alternative to Putin isn't necessarily going to be a pro-West bleeding-heart liberal. Putin may be bad, but his successor could be worse. At the same time, no one would benefit from chaos in Russia, an event that could affect the whole of Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East and beyond.
Putin has proven to be a bluffer and the best way to deal with a bluffer is not to be bluffed. This is why there may just be one tiny possibility of trying to shorten the tragic war in Ukraine.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.