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Putin Kills Three Birds with One Stone

Evgeny Prigozhin is, predictably, dead. 

He actually died two months ago, but he missed the memo. His fate was sealed the day he went for the king, then blinked.

His death has now been confirmed, though confirmation was hardly necessary. Putin enjoys projecting ambiguity about these things, the better to keep the world guessing. His denials of his own culpability are laughably absurd, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone knows Putin did it, whether he did it or not.

It’s no more than Prigozhin would’ve expected, given the vengeful nature of the king he served for so long, then betrayed.

(If you don’t know the backstory of Prigozhin, and the spasm of hubris that led to the Wagner Group mutiny of last June, you can look it up just about anywhere — at least this week. But you might want to start with my own piece from July 4)

Prigozhin was a blight on humanity, with tens of thousands of deaths on a conscience he didn’t possess. Now an even more terrible man has killed him. So we’re looking at several degrees of terrible-ness, and it’s not just about Putin taking out Prigozhin.

It’s also about Putin taking out Prigozhin, Utkin and Chekalov, all with one bomb. A trifecta of slimeballs.

We won’t miss these guys, though Putin might. He was heavily invested in all of them. So, beyond the economies of scale — yes, three for the price of one is a good deal — you have to wonder if he really thought this through.

Dmitry Utkin might just be a worse person than Prigozhin, though it’s close. While Prigozhin was the public face and financial underwriter of the Wagner Group, Utkin was the commandant. A former colonel in the “special forces,” Utkin was the tactical guy, the battle-scarred veteran who ran Wagner’s military operations, both overt and covert. Murder, torture, and assorted atrocities were his stock-in-trade.

An open admirer of Hitler and all things Nazi, Utkin was a gleeful participant in the horrendous wars for Chechnya, Syria, Libya, Crimea, and the Donbas. Then he went mercenary, full-time.

Around 2014 — the dates aren’t clear — he was put in charge of a new private army, funded by Prigozhin, that would promote Kremlin interests under a variety of pretexts. The idea was to give Putin the cover to launch wars, topple governments, and steal natural resources, all while maintaining plausible deniability to the world at large. It worked quite well until last week.

Utkin’s code name was “Wagner” — after Hitler’s favorite composer — and the name was pinned to his “group.” He became famous for his Nazi tattoos, his Wehrmacht field cap, and his taste for on-camera executions.

Utkin was very much Prigozhin’s right-hand thug, and he was there at Prigozhin’s side when the plane went down.

As was Valery Chekalov. Yet another rodent from the murky depths of the Russian kleptocracy, Chekalov was the business guy, the logistics master, the overall manager of Prigozhin’s empire. He oversaw most of Prigozhin’s companies, especially those connected to Wagner. He’s the one who hired the mercenaries, paid them, armed them, and managed Wagner’s business dealings in Syria, Africa, and Ukraine. He knew where the bodies were buried — often quite literally — and he kept dozens of illegal, semi-legal, and even legal balls in the air at once.

Wagner has long been more than just an army. It’s been a cash cow for Prigozhin — and presumably for Putin — through its dealings in various mineral-rich African countries. What will become of Wagner’s opaque contracts in the Middle East and Africa, now that these three guys are off the stage?

The typical Wagner contract is with a greedy tyrant in an existing kleptocracy. Wagner troops aggressively protect the dictator from his many enemies, while ruthlessly suppressing any dissent from his population. If a coup is called for, that’s all part of the service. In return, Wagner takes a generous cut of the mining revenue. It’s a multi-billion-dollar business.

But how do those contracts work now? Who provides the troops to protect the dictators, especially when those same troops are needed in Ukraine? What happens to dictators left unprotected? Does Putin leave all that money on the table? Does he replace the deniable Wagner networks with openly Russian forces? That would not be a good look — a clear violation of international law — though it’s not clear he cares about that.

And then there’s the Wagner troops themselves. They’ve been the only effective fighting force Putin has had at his disposal, but now what does he do with them? Sure, he’ll try to tuck them into the regular army, but he knows that’s a tough sell.

There are two distinct varieties of Wagner soldier. Some are the well-trained, well-paid troops that do the Kremlin’s bidding in the Middle East and Africa. But, as of a year ago, there’s been a huge influx of untrained convicts working off their prison sentences. They were personally recruited by Prigozhin and sent directly to the Ukrainian front.

Now both Wagner types are isolated. They’ve lost their leaders and their paychecks. Some are in Belarus, some are stranded in Africa. They’re resented by the military establishment, and most have been removed from the battlefields in Ukraine, having fought and died there in stunningly large numbers.

These are hard men with big grudges. Many have been reduced to utter savagery by what they’ve seen and done in this war. They’ve lived through the suicidal tactics of Prigozhin and Utkin, especially in the year-long battle for Bakhmut.

Wagner recruits were routinely forced to attack entrenched Ukrainian positions, knowing that if they didn’t die from enemy fire, their own side would execute them for retreating. Their chances of survival were roughly zero — indeed, the practice was known as “zeroing out.” Some of them saw deserters executed with sledgehammers, an Utkin specialty.

So this will be a tough crowd to bring in from the cold. They are just as likely to shoot at their own commanders as they are at Ukrainians.

But to Putin, these problems would seem to be mere annoyances. And indeed, he seems intent on eradicating Wagner from the national conversation altogether.

Because there are now reports that a huge cemetery for Wagner fighters — created by Prigozhin to honor their service at Bakhmut — has been dug up, desecrated, and paved over. As symbolism goes, this one’s hard to miss. If I were a Wagner veteran I’d be looking closely at exit strategies.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Putin is making it up as he goes along. He has entered a new stage in his reign, a stage we’ve seen in dictators since the beginning of time. Call it the “kill everybody” stage. It’s when the war has no endgame, the mistakes keep piling up, and all he has to offer his constituents is continued existence, which they know is tenuous. Putin is no longer tolerating his perceived enemies, he’s killing them.

And the more people he kills, the more the people closest to him will fear, quite reasonably, that they could be next. Everyone becomes his enemy, and everyone is on maximum alert. Putin knows this, and tries to play them against each other, but nothing seems to be working.

At this point, the course of the war isn’t up to him. It’s being dominated by Western arms and Ukrainian resolve. His only play is to dig in, play defense, and hope he can get Trump elected again.

Meanwhile, there’s not much he can do but ramp up the savagery.

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