Putin/Hitler & Wagner/Brownshirts?
Is Prigozhin to Putin as Ernst Rohm was to Hitler and will he share his fate?
This substack is less about StratCom, but the rise and rise of Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group of mercenaries has been an intriguing recent feature of Putin’s Ukrainian aggression, and for the historically minded has distinct echoes of another such relationship and group. This is the one between Hitler and Ernst Rohm, leader of the Sturmabteilung or SA, better known as the ‘brownshirts’.
Of course, such parallels are never exact, and the SA were central to Hitler’s rise, not his sustainment in power. But they were certainly Hitler’s private army and were critical in aiding Hitler in his rise to power. Although they were street fighters not mercenaries, like the original Wagner very many were ex-soldiers, in the SA’s case disillusioned and rootless after World War One. The SA he led was at one stage a million strong.
So, what of Hitler and Ernst Rohm? They were very close friends, enough for Rohm to call him Adolf, not ‘Mein Fuhrer’ and he was a key figure in Hitler’s rise. Prigozhin is also very close to Putin. His nickname of ‘Putin’s Chef’ came from serving Putin when he was a regular visitor to Prigozhin’s restaurants, but also the fact he has made a fortune from state catering contracts.
So, while Rohm was politically vital to Hitler, Prigozhin was initially less so to Putin – but he has made himself very useful. First, through setting up the Internet Research Agency, that conducts internet disinformation campaigns, but secondly by creating the Wagner Group. As a so-called Private Military Company (PMC), Wagner have been incredibly useful to Putin as a deniable Russian mercenary force operating in Syria and Africa. Useful but, nominally at least, in the shadows as PMCs are still formally illegal in Russia – until now.
For Wagner has now become a major force in Ukraine and seemingly operating at least semi-independently from the Russian army notably in their continued attacks the Bakhmut area of Donbass. He has been recruiting from prisons and Wagner’s fighters glory in their reputation for brutality. They are expanding and also gone very public, opening their first official headquarters in St Petersburg.
Meanwhile Prigozhin, after years of coyness, has now openly acknowledged – even boasted – that he set up the Wagner Group. What is more he has stated they are more effective that the Russian Army and berated the Russia military leadership as useless, saying for instance, "All these bastards ought to be sent to the front barefoot with just a submachine gun." After years of being seemingly content to be in the shadows Prigozhin is pushing a very public narrative of being a big player promoting a hard right nationalist agenda.
And this is where it could get even more interesting. Prigozhin is creating an independent power base, one resting on a private army he funds and controls. In effect he is challenging the Russian Army and official organs of the state and creating an alternative source of power. Ernst Rohm and his SA were doing exactly the same, and Hitler backed him in his bid for power – until he became chancellor and controlled the army and police.
Putin already controls the army and police, but so far has clearly allowed Prigozhin to expand his private army, presumably because he feels he needs them in Ukraine. But this is not just about Ukraine, but also power in Russia. If Putin loses or the Russian elite think he will lose, then his own grip on power could be under threat.
Putin’s grip on power has been based on absolute control of all the levers of power, and indeed as the war in Ukraine goes bad his absolutism is increasing and Russia is slipping into dictatorship. Dictators cannot abide rival sources of power and state sources of power, the security services, hate them as much, if not more.
That in the end is what did for Rohm. Once Hitler had state power then he did not need the SA and the army in particular worked on Hitler to deal with Rohm and the SA. Hitler also increasingly saw Rohm as a problem. I would guess Prigozhin is motivated by money, while Rohm did actually have an ideology of sorts – a kind radical socialism – and his followers wanted radical change. Once he became chancellor then Hitler wanted control not change and once Hitler saw Rohm as a threat he had to be dealt with and the organs of state power moved in.
So, how does Putin see Prigozhin and Wagner? Presumably at present as both useful and necessary, but he cannot be comfortable with the way Prigozhin is building an independent power base, and he will be asking himself, to what end? What’s Prigozhin’s game and can be trusted with his own private army in the jockeying for power within Russia.
In Hitler’s Germany it ended with the so-called Night of the Long Knives when, personally led by Hitler, the SS and police arrested Rohm, while other SS rounded up SA leaders, who were quickly executed. Hitler hesitated about ordering the execution of Rohm, his friend and former ally, but not that long. A purged SA continued but now under Hitler’s control.
Perhaps this is nothing more than a history lover’s speculation, but it is hard to see Putin tolerating any independent power base for a second longer than he has to, while Prigozhin clearly sees himself as a major player in any future Russia, able to exploit any power vacuum or weakness at the top.
In Russia those who threaten Putin monopoly on power have a habit of falling from high windows so Prigozhin should be careful around tall buildings, as instead of the Night of the Long Knives it might be the Night of the Long Drop.
Great piece Mark. Do you really see the Wagner group ceding power to Putin? Or does he already own them? VP