Attack Dog Bites Master

 There were extraordinary developments in Russia this week when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of “Putin’s private army” the Wagner Group, turned on the Russian military hierarchy.

The Wagner Group has been fighting alongside the regular Russian army in Ukraine, most noticeably in Bakhmut where it has suffered severe casualties.

Prigozhin’s criticism of the Russian military high command has escalated over recent months, accusing it, inter alia, of failing to supply his fighters with sufficient ammunition and supplies. He has repeatedly accused Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the army in Ukraine, Valery Gerasimov, of incompetence .

Since the out break of the current Russo-Ukraine war Wagner has grown considerably with possible 50,000 personnel in its ranks. About eighty per cent of Wagner’s troops in Ukraine have been drawn from Russian prisons, with inmates being promised a free pardon after six months service.

This organisation turned against its allies and occupied “all military facilities” in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Rostov is an important logistics hub for its efforts in Ukraine and also from where the war is being directed.

Perhaps more important and extraordinary was the Wagner column that moved towards Moscow and was only some hours away before it stopped. Resistance to it on the ground was minimal.

After the event, the consensus was that this was not a direct challenge to Russia’s war in Ukraine or the president’s leadership, but it was a sufficiently serious turn of events to prompt Putin into an immediate response via a punchy televised address.

All of which goes to illustrate once again the dangers of hiring mercenaries and mercenary organisations to help promulgate a war. History is full of examples of mercenaries who have changed sides or who have blackmailed their employers.

The clue is in the name itself. The Latin root of mercenary is “merces”, which means wages or pay; they don’t fight for honour, or glory, or patriotism, or justice, but for pay. It’s a job to them, much like others work down the mines or drive buses.

The inherent danger in employing formed bodies of mercenaries, though, is that you can create a sort of “state within a state”, where the employee(s) become so powerful that they threaten their employer and the status quo.

So make no mistake; this was a defining moment for the Putin leadership and a wake-up call for all Russians. For the first time, perhaps, his regime is looking shaky and his grip on power weakening. But would we rather have someone else in the Kremlin than Putin? Better the devil you know, perhaps?

Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at



Tank CommanderLt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now

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