Russian President Vladimir Putin and his criminal sidekick Yevgeny Prigozhin were bosom buddies for more than twenty years. They pillaged the Kremlin treasury, looted corporate bank accounts across Russia’s eleven time zones, and used the mercenary army Wagner Group to plunder natural resources in Mali, Libya, and the Central African Republic.
The duo celebrated poisoning sone 14 adversaries in the U.K.; liquidated at least 38 of their oligarch playmates; feted the more than 4,000 of their heavily armed acquaintances who helped slaughter opponents of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; and—according to a U.S. State Department report—rolled out a $300 million wad of cash to manipulate elections across Europe and the 2020 U.S. presidential race.
Then, amid laughter and cursing in February 2022, the stalwart pals realized the lucrative possibilities of launching a “special military operation” against Ukraine. Western intelligence assets in Moscow years ago indicated that Russian mystics had assured them success was written in the stars—because Vladimir the Libra and Yevgeny the Gemini were a heavenly paired set.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his country’s 44 million citizens have long been verses in what’s now The Ballad of Putin and Prigozhin: You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw, a spooky-toothed melody about centuries of infidelity, disloyalty, and betrayal between odious Russian despots that Taylor Swift’s Mean perhaps best explains in English:
Russian leaders have always fashioned themselves as hideously cruel demi-gods, none more so than Putin’s hero Tsar Peter the Great, who went mano-a-mano with his own Prigozhin and an ersatz 17th century Wagner Group known as the Streltsy, a cadre of some 50,000 powerful soldier-tradesmen skilled in murder, embezzlement, and racketeering.
Although the Streltsy were sworn to protect the government, all the legitimized raping and pillaging made it difficult for them to decide who was in charge. Historian Robert Massie described them as “a kind of collective dumb animal, never quite sure who was its proper master, but ready to rush and bite anyone who challenged its own privileged position.”
And like Wagner Group’s 25,000-50,000 Kremlin-sponsored mercenary soldiers, the Streltsy, whose chief concern was also making money, made the doomed move to knock off their boss. Peter tortured thousands of them and their wives and children to death, with the Streltsy’s Prigozhin, Major Karpakov, strapped to a spit and twirled over a fire.
Peter sent his personal physician Dr. Carbonari to ensure Karpakov was slow-roasted. Let my notes from the historians in Russia’s state archive describe what happened next: “Karpakov was removed from the spit to rest before going back on the fire…Carbonari accidentally left his knife in the cell…Karparkov could no longer take the torture…Used the knife to slit his throat…But he was too weak and failed…Carbonari discovered him and he was returned to torture.”
Peter ordered the surviving Streltsy to Siberia, giving them modest pay raises and instructions to, in exile, protect the empire. The remaining Streltsy regiments revolted again in 1708. Peter slaughtered most of them.
Shortly after Prigozhin’s botched mutiny, Putin said Wagner Group’s soldiers were most welcome to join his imperial army and issued orders that all Russian military personnel will receive a 10.5 percent raise in pay as of October.
“Any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood, to us a nation,” Putin said shortly after awarding his troops an increase in salary. Putin later echoed his conviction that “Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years. It’s now our lot to also return what is Russia’s,” he said. “We shall fight against them, throw them in prisons and destroy them.”
Prigozhin and his palookas were recently huddled in Belarus. Putin has assumed total control of Wagner Group’s global military and commercial operations. Conventional social-media wisdom suggests his former cook and confidant will be either poisoned, shot, or accidentally fall out a window.
But if events of the past are an accurate harbinger of the future, wager the elimination of Prigozhin begins with the knout, the thick 4-foot-long hard-leather whip Peter’s secret police used on the Streltsy leadership before sending them to the fire pit.
It’s a good bet, too. Putin’s speeches over the past 23 years show that he’s a keen student of Russian history, surely aware that Peter’s scribes recorded their tsar as saying, “Russia will be saved not by pity but by cruelty.”
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