The Rise of Violent Russian Entrepreneurs Amid Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine

The Rise of Violent Russian Entrepreneurs Amid Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine
By Government of the Russian Federation, CC BY 3.0,

One year after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, no doubt remains about the difficulties the Russian army faced in Ukraine. From over-ambitious strategic goals seeking to topple the Ukrainian regime, logistical issues to supply overextended military advances on four different fronts, tactical failures, particularly in the field of combined arms and the use of tanks, and the failure to win the hearts and minds of Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, experts have extensively documented the reasons behind Moscow’s botched invasion.

Moscow suffered over 100,000 military casualties, lost over 1700 tanks and 130 military aircraft visually confirmed by open-source intelligence, and was forced to withdraw its troops from the surrounding area of Kyiv in April, from the Kharkiv region in September, and from the west bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region in November. The Russian army was plagued with many structural issues ranging from corruption, disorganization, stubbornness, and low morale.  

The failure of the Russian army to take over Ukraine or establish complete control of the Donbas region and Southern Ukraine opened the door for other violent entrepreneurs to rise and use violence in Ukraine to promote their own political agenda. Early in the war, Ramzan Kadyrov, the authoritarian Chechen leader, and Evgeny Prigozhin, the infamous founder of the paramilitary Wagner, supported Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and used it to secure political power and resources. The war in Ukraine became a formidable opportunity for those violent entrepreneurs to rise from the shadows and use their comparative advantage in criminality and violent networks to outbid the failing Russian army in Ukraine. Rather than being subordinated to the general staff of the Russian armed forces, they launched their own independent military machine and recruitment process. The failure of the Russian army to achieve Vladimir Putin’s extensive political goals opened the door for them to join the fight focusing on smaller, more tangible objectives, including the conquest of Mariupol and the fight around Bakhmut.



Check out CIPS’ ongoing coverage of the war in Ukraine here.

The war in Ukraine allowed those regional and covert forces to raise their profile inside Russian politics and compete directly with the Russian army. Where the Russian military has failed to impose itself in Ukraine, both Wagner and Kadyrov forces created paramilitary networks to support Russia’s war. War crimes and other atrocities Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s forces committed became almost normalized in Ukraine. Ranging from public executions to looting and other criminal activities, those violent entrepreneurs became infamous for crimes committed in the Donbas and Kyiv’s vicinities. 

Their goals have not really been to win the war but to use violence in Ukraine to further their political agenda in Russia, mainly seeking to establish their importance within federal politics. Both actors promoted their military successes on social media, advocating their brutality as patriotic devotion to  Russia, distancing themselves from the Russian military and their colossal failures. In Ukraine, they openly entered a power struggle with the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation (MoD), including Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, and many high-ranking military officers. They openly criticized the withdrawal from the Kharkiv region on social media as proof of the failure of high-ranking Russian officers. Prigozhin even blamed the MoD for the difficulty in taking Bakhmut, resulting not from the tactical problem within the Wagner group but rather from the heavy Russian military bureaucracy. Both the Wagner group and the Kadyrov forces have become almost fully independent actors fighting their private battles within a never-ending war. The very fact that they decided to enter a power struggle with the MoD in the middle of a war shows the dysfunctionality of the Russian military machine on the ground and the growing risks of empowering violent entrepreneurs to avoid a military defeat in Ukraine.

Even though these violent entrepreneurs have been part of Russia’s military system for years now, Ukraine has created the opportunity to openly link their nefarious transnational activities with Russia’s nationalist and patriotic agenda. For example, the Wagner group is involved in semi-covert operations in Eastern Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and many African countries with the tacit support of the Presidential administration. However it was not directly involved in Russian politics. Prigozhin launched his own procurement system to equip his military forces reaching as far as North Korea to obtain artillery shells. He introduced his own mobilization program in Russian prisons with the support of Vladimir Putin, promising amnesty for convicts joining Wagner. Convicts were used as cannon fodder in Bakhmut and its surrounding areas to fight a brutal war of attrition against Ukrainian forces. Prigozhin advertised his military successes (pyrrhic victory) around Bakhmut as the success of Wagner over the Russian army. The success was aimed at boosting his bid for a position inside the Russian government, most likely in the general staff of the Russian army. In late 2022 and early 2023, the MoD finally launched a counteroffensive against Prigozhin, seeking to slow down his rise within the war machine and federal politics. The door is now open for more infighting within the ranks of Russian forces in Ukraine. Although the political future of Prigozhin in Russia is at stake in this, the Wagner group is there to survive. 

Their goals have not really been to win the war but to use violence in Ukraine to further their political agenda in Russia, mainly seeking to establish their importance within federal politics.

Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces played a crucial role in pacifying the North Caucasus and extending their influence throughout Russia by using criminal networks as well as fighting in Syria along the Assad forces. Furthermore, they were instrumentalized by Russian security services to kill dissidents abroad. Overall, before the war in Ukraine, their sphere of influence remained cantoned to the North Caucasus. The Russian invasion unleashed its reach beyond southern Russia into the Donbas and Russian federal politics. Kadyrov is probably in a more robust and more stable political position compared to Prigozhin. He launched his own mobilization program in Chechnya before the Russian partial mobilization of September 2022, creating “volunteer” regiments to be deployed in Ukraine. Kadyrov extended his reach into Ukraine, creating tacit alliances with the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s republics. For his role in Ukraine, President Putin made Kadyrov army general, and many of his collaborators were appointed within the power structures in Russia and occupied Ukraine. President Putin relies almost exclusively on Kadyrov to manage the stability and the security of Russia’s southern border in the North Caucasus. Contrarily to Prigozhin, Kadyrov has strong political leverage to secure his future. Only the collapse of Putin’s political empire would result in a catastrophic situation for the Chechen leader.

As the war in Ukraine extends, violent entrepreneurs will most likely extend their network and influence Russian society and federal politics. Similarly to what was observed in the post-Yugoslavia wars, those violent entrepreneurs will not disappear after the end of the war itself. They will adapt to the post-conflict context in Ukraine and Russia, engaging in local and transnational criminal activities, protection rackets and joining other regional conflicts as mercenaries or foreign fighters. Suppose the war in Ukraine marked the end of the myth of the almighty Russian military power. In that case, it might almost mark a new rise of violent Russian entrepreneurs in regional conflicts and other nefarious activities. Even though, the American and Canadian governments have designated the Wagner group respectively as transnational criminal group and terrorist entity, Western countries appear to be ill-equipped or uninterested in addressing this forthcoming challenge in international politics. If the war in Ukraine probably marks the collapse of the Russian army, hybrid warfare will remain a constant threat with the rising power of actors like Prigozhin and Kadyrov.

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