In medieval times, a misstep by an ambitious or traitorous faction would result in beheadings or the gallows. Today punishments include assassination, phoney suicide, poisoning, and defenestration or being thrown out of a window, now cynically referred to in Russia as the “window tax”. Even so, opposition grows and dozens of armed forces have formed inside Russia.
They are organized by individuals or organizations to protect themselves against a messy aftermath or, alternatively, to topple Putin. In recent weeks, two assassinations of public figures have taken place — one blown up and another poisoned — and protests by angry groups have occurred. Clearly, power inside Russia is being challenged.
A slew of private military corps, militias, paramilitaries, guerrilla groups, and other armed organizations flourish despite the fact that all are technically illegal. Some openly vow to overthrow Putin. Others engage in a pre-emptive scramble for power, once he leaves, or are bankrolled by oligarchs who want to protect their assets from post-war chaos as well as to enhance their political prospects.
Companies like Gazprom, Rosneft, and others now employ large private security forces. All of this indicates, according to an expert, that “the Russian elites prepare for a scenario of military defeat of Russia and vacuum of power after that.”
Power in Russia today is concentrated. At the top is Putin followed by the Siloviki (security forces and the FSB), the military, and the oligarchs. Dictatorship politics are clandestine by nature because they are dangerous. The exception has been outspoken Wagner Group owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has made a name for himself by building a powerful army and by openly criticizing the war effort and Putin’s generals.
But “Winter is Coming” for him. His Wagner Group’s armed forces have been decimated in the lengthy battle over Bakhmut, an inconsequential city in Ukraine which has nonetheless been rabidly sought by Putin’s military leaders. Prigozhin’s wings have also been clipped because his recruitment of prisoners as mercenaries has been officially halted.
Then, on April 2, a soldier and popular blogger Vladlen Tatarsky* was blown up in a café in St. Petersburg owned by Prighozin. Last year, he rose to attention across Russia again by blogging about the war against Ukraine and being devastatingly critical of Russia’s war effort, as has Prigozhin.
Tatarsky decried the excessive loss of Russian lives in Ukraine, the lousy equipment, and the strategic mistakes made by Russian generals. But on April 2 he was permanently silenced after a young woman handed him a statuette of himself, to honor his work, and it later exploded, killing him instantly. Officials immediately blamed Ukraine, then arrested a Navalny supporter and women’s rights activist, Darya Trepova, for the murder.
Prigozhin buried him with Wagner Group military honors, but his murder was clearly a warning to all war critics and a glimpse into the vicious infighting that’s underway within the Kremlin.
Naturally, a guessing game as to the perpetrator ensued. Was it Putin? His generals? Ukraine? The FSB? A day later, the National Republican Army (NRA) claimed responsibility and labelled Tatarsky a “well-known warmonger and war propagandist” who deserved to be murdered in a club “owned by one of the most famous Russian gangsters and criminals, Yevgeny Prigozhin.”
The NRA, a secret guerrilla group of Russian insurgents, also claimed it was behind the August car bombing murder of Putin polemicist Darya Dugina. And their manifesto states: “Putin is a usurper of power and a war criminal who amended the constitution, unleashed a fratricidal war between the Slavic peoples and sent Russian soldiers to certain and senseless death.”
Last week, protesters turned to the streets to object to the construction of a mosque in a part of Moscow considered to be sacred by Russian Orthodox believers. This angered powerful warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov who is President of Chechnya and commander of one of the largest private military contractors operating in Ukraine.
He warned “instigators should either be conscripted to vent all their anger on the enemy or sent to court as information saboteurs acting to please Satanists.” This religious rift is potentially destabilizing because Muslims make up the fastest growing segment of the Russian population.
Estimates are that as many as 3 million live in the Greater Moscow area with 15 million residents, mostly temporary workers from Central Asia. But The Moscow Times estimates that up to 20 million Muslims live in the Russian Federation — and a disproportionate number serve in the army.
Another secret guerrilla group called the Black Bridge just claimed responsibility for the March 16 fire that destroyed the Federal Security Service, FSB, building near Ukraine’s border. It describes oligarchs and Siloviki as “a disgusting waste, the worst kind of people you can find in the country. All their effort during Putin's time is dedicated to arranging their safe havens, comfortable retirements, and backup landings in the West.
'Businessman,' 'politician' or 'artist'—there is no difference," the group posted on Telegram. “They hate Russia and treat it as a mine set to be exhausted, it's no more than a source of their income. Could you undermine the ecosystem of the whole region to make some money?...Do you need to murder someone? Or perhaps organize a genocide in the neighboring country? Not a problem! What else could you do for a lovely lake house at Como?"
Another group called BOAK impedes the transportation of military vehicles and personnel along Russia’s railway networks:
One of its spokesman told Newsweek: "The issue of whether or not to oppose the war was not ever in question for us. When Russia launched this fratricidal war, with the purpose of strengthening the very dictatorship against which we stand, it only fuelled our resistance to the regime and to this war.”
Other, and official, dark forces move around Russia these days such as the FSB or military who may be behind the deaths of 39 high profile Russians who publicly opposed the war. Victims include more than one dozen executives running state-owned energy enterprises; real estate tycoon Sergey Grishin who sold his mansion in California to Harry and Meghan; scientist Andrey Botikov found strangled to death with his belt; opposition politician Elvira Vikhareva just poisoned, and various oligarchs who have paid the “window tax”.
This militarization of opposition may accelerate a transition and Putin has no path to victory in Ukraine and may be “dead man walking”, according to James Olson, former CIA chief of counterintelligence. “If Putin stays in power, there will be a long war because he will not give up — but I do not think that Putin is going to stay in power. I believe that he will be removed from power.”
Former Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev told Newsweek that a “rapid frontline collapse” will cause the Siloviki to remove Putin. “Putin can be replaced. He's not a superhero. He doesn't have any superpowers. He's just an ordinary dictator. And if we look at history, we see that such dictators have been replaced from time to time. So usually, if they lost a war, and they could not satisfy the needs of the supporters, they usually went away.”
The most recent transfers of power in Russian history have been peaceful and the Siloviki, military, and oligarchs may opt to negotiate Putin’s exit and end the war. This is what happened in 1989: Russian troops withdrew from Afghanistan; Kremlin infighting ensued, and two leaders later Putin took over by cutting deals with allies and oligarchs to divide the nation’s wealth.
But today, armed forces are in the mix and reports are that Putin is concerned about his own safety. If history repeats, he will go, the war will end, and the Russian Federation will shrink in size as new regional players seize power.
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