The war bodes badly for Putin, but he cannot remain Tsar if he loses or surrenders.

His health deteriorates. Potential successors within his inner circle vie for the chance to rule a post-Putin Russia and the front-runner in this Game of Thrones is clearly Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ex-convict who made a fortune in the food business and also leads a force of 50,000 mercenaries called the Wagner Group.

Unlike other contenders, he has military muscle as well as political influence and is the only oligarch getting richer, not poorer, as a result of the war.

As other rich or powerful Russians flee or fall out of windows, Prigozhin remains close to Putin, visits his troops at the front, and criticizes Putin’s military establishment with impunity.

Prigozhin is nicknamed “the chef” because of his lucrative food distribution and catering empire. But in one decade, he has built Wagner which is heavily involved in Ukraine and 27 other countries. He also set up troll farms to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election on behalf of Trump and was sanctioned by Washington. And this year, he came out of the shadows as Wagner’s boss and garnered enormous publicity by getting permission to recruit soldiers from 18 Russian penal colonies to serve for six months in Ukraine’s frontlines in return for amnesty if they survived.

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The Wagner Group is brutal and recent footage, unverified, was released online in Russia showing a Wagner execution by sledgehammer of a recruited prisoner who deserted entitled “The hammer of revenge”.

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Rheinmetall has also said it plans to set up at least four factories in Ukraine, which is in desperate need of ammunition to confront the Russian invasion.

Of this, the New York Post wrote: “Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin – the Putin-aligned money man behind the paramilitary Wagner Group and election interference efforts in the U.S. – opined that the title should be changed to `A dog receives a dog’s death’.”

Below is a tweeted video of Prigozhin in camouflage garb about to present a sledgehammer and axe to Wagner soldiers for their bravery in action. 

Videos of Prigozhin presenting a sledgehammer to a Wagner fighter and hatchets to members of the Kursk and Belgorod militias. Wagner fighters used sledgehammers to murder a Syrian deserter in 2017 and a Wagner deserter last month.

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Wagner facilitated the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and also operated clandestinely in Libya, Syria, and throughout Africa to advance Putin’s aims and to provide Putin with plausible deniability.

For instance, Wagner’s involvement with Syria’s Bashar Al Assad helped destroy the country and force 7.4 million Syrians to flee to Europe or refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan.

Rumors are that Wagner’s payment in Syria included a 25 percent share of its natural gas and oil production and that its African deals also include resource extraction rights.

More recently, White House officials claim that Prigozhin’s keen interest in conquering the Ukrainian City of Bakhmut, nicknamed the “meat grinder”, is because he will obtain rights to its sizeable resource wealth.

Prigozhin is now an outspoken proponent of the war. He recently labeled as “traitors” any Russian who opposes the war at home or abroad as well as those who criticize Wagner’s deployment of hardened criminals.

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“Some traitors are holed up in offices, not thinking about their own people. Some of them use their own business jets to fly to those countries that seem neutral to us so far. They fly away so as not to participate in today’s problems. They are traitors too. Those who do not want PMCs [private military companies] or prisoners to fight, who talk about this topic, who do not want to do anything and who, as matter of principle, do not like this topic, send your children to the front. Either PMCs and prisoners, or your children – decide for yourself."

Prigozhin and another paramilitary power broker, Razman Kadyrov

Another contender inside Russia is Dmitry Medvedev, former President, Prime Minister, and the current deputy chair of the Security Council of Russia. But he’s a playboy who likes the good life and doesn’t have his own army.

Then there’s Razman Kadyrov, who heads the Chechen Republic and runs a paramilitary force operating in Ukraine. Chechnya is a tiny Muslim region with 1.5 million whose independence movement was crushed in the 1990s as brutally as is now the case with Ukraine. Kadyrov commands tens of thousands of troops who fight alongside Wagner and the Russian armed forces and squabbles with both.

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Like Prigozhin, Kadyrov publicly attacks Russia’s current military leadership as well as the West. “America is not really a strong enough state for us to regard it as an enemy of Russia. We have a strong government and are a nuclear state. Even if our government was completely destroyed, our nuclear missiles would be automatically deployed. We will put the whole world on its knees,” said Kadyrov recently.

But he’s not Presidential material because he’s not Russian ethnically. Besides, a weaker Moscow will resurrect independence movements throughout the Federation including in Chechnya.

Interestingly, Ukraine’s Parliament in October declared that Chechnya was also a “temporarily Russian-occupied” land and the victim of “genocide of the Chechen people” by Russia.

An unknown number of Chechens already fight with Ukrainians and it’s safe to assume that a weakened Moscow will result in another independence movement there which will preoccupy Kadyrov if he intends to retain power there.

A scene of Russia’s devastation of Chechnya in the 1990s.

There are reports that another paramilitary force has been organized by one of Putin’s generals, leading to speculation that Putin’s strategy is to encourage warring factions among rivals to remain President. Whatever the underlying cause, these developments insure a messy post-Putin Russia.

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“The power of Prigozhin and the strength of Kadyrov is that they have 30,000 [or more] armed soldiers who obey only them,” wrote Andrey Piontkovsky, a Russian analyst. “You can see that on the front, there are a lot of situations and clashes between these structures and the Russian armed forces.”

As Russia loses, Prigozhin is the guy to watch. The Institute for the Study of War in Washington concluded that he “holds a uniquely advantageous position within the Russian state structure and information space that allows him to expand his constituency in Russia more readily than the disgraced Russian higher military command … Prigozhin can freely promote himself and his forces while criticizing Kremlin officials or the Russian Armed Force without fear of pushback.”

Once Putin is gone, all bets are off. His successor may battle on but that’s unlikely as the country disintegrates economically. He may sue for peace but won’t last long for having done so.

It may become 1917 all over again with armed factions battling for control, but most likely Russia will sink into political infighting as happened in 1990 and begin to break apart as did the Soviet Union.

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Whoever controls Russia’s military and nuclear arsenal will become the next Tsar but will rule over a smaller and weakened Russian Federation.

Diane Francis Newsletter on America and the World

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