Who will be the next President of Russia?
We will begin by identifying some iron laws of Tsarist succession in Russia, Moscow and the Kremlin.
Do not be confused by our use of the word 'Tsarist'. We do not use this phrase just to glance back into the murky past of Russian history. Rather we use the expression to characterise the autocratic, totalitarian form of semi-feudal rule to which Russia has been subject to for centuries. It did not change either during the Soviet era; or during the post-Soviet era.
The head of the Russian government is either an autocrat or a committee, as we have already discussed. At the current time it is an autocrat; and although some periods of autocracy in Russian history have been replaced by periods of rule by committee, these latter have generally not lasted very long until a new autocrat dominated the committee and eliminated his opponents on it.
There is a credible case that every Russian leader in the last 100 years has died by homicide. Tsar Nicholae II was summarily shot in a basement. Lenin was declared unfit by his doctors after an alleged stroke; when it turned out that he could still read and write, his doctors killed him in hospital. There seems little doubt that Stalin was murdered by his doctors although he was murdered at home, not in a hospital. Khruschev died of natural causes but his leadership was by committee, from which he was eventually ousted. That is as peaceful as Russian leadership succession gets. Moving forward, Yeltsin appointed Putin as his successor who may have had Yeltsin murdered a few years later.
Judging by this record, and in particular given his own ruthless bloodiness in office, having his opponents or those who he decided betrayed him murdered with significant frequency, Vladimir Putin surely understands that it is his fate to be murdered in office. Nobody is going to let him retire - he might keep on ordering murders from behind the scenes. So he will have to be murdered in office.
There are no two ways about it. Western-funded democracy innovations in Russia all flounder in the face of tight-knit suppression by the internal security services (FSB). The Russian totalitarian structure ,(for that is what it has been since at latest the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century) will throttle any attempts at revolution. Besides, Russia is not ripe for revolution. Her treasury is awash with petrodollars. Revolution is generally preceded by grinding poverty and starvation. Russia is nowhere near that.
Hence Putin will have to be murdered out of office. He has presided over a catastrophically badly managed and totally unnecessary invasion of Ukraine, that has diminished the wealth of his court (the wealthy and influential people around him) with no substantial benefit. However the war in Ukraine ends, it will end on terms bad for Russia. It is entirely possible that an armistice is signed upon the lines Russia held in 2014 - so the whole war turns out to have been a massive waste of time and expense for Russia. The Russian upper political classes will not forgive Putin for this.
Indeed we already see the eclipsing of his power, as when he recently angrily shouted at his Defence Minister in public. He makes few announcements on the progress of the war himself; but, most unfortuitously (for him), he keeps replacing his top General every few months. The Russian Armed Forces seem to be sick of it all. Their generals see themselves as businessmen, selling Russian military technology to the world. And there is no business in watching your own infantry dying on the battlefield.
The military are an important political force in Russian senior politics, for the obvious reason that the conceptual premise of the Russian state (apart from making money) is killing; and the Russian Armed Forces are very large. They just prefer to stay out of actual wars, which is understandable. The Russian Armed Forces have been determinative in directing the transfer of power (in other words, deciding who to murder) at various junctures in Russian history. They were behind the failed coup attempt in Russia in 1991. A little further back, they were responsible for the murder of Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin's leader of the NKVD (one of a number of forerunner organisations of the contemporary FSB), who threatened to take over as Tsarist autocrat after the death of Stalin. Hence they ushered in rule by committee under Khruschev.
It is entirely possible that the deeply disgruntled Russian Armed Forces may be plotting the murder and removal from power of Vladimir Putin, who has caused them such losses and placed the lives of so many of their men in mortal harm. This would explain why Putin keeps changing the head of the Russian Armed Forces every three months: he wants to keep them on their toes and avert the prospect of Putsch.
Now let us consider the role of the until recently obscure Wagner Group (about which we have already written), a so-called private military company (although, in typically Russian fashion, this is a corporate form that does not actually exist under Russian law) but that is not actually a private organisation at all. It is obviously just another branch of the Russian government, albeit one caked in misleading bullshit; this is obvious from the fact that the gentleman in the photo above, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a long-time confidant of Vladimir Putin. And we will come back to him.
The Wagner Group is an altogether different way of fighting wars, that appeals to the Russians because (a) it makes money while fighting wars; and (b) no Russian soldiers, the death of whom in large quantities anger the Russian Armed Forces and the Russian public opinion alike, actually die. It is an entirely novel concept and we begrudgingly admit really quite a good one if looked at purely on paper. The model is this:
Recruit as mercenaries troops from poorer countries (such as in Africa) where Russian-backed fighting or peacekeeping missions have occurred in the past, and therefore who are familiar with and skilled in the distinctive if often high-tech types of Russian military equipment.
Pay them an up front recruitment fee that goes to their families, promise them monthly salaries, fly them on one way tickets to warzones, confiscate their Smartphones and allow them only Dumphones to communicate with one another, and leave them to fight the enemy using Russian military equipment they often know their ways round far better than Russian conscripts.
Do not pay them their monthly stipends, do not purchase them return tickets, lie to them about these things, wait for them to die on the battlefield (current estimates suggest that the six-month Wagner Group recruit mortality rate is 100 per cent), and then fly in some more that you have been hiring in the interim.
The common denominator for Wagner Group troops is that nobody in Russia gives a damn whether they live or die. Hence African soldiers; demobilised Syrian troops; and convicts serving long sentences in Russian penal colonies, are all candidates for Wagner Group recruitment. So are crazy Serbs, who just like going to war for the sake of it. (Serbs often comprise the officer classes in Wagner Group.) If living or dying is all the same for you, then you have found your perfect employer in Wagner Group.
You pay for all this by charging a 'mercenary fee' to the political forces on whose behalf you are going to war. It is a simple pricing model: you start off with a lowball and then when the war is in full swing and they are totally dependent upon you, up the fees extortionately. (This is a bit like how lawyers charge.) The 'client' may be a Libyan rebel group or the Donetsk People's Republic. Everyone gets charged for having a Russian military presence on their territory that they can't get rid of. And if you don't pay, they kill you and support someone else who will pay.
This model more than balances the books, and permits Wagner Group to make a healthy profit to build gleaming glass and steel brand new corporate headquarters in St Petersburg (although Wagner does not publish any accounts, so we have no idea just how much money they actually have.
The whole idea is genius, if wantonly barbaric and an anathema to many of the commonly held precepts of international law. But such trifles have never troubled the Russians in exploiting a good idea.
Now we need to study with greater care the man who created this structure. Yevgeny Prigozhin is quite an enigma. We know the following about him.
Prighozhin is a career criminal. In 1981, at the age of 20, while the Soviet Union was still fairly stable and its legal system tolerably functional, he was sentenced to twelve years' imprisonment for running a set of St Petersburg massage parlours (i.e. brothels) in which the under-age prostitutes robbed their customers. (The reader might be interested to know that this network of brothels still exists today.)
In 1988 Prighozin was pardoned by order of Mikhail Gorbachev, then President of the Soviet Union. The assumption is that this was the result of a corrupt payment, possibly by Vladimir Putin, who was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the KGB at the time. The connection between Putin and Prighozin appears to have been via Prigozhin's father, although the details are obscure.
In any event the pardon was so controversial that Prigozhin had to spend two more years in prison even after his pardon, until he was finally released by the order of Boris Yeltsin, another Putin confidant and at the time President of Russia within the Soviet Union, in 1990.
Prigozhin appears to have been part of the movement to support Yeltsin against the 1991 Red Army revolutionary cadre seeking to block reform in the Soviet Union. The failure of that revolution led ultimately to the dissolution of the Soviet Union with Yeltsin, supported by Putin and Prigozhin, becoming the Head of State of a newly independent Russia and the dissolution of the Soviet Union essentially depriving Gorbachev of a job as there was no Soviet Union to be President of anymore.
In the early 1990's, Prigozhin set up a series of businesses in St Petersburg under the new Russian capitalist model. This included a chain of hot dog shops; a set of grocery stores; a set of casinos; a set of high-end restaurants; and a set of catering companies with government contracts (schools, prisons, the Russian Armed Forces etcetera). Due to his proximity to Vladimir Putin, his businesses became notorious from being able to operate outside the parameters of the law.
He was never 'Putin's waiter'; this is media nonsense. He was Putin's commercial bag man and thereby assisted Putin in coming to power.
By the early 2010's, the profits from his various enterprises were being used to finance the establishment of a series of Russian government internet hacking organisations, including the notorious Internet Research Agency. The progress of these organisations would ultimately lead to Russian interference in the US General Elections in 2016, as was documented by Robert Mueller.
At some point Prigozhin used his 'private' wealth to set up the Wagner Group, which by 2016 was running Prigozhin's food businesses and by February 2018 was engaged in managing Syrian-Russian military theatre confrontations with US forces.
In 2017 it had become apparent that Wagner Group had been in charge of Russian military intervention in the Central African Republic.
In early 2023 the Wagner Group was claiming responsibility for the capture of the strategically important Ukrainian Donbas city of Bakhmut, slating the Russian Armed Forces for their mediocre efforts alongside which Wagner Group was fighting.
We conclude with the following observations.
Vladimir Putin is 70. The mean mortality age for Russian men is 62.
The Russian military, typically the defining force in Russian power successions, is now dominated by Prigozhin through the Wagner Group, an organisation he cut himself from whole cloth.
Prigozhin's control of the Russian military is so comprehensive that he can propagate basilic dysentery through their ranks (an FSB mass poisoning method using a shigella bacterium that causes acute diarrhoea) via his catering companies in the Concord group that have the catering contracts for the Russian military and other state-owned institutions. This is something he has done previously.
Prigogozhin could engineer a peaceful transfer of power, which of course Putin wants most desperately, by taking Putin's place and permitting him to retain control of the FSB (which are Putin's people.)
Prigozhin could later murder Putin, through a quick and acute regime of basilic dysentery, at his convenience.
Who will be the next President of Russia? We don't know. We just advance one speculative hypothesis, based upon our instinctive and empirical understandings of how Russian politics works.