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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

What If Prigozhin And Putin Are (Still) In Cahoots? A Grim Lesson From Russian History

Much is still unclear about the reported insurrection by Wagner mercenary group forces against the Russian regular military troops. But one long-view scenario would have Yevgeny Prigozhin making a lot of noise to ultimately help Vladimir Putin stay in power. The story of Ivan the Terrible, the dreaded 16th century Tsar, and his brutal henchman, offers a blueprint.

photo of soldiers point ak47

Wagner troops in Rostov-on-Don on Saturday

Erik Romanenko/TASS via ZUMA
Serhii Gromenko

This article was updated on June 24, 2023 at 3:15 p.m.


KYIVYevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, has made it clear he has it in for senior Russian generals.

After months of the Wagner mercenaries constantly feuding with the regular Russian army, Prigozhin’s forces have reportedly seized control of the city of Rostov-on-Don, near Russia-Ukraine border, that would appear to open, armed insurrection against Moscow's rule.

And yet even while Russian President Vladimir Putin called the assault a "stab in the back," both Putin and Prigozhin have still avoided calling each other out by name.

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Despite being a rogue figure, Prigozhin may ultimately help to solidify the Kremlin's hold on Russia after setbacks in Ukraine. To help understand the latest maneuverings and palace intrigue, it may be worth looking back at Russian history. One chapter, in fact, reveals a parallel between Prigozhin and a commander of the oprichniki, a 16th-century police force founded by the first Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible to repress political opponents.

The 16th-century Russian Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich entered popular imagination as Ivan the Terrible. But he was not always deserving of this epithet. He began as a reformist leader, founding the Chosen Council, which included non-noble members, strengthened judicial bodies, introduced local self-government in rural regions and created a standing army. He was also successful on the military front, conquering Kazan and Astrakhan.

The oprichnina

But the 1560s brought hardships to Ivan IVs rule. His rule was devastated by droughts, famine and major setbacks in the Livonian War, where Russia faced coalitions of Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Lithuanians and Poles in the Baltic region. The time was also marked by personal tragedies. His first wife Anastasia Romanovna died in 1560, and his close friend Prince Andrey Kurbsky defected to the enemy.

He became increasingly paranoid and suspicious of the Russian nobility, leading him to introduce the brutal oprichnina policy in 1565 — a policy of repression spearheaded by thousands of oprichniki, a personal force that killed suspected opponents. Although commoners and the then-second largest Russian city Novgorod fell victim to the oprichniki, they mainly focused on stamping out any sign of resistance from nobles.

The tsar would end up distrusting even the oprichnina, and dissolved it after they failed to defend Moscow from a Crimean tatar raid. Still, repression continued, albeit on a smaller scale, and the economic downfall, complied with nomadic raids and the consequence of the government's terror weakened Russia, paving the way to the so-called “times of troubles”.

Ivan the Terrible


Modern-day Skuratov

While the formal head of the oprichniki was the tsar himself, their most influential leader was Malyuta Skuratov. He personally strangled the Metropolitan of Moscow Philip, and killed thousands in Novgorod.

In the complex landscape of Russian politics today, Wagner leader Prigozhin seems to possess the necessary qualities to become a modern-day Skuratov. While Prigozhin has been vocal in his criticisms of the Russian elite, he will not likely directly challenge Putin, because he knows that would mean death.

Prigozhin possesses the tools to enforce the regime's rule and quell any insurgency.

Moscow's need for a modern oprichnina is similar to that of 450 years ago. The Kremlin finds itself in a challenging position, with setbacks in the war against Ukraine, coupled with the tightening of international sanctions. To maintain control and secure resources, Putin's regime may resort to increased repression against both ordinary citizens and members of the elite.

This is where Prigozhin's capabilities could come into play. With his connections to professional mercenaries, Prigozhin possesses the tools to enforce the regime's rule and quell any insurgency.

Prigozhin’s main strength lies in his professional mercenaries in Africa, where he looks after Russia's interests in mining as well as his ownership of the Internet Research Agency, a company engaged in spreading online propaganda. He has proven himself to be willing to get his hands dirty, and his resources make him a valuable asset on the Russian political chessboard.

If the need for a contemporary oprichnina arises, Putin may already have a tried and tested individual to assign for the task.

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Photo of a drone on the tarmac during a military exercise near Vícenice, in the Czech Republic

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