01/13/2024, 10.26
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Putin's Imperial Guard

by Stefano Caprio

All private military companies similar to Wagner have now been assimilated by the new imperial opričnina. As at the end of Ivan's reign, even in Putin's twilight, after the final deification of the presidential elections next March, the real question will be how far the teams of power-mongers will be able to maintain an internal balance among themselves.

From the dark recesses of the Kremlin, while yet another of his doubles serves caviar in the palace of Novo Ogarevo at a solemn Christmas reception with some (carefully selected) relatives of those killed in the war in Ukraine, Tsar Vladimir Putin witnesses with satisfaction yet another conflict in course in the world shocked by his "rebellion against the American monopoly".

The civil war between drug traffickers and the government in Ecuador completes the picture of the "no longer a piecmeal world war", in which Latin America was still missing. Bergoglia's definition is more timely than ever to describe the course of events, also given the internal revolt within the Catholic Church itself towards the declaration Fiducia supplicans - signed by the greatest papal theologian, the Argentine cardinal "Tucho" Fernandez - which authorized the blessing of same-sex couples. Precisely the reason proclaimed by the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill to justify the aggression in Ukraine, when he stated that "they want to impose gay parades on us".

In reality, the Christmas holidays also offered the patriarchate of Moscow the opportunity to show the world the new exarch for Africa, the 46-year-old bishop of Zarajsk and vicar of the patriarch, Konstantin (Ostrovskij), still "acting" in the post of the ousted Leonid (Gorbachev).

On 11 January he began his first pastoral visit to South Africa, on the very day in which the country of President Cyril Ramaphosa, a great friend of Putin, denounced the "genocide of Palestinians" in the Strip before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Gaza perpetuated by the Israelis.

The ex-exarch Leonid instead remains in the parish of All Saints in Kuliški, on the outskirts of Moscow, where in recent days all the heating pipes are in complete failure, and from which he remotely administers the Russian eparchy of Yerevan of the relokanty Russians who emigrated to Armenia.

Leonid's defenestration was a consequence of one of the crucial events in Russia in 2023: the uprising of Yevgeny Prigozhin of which the metropolitan was the spiritual assistant. The story of the Wagner brigade, now dissolved after the sensational death of its founder, reveals one of the most significant aspects of Putin's political system, that of the "imperial guard" which at the same time is called upon to defend the person of the tsar, the control of its territory and the purity of its ideological faith.

This is a scheme developed at the time of the first Tsar Ivan the Terrible, or rather "the Menacing", the original inspiration of Putin himself who threatens the entire world in the name of a special mission of the "Russian world", for the salvation of all peoples.

From 1565 to 1572 Tsar Ivan IV had established the oprichnina, a special imperial guard to which he had granted the dominion of the central territories of Muscovy, entrusting the protection of his person and the ability to intervene in the crisis zones around the nascent empire, especially towards the Baltic countries that aspired to independence, such as today's Ukraine.

The oprichniki, the guardians of the kingdom, wore a monastic uniform and prayed from the early hours of the morning together with the tsar, who in turn wore royal vestments over his priestly ones, to indicate the close union of the throne with the altar.

The term oprich, from which the guard's title derives, means "special" and "beyond the borders", somewhat analogous to the term ukraina, "near the margins", to indicate the Russian aspiration to extend beyond its enormous territory, which already constituted half of Europe in the sixteenth century. The Guard supported the monarch in the Livonian War, an analogy of the current war in Ukraine, where the last tsar's special brigades also indulged.

Prigožin's revolt exposed the limits of this military policy "beyond the boundaries" of all legislation and tradition, seriously shaking the stability of the Putin regime. The new year began a redefinition of roles, when on January 3 the Rosgvardija, the current variant of the imperial militia, absorbed the Vostok battalion of the regional armies of Donbass, which enjoyed a certain autonomy in war strategies.

In recent days, another group from the armies of the annexed "quasi-republics", the Kaskad company, has also been included in the Kremlin Guard. This strengthening of troops directly reporting to Putin depends on a law decree of July 2023, in which Rosgvardija was allowed to use heavy weapons. All this is a consequence of the mistakes made with too much freedom granted to Prigožin's Wagner company.

Wagner's "musicians" had initially been gathered to take care of Russia's interests in the territories of Africa, helping the regimes close to the Kremlin and grabbing all the riches of the continent, which had become the "canonical territory" of  Russia after the betrayal of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Alexandria, which recognized the "Ukrainian schism".

Prigozhin's strategy involved enriching his current accounts together with Putin's offshore ones, as well as the official ones of the Central Bank of Russia, accumulating increasingly large gold reserves, necessary to prevent the disastrous consequences of the sanctions inevitable with the invasion of Ukraine.

With the start of the open war in February 2022, Wagner fighters were needed directly on the Ukrainian front, as after the failure of the first assaults it became clear that the regular forces of the Russian army were unable to carry out to the tasks of the blitzkrieg dreamed of by the president.

The Wagnerovsty were needed because they had more experience in dirty military actions, and because they were able to convince concentration camp inmates to enlist, one of the decisive moves in the composition of the Russian armies in Ukraine.

In this way, Putin enjoyed the control of an alternative military group, which only formally submitted to the direction of the army, but in fact regulated itself according to the plans of its own leaders, in particular the "cook" Prigozhin, and they were not even required to pronounce the official oath.

This excess of freedom ultimately led to the revolt of Prigožin himself, which exposed the limits of Putin's power, considered too weak in military actions, which still today constitutes the true (not explicit) opposition towards the president, that of the "final war", much more decisive than the timid pacifism completely repressed by authoritarian measures.

By the end of 2022 it became clear that the Russian army was unable to adequately counter the Ukrainian counter-offensive, which had managed to recapture the left bank of the Dnieper from Kharkov to Kherson, which finally led to Prigozhin's “march on Moscow” and of Wagner.

Putin understood that general control over the forces involved in the fighting was not enough, but he needed a real "personal army", now regrouped in Rosgvardija led by General Viktor Zolotov, one of the main "shadow commanders" of the entire Russian war force.

Alongside the secretary of the Security Council, Nikolaj Patrushev, Zolotov is one of the figures capable of controlling the entire system of Putin's power, both during his lifetime and in the absence of the tsar locked up in the bunker.

All private military companies similar to Wagner, which have multiplied since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, are now assimilated by the new imperial oprichnina. As at the end of Ivan's reign, also in the twilight of Putin the Terrible, after the final deification of the presidential elections next March, the real problem will be to what extent these internal teams of the siloviki, the strongmen of power, will be capable of maintaining an internal balance between Rosgvardija, the FSB services, the Crane counter-espionage, the Ministry of the Interior and the Orthodox Patriarchate.

The risk is that Russia could collapse due to internal struggles within the structures of power, much more than due to military defeats or popular uprisings, without anything good coming from this fray.


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