Dozens of funerals are quietly taking place across the remote Russian hinterlands these days. Buried are young men, killed in their prime thousands of kilometers away from their snowy homelands in the hot and arid sands of Syria. No military honors are allowed them, no gun salutes, no folded tricolors for the widows and the mothers. Even the chance to tell their story is denied their loved ones, as government authorities chase away cameras and reporters. It is as if their brief lives, having begun in the terrible nineties when the Soviet empire first came crushing down, are ending in infamy just when the final hopes of imperial resurrection via Putin and his merry band of klepto-oligarchs are put to rest with them in the bottomless Russian mud.
The young men whose closed caskets are being flown in by unmarked chartered aircraft are part of CheVeKa Wagner (Wagner’s Private Military Company), a Russian mercenary grouping that has its origins in a private force set up by a group of Russian ex-military entrepreneurs to safeguard shipping around the Horn of Africa, providing protection against Somali pirates. The force grew, having been placed under the leadership of one D. V. Utkin, an ex-captain in the Russian Spetznaz, or Special Forces. And Utkin, as it turns out, had the uncommon privilege of being invited to the Kremlin and photographed with President Putin himself.
Following the auspicious photo opportunity, Wagner’s merry band of Special Forces operatives abandoned the murky waters of the Western Indian Ocean and focused entirely on one client, Mr. Putin himself. In their newly found and newly funded capacity of Putin’s private army of plausible deniability, Wagner’s operatives found themselves in the thick of things in Donetsk, Lugansk, and even Southern Sudan. Their most recent business trip, however, took them to arguably today’s most hellish place on Earth – Syria. Wearing no uniforms, they acted as the commando unit of the Assad regime and his Russian and Iranian allies, providing forward reconnaissance, and directing artillery and air strikes on rebel forces and civilian centers. Where uniformed Russian and Iranian forces would have provoked an international outcry, Wagner operated with impunity. Until, that is, they came into rather uncomfortable proximity with American ground forces.
Image by Kremlin.ru
The result of said proximity was hellfire from multiple platforms, including high-altitude B-52 bombers, low altitude F-15 fighter-bombers, and drone guided precision strikes by Marine 155 millimeter howitzers. The strike was so massive and unapologetic, that the exact number of casualties may never be known because not much has actually remained. Independent Russian, Turkish, and Syrian sources put the number of fatalities among Wagner’s grouping at 100 to 200 men.
While no confirmation of engagement was ever allowed by Russian government media, the Internet is full of surreptitious video accounts of the utter annihilation visited by the American military on Putin’s private army without ever engaging them at anything like close quarters or allowing them to defend themselves, surrender, or simply escape. It would be utterly naïve to assume that the Americans did not know whom they were slaughtering or that Putin himself was not made aware of the onslaught in real time. And say what you will about the Russians, they are not naïve. Not in matters of war. No, the Russians well understand that Putin let his hand-chosen private army get decimated and ground up like a bunch of pork sausage without deploying any of the many assets he has in the Syrian theatre and its vicinity.
No Russian jets were scrambled from the Hmeimim Airbase to intercept the American B-52’s and F-15’s. No Kaliber cruise missiles were fired from the Russian missile cruisers in the Caspian Sea at the American ground installations in Syria, including the very howitzers that were firing at the holed-up mercenaries. No, when the time for action came, when young Russian boys whom he himself had sent into harm’s way were being killed by the dozen, Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB colonel, the fierce defender of the Motherland did nothing.
The Russians know that their military is hardly covering itself with glory in the Syrian theater of war. Their jets operate only where permitted by the Americans, the Turks, and the Israelis. They attack only unarmed civilians or rebel groupings armed with nothing bigger than 50 caliber machine guns. They engage in a campaign of terror against civilian populations that are allied with anti-Assad regime rebels, indiscriminately bombing out of existence hospitals and schools. When they venture out of bounds, the Russians pay a heavy price, as happened with the downing of their fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force and the annihilation of their mercenary force by the Americans. No retaliation was attempted by Russia in response to these schoolings by the US and its allies.
It is difficult to overestimate the humiliation that this turn of affairs in Syria is causing Vladimir Putin’s regime. Let us remember that Putin’s Russia is utterly devoid of ideology; it is neither capitalist nor socialist, nor communist. Its symbols of state are the pre-revolutionary tricolor banner and twin-headed eagle coupled with the old Soviet anthem. The city of Leningrad went back to Saint Petersburgh, but it is still the seat of Leningradskaya Oblast’ (Leningrad County). The most under-reported story in the Western media, obsessed as it is with Russia, is the abject poverty of the Russian hinterlands. Remove Moscow and Saint Petersburgh and you are left with Russia as one of the poorest nations in the world, a place of utter despondence, where young men sacrifice their lives in remote places wearing no uniform and covering themselves with no glory, just so their mothers can put bread on the table.
No, Putin’s regime has but one thing to sell; Russia’s resurrection as a world superpower. But do superpowers pick fights with civilians and run away from fights with a real foe? Of course not. Which brings us to the curious story of ex-GRU colonel Skripal and his daughter Julia. The fact that the pair were nearly eliminated after Skripal was exchanged for a few Russian spies in 2010 is hardly surprising. Russia has a long history of eliminating its enemies abroad after harvesting the benefits of their release and exhile, be it in public relations or spy exchanges. Trotsky’s murder via ice pick by a Mexican national, a committed communist, who then proceeded to calmly turn himself in and serve a 30 year sentence before retiring in the USSR with full military honors comes to mind.
However, the hallmarks of a successful elimination of an adversary on foreign soil are usually the absolute refrain from collateral damage among the population of the country where the operation takes place and plausible deniability by both the “host” country and the aggressor. When properly executed in this manner, killings of spies and double agents rarely if ever become fodder for international incidents, because the embarrassment to the host country is often greater than the embarrassment that can be caused to the aggressor country should the affair become public. Retribution may take place, but it will be away from the public eye and apparent only to those to whom it was addressed.
As a colonel in the GRU, the Russian military intelligence, Skripal, retired or not, would have never allowed a stranger to approach him and his daughter to anything like the distance needed to apply the Novichok nerve agent. Furthermore, from the fact that first on the scene when passerby alerted the emergency services that something strange was going on with a couple of folks was not a beat cop, but a detective sergeant, we can gather that Skripal was under active surveillance/protection by the British authorities and that he knew whomever it was that administered the poison and had likely arranged to meet him on that bench in Salisbury. This means that a pinprick with a heart attack inducing poison would have been a very good way of bidding the final adieu to Mr. Skripal with no risk of provoking an international incident of major proportions. The British authorities, of course, would have known the score, but it would have been against their own interests to make much of it. The life of traitors carries no big value; Skripal’s unhappy demise would have been par for the course.
Instead, Putin chose to try and assassinate Skripal in a way that all but guaranteed the twin outcomes that covert killings most seek to avoid; collateral damage and back-traceability leaving no doubt whatsoever as to who perpetrated the attack. By using a chemical nerve agent, a bona fide weapon of mass destruction, and not only that, but a specific version of it developed in 1980 USSR and nowhere else, an agent of such potency that minute exposure causes major health problems requiring specialized decontamination procedures, Putin made it utterly impossible for Britain to ignore the attempt on Skripal’s life. British authorities were forced to send decontamination units in full gear to the park, the nearby cemetery, the pub where some of the passerby later went, and more. They had to issue public health warnings for people in the area to carefully wash their clothes and their persons, in short, this could not possibly be interpreted as anything else but an attack on Great Britain by Russia, using a modern weapon of mass destruction.
But why? The reason for this action is the same as the reason for Putin’s laughable recent promise that Russia will beat SpaceX to Mars (Roskosmos has 280 thousand employees, which is ten times more than SpaceX but none of the advanced technologies), or the order, issued only by Putin today to the Russian Treasury to make sure that Russia is among the world’s top five economies by 2024 (Russia is currently in 12th place behind tiny South Korea with a GDP that is 40% lower than that of fifth place France). None of this is remotely possible or makes any sense, but it creates a counter-narrative to the reality of decay, poverty, collapsing infrastructure, rampant alcoholism, poor and declining public health, increasing international isolation, and ascendant China.
Image by L-BBE
By enacting a kabuki theater caricature of the cloak and dagger spy games of the Cold War, Putin is giving his longsuffering people what he hopes is a bit of diversion, a modicum of nostalgia for the glory days of the Soviet Empire when they were the scourge of Europe and indeed of the entire West and the self-proclaimed champions and benefactors of communist dictators from Ho Chi Minh to Fidel Castro. Gone are the days when Russia could afford to send free of charge tankers full of oil and container ships full of weapons to its client states around the globe. Gone are the days when Russian armored divisions were on the doorsteps of Vienna and Berlin. All that remains are poor quality cartoons of “indestructible” missiles and park bench assassination attempts using forty-year-old poison.
We are witnessing the final death throes of the three hundred year old Russian Empire. Let’s let it die in peace without taking the world with it.