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Putin’s Night of the Long Knives

People lay carnations on a memorial for Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a plane crash, near the PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Aug. 24, 2023.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

For two months after Yevgeny Prigozhin led a brief mutiny that threatened Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power, the mercenary boss traveled freely, attending to business in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as if all were forgotten and forgiven.

But on Wednesday, a very suspicious plane crash killed Prigozhin and decapitated his Wagner Group, the mercenary army that marched on Moscow in June under his command. Dmitry Utkin, Prigozhin’s right hand at Wagner, and Valery Chekalov, a close Prigozhin aide, died along with him as they flew from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The other passengers on the plane were also with Wagner.

On the same day, Putin fired Gen. Sergei Surovikin, chief of the Russian Air Force and one of Prigozhin’s closest supporters in the military.

Although Putin’s role in the plane crash is not entirely clear, Wednesday’s events were reminiscent of the “Night of the Long Knives,” Adolf Hitler’s 1934 purge of the SA, a Nazi paramilitary organization also known as the Brownshirts that Hitler feared was becoming too powerful and too difficult to control.

Prigozhin was similar in many ways to Ernst Röhm, the head of the SA. An early and avid supporter during Putin’s rise to power in St. Petersburg, Prigozhin grew so close to him that he became known as Putin’s “chef.” Röhm, meanwhile, was one of Hitler’s earliest lieutenants and took part in the Nazi’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, a decade before Hitler gained power.

As Putin consolidated his power in Russia, Prigozhin gained wealth and influence, and his Wagner Group became a key component in Putin’s national security apparatus, increasing Russia’s military reach in the Middle East and Africa. Röhm’s SA also became a fearsome force, one that used brutal tactics against Hitler’s political enemies as Hitler rose to power.

After Hitler gained control over Germany, Röhm ascended as well, yet he also became more radicalized, which led him to become increasingly frustrated with Hitler. He began calling for a drastic transformation of German society and its economy, which angered the German industrialists Hitler wanted to appease. Röhm also sought to take control of the German army by merging it with the SA, thus threatening the status of the German officer corps.

Hitler finally moved against Röhm and the SA in June 1934, when the SA’s leaders were together at a hotel in Bavaria. SS troops loyal to Hitler arrested and executed the SA leaders, while Röhm was arrested and later shot in his jail cell.

Prigozhin’s power peaked over the past year and a half during the war in Ukraine, when the Wagner Group took a leading combat role. But eventually, Prigozhin, like Röhm, became radicalized, launching a series of public diatribes against the Russian military’s handling of the war. He soon found himself at odds with the Russian general staff, and that eventually led him to become a very public critic of the entire Putin regime. After months of vituperative criticism, he finally broke into open rebellion in June, when he led his Wagner forces from Ukraine back into Russia. Seizing control of Rostov-on-Don, a key military hub that served as the forward headquarters for Russian military operations in Ukraine, Prigozhin and his forces marched north toward the Russian capital, encountering little resistance.

But with Moscow in sight, Prigozhin froze and suddenly reversed himself. He agreed to a deal with Putin, arranged by Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, and turned his troops around, while Putin agreed to drop all charges against him for his mutiny.

If Prigozhin really believed that Putin would live up to that bargain, he was a fool who didn’t understand the history of dictators.

Although to be fair to Putin, he never did take Prigozhin to court.

Hitler never put Röhm on trial either.

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August 2023