Staunton, Feb. 19 – Russia appears to be rapidly on its way to acquiring yet another feature of Weimar Germany, one that helped destabilize countries around that country’s periphery especially to the east, undermined the state’s monopoly of the use of force, and helped power the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.
In Germany after World War I, these were the Freikorps, paramilitary units which consisted largely of military veterans that acted in the name of defending the German republic but in fact subverted it. (For a detailed description of their actions, see Robert Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Post-War Germany, 1918-1923 (Harvard, 1952).
In Russia today, these are called private military companies. The most prominent of these is Prigorzhin’s Wagner units, which like the Freikorps a century ago nominally fight for the state but in fact give individual members of the elite their own forces on which they can rely and thus undermine the state as an institution.
But the reason for speaking of Russia’s Freikorps moment is that what Prigozhin has done at Putin’s behest, Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov is promising to do on the occasion of his retirement, a move that may be only a threat to prevent any effort to dismiss him but that opens the way for a trend even more like that of Germany after 1918.
That is because for Kadyrov and others, the men for such units undoubtedly will be drawn from the veterans of Putin’s war in Ukraine, people who have experience with the use of violence and may find it difficult if not impossible to reintegrate into Russian society – and thus will become a dangerous new threat to that country as well.