Killers' opera ends in farce

Wagner should be a wake-up call

Russia witnessed a Wagner’s opera last week. Richard Wagner, if you don’t know, was a German composer whose musical dramas were noted for their massive scale and intense emotions. The owner-commander of the private army that threatened to march on Moscow is said to have named his band Wagner Army after his radio call sign during his service in the Chechen war. Luckily for Russia, Europe and the world, what would have been a tragedy ended up as a farce, thanks to Belarus supremo Aleksander Lukashenko.

Russia and Belarus are like Hanuman and Jambavan. Hanuman was cursed by Rishi Trnabindu to forget his strength till someone reminded him. Jambavan performed this role with a pep talk when Hanuman was hesitating to leap to Lanka across the sea. This columnist wrote so a quarter century ago, when Lukashenko was urging Boris Yeltsin to stop being meek before the west and show Russia’s strategic heft. The mythological metaphor earned me a vodka drink with Belarus’s first ambassador to India Vladimir Sakalousky, who patiently listened to my drunken drivel disguised as puranic punditry.

Look at how those morale-booster doses from Belarus have worked on Russia. Russia is now on a rampage in Europe, much like Hanuman in Lanka with his tail afire.

Fighters of wagner private mercenary group in Rostov-on-Don, Russia | Reuters Fighters of wagner private mercenary group in Rostov-on-Don, Russia | Reuters

Do we have lessons from the farce of force that was staged in Europe? We don’t have private armies today, but had quite a few during the Mughal decline in the 18th century, raised by fortune-hunting freebooters like Walter Reinhardt, his more famous wife Begum Samru, James Skinner, Paolo Avitabile, Benoît de Boigne and more. They roamed across Hindustan like the Pindaris, renting out their battalions to the feuding native princes. Some of them carved out little kingdoms and reigned over them, as did Irishman Raja George Thomas in Hansi, Haryana. With the rise of the British as the paramount power in India, the mercenaries lost their relevance and withered away.

Well-armed groups rose similarly in some of the ex-Soviet republics after the break-up of the USSR, when the rule of law broke down in many of them. Oil, banking, mining, manufacturing and transport tycoons began hiring armed private guards to protect their assets from jobless brigands that roamed the hinterland. Some of them gradually grew into private armies, armed with even cannons and tanks, with backhand support from the state, as the Wagner wild bunch did under Vladimir Putin’s patronage. Putin is said to have been using them to get done those dirty jobs that decent armies are loath to do, or Geneva conventions prohibit them from doing—killing civilians, torturing captives, and more.

Where do they get their troops? Easy. Russia has a huge number of ex-troopers who have served their draft term, got demobbed in the prime of their youth, and found themselves jobless. Most of them know only one skill—that is to kill—and end up enrolling in private armies. Four months ago, Putin announced a scheme to upskill and absorb them in arms factories where he needs more hands to cast more guns for the war in Ukraine.

That should be cause for concern for us. Our Agnipath scheme too will churn out thousands in their prime of youth into the civil street. Luckily, our government is making provisions to skill them in non-kill trades, keeping jobs for them in the police and para-military, getting arms factories and PSUs to absorb them, and is promising them hefty severance purses with which they can open small businesses.

All the same, the Wagner warning should act as a wake-up call, in case anyone in the government is sleeping over these promises.