Russian President Vladimir Putin is not happy in the modern world. A child of Soviet Communism and of that particular enthusiasm bred by service in the KGB, he prefers government with a firm hand, preferably his. And his nostalgia for the old days carries him back even further. He has, for instance, been known to wax fondly about the empire of Peter the Great and his successors, in his view the proper expanse of Russia.

He has therefore been regressing his nation back to the authoritarianism of the USSR while simultaneously expanding Russia into the old empire. This has, needless to say, made him highly unpopular among his neighbours and their friends to say nothing of among many Russians, thousands of whom have fled.

Nonetheless he has a certain domestic following. According to the German polling firm Statista, his approval rating is around an impressive 80 percent. Of course there are a couple of caveats about this statistic. Russian media is heavily censored so it’s next to impossible for citizens to develop an objective view of their leadership. And of course a Russian might be very reluctant indeed to express a dissenting view of a leader who doesn’t hesitate to apply heavy-handed security and rigged courts.

Nonetheless many Russians may sympathize with Putin’s views. After all, many must feel to some degree humiliated by their country’s loss of status in the world. Others may miss the firm, predictable order of a strongman, unnerved perhaps by the messy, individualist ways of democracy, free markets and freer morals.

In any case, there are certainly those who share Putin’s jingoism and his autocratic style. There is, for instance, Ramzan Kadyrov, Head of the Chechen Republic and member of the Advisory Commission of the State Council of the Russian Federation. Kadyrov is infamous for murder and torture of human rights activists and critics within both Chechnya and other regions of Russia, and assassinations abroad. He has advocated restricting the public lives of women and imposed anti-gay purges. In other words, he is Putin’s kind of guy.

He has been a cheerleader for the war effort calling for the declaration of martial law, full military mobilization and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons. He has sent three of his underage sons to the front line. Kadyrov commands his own militia and apparently has ambitions beyond Chechnya.

And then there’s Putin’s close friend Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin is a businessman and founder of the Wagner Group, a private militia Putin has used in various projects abroad. The group is believe to be named after Hitler’s favourite composer. It has been accused of war crimes in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique. Some recruits are drawn from Russian prisons, Prigozhin himself having done time for robbery, fraud, and involving teenagers in crime. A criminal record is of course no discredit on a resume for Putin.

The once-secretive group recently opened a headquarters in St Petersburg. According to Prigozhin, “The mission of the PMC Wagner Centre is to provide a comfortable environment for generating new ideas to improve Russia’s defence capability.”

Both Kadyrov and Prigozhin have been critical of the Russian military’s war efforts. If either should ever elbow their friend Putin aside, they would have their very own SS.

How wonderful it would be for the Russian people—and for the rest of us—if Putin could be replaced by a democratic government. But in light of thugs such as these, waiting in the wings to replace him—and they may soon get tired of waiting—we cannot be optimistic. So it would be wise for NATO members to keep their spears sharpened, and those Russians who have fled may face a very long exile.

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