The Punishment for Treason in Russia Is... NOTHING? Really?

Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian strongman — if I’m still allowed to use that word — Vladimir Putin has dropped all charges against Wagner Group mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin for leading an armed revolt against Putin’s own defense ministry last weekend.


Back in the old days, Comrade Stalin would have had you sent to the GULAG to chip away at the frozen tundra in felt boots, barely fed on a diet of thin gruel until you were literally worked to death. If you were lucky, instead you’d enjoy a few days of torture in the basement of Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison before receiving a bullet to the back of the skull.

Good times but, my, how they’ve changed in the 72 hours since Prigozhin’s mutiny ended.

There’s been a moratorium on the death penalty in the Russian Federation since 1996, but a surprising number of people who have found themselves on Putin’s bad side have also found themselves mysteriously falling out of high windows or receiving fatal doses of various substances, including radioactive compound polonium-210.

Just in April of this year, opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, Jr was sentenced by a Russian court to 25 years in prison for merely speaking out against Putin’s war in Ukraine. Kara-Murza’s treason conviction was “the latest move in the Kremlin’s relentless crackdown on anyone who dares to criticize the invasion.”

Speaking of war critics, there might be none fiercer than Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries took over the fighting in Bakhmut late last year from regular Russian troops and took severe losses in the monthslong battle for the city. Of the estimated 20,000 Russian combat deaths since December, half are believed to have been suffered by Wagner mercs.


Prigozhin apparently doesn’t believe that the Russian army is pulling its weight — and blames defense minister Sergei Shoigu and other senior leaders of an “oligarchic clan” for wasting Russian lives. “All these bastards ought to be sent to the front barefoot with just a submachine gun,” Prigozhin said of Shoigu and company last autumn.

Before leading his armed rebellion against Putin’s defense chief, Prigozhin went even further, calling into question the entire justification for the war. “The Ministry of Defense is trying to deceive the public and the president and spin the story that there were insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they were going to attack us together with the whole NATO block,” he said on Telegram last Friday.

And then Prigozhin sacked the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don before ordering an armored column to head north toward Moscow. Putin himself went on national television to denounce Prigozhin’s mutiny as “treason” and vowed to crush the “armed uprising.”

For reasons still unknown, Prigozhin backed down on Saturday, just 24 hours into Wagner’s effort to forcibly unseat Shoigu and others in the Ministry of Defense. He claimed to want to “avoid bloodshed.”


But then something very strange happened, or maybe what’s strange is what didn’t happen.

On Monday, Prigozhin was still under investigation for treason. Not much investigation was required, really: just watch the televised videos of Wagner troops taking over Rostov-on-Don or of that armored column racing toward Moscow. Then on Tuesday, Russian authorities suddenly dropped all “charges against mercenary chief Prigozhin and others involved in the armed rebellion.”

What’s going on here? PJ Media’s own Richard Fernandez offers one possible explanation: “Putin is threatening Prigozhin with less for marching with tanks on Moscow than Biden his opponents for mishandling classified [documents]. The difference is less virtue than power; the former hasn’t and the latter has.” (The fact that the Biden Cabal is better at banana republic politics than Putin is reveals nothing good about the health of America’s institutions, but that’s a column for another day.)

And that was before the charges were dropped.

Monday night, Putin went on national TV once more to denounce Prigozhin. “He made a very similar speech on Saturday,” according to Russia expert Kevin Rothrock (video with subtitles at this link), “but this one was angrier.”


Then, on Tuesday, the charges vanished as though nothing happened.

Anybody who tells you they know what’s going on in Moscow or what happens next is either lying or a fool. But at least from this outsider’s perspective, the Russian state looks increasingly like untempered steel: Strong, but brittle.

Recommended: What the Hell Just Happened in Russia?


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