‘Only a question of time’
President Joe Biden had said in July that if he were Prigozhin, “I’d be careful what I ate.” After the news of the jet’s crash, Biden likely echoed the thoughts of many: “I’m not surprised,” he said, adding “There is not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind.”
Indeed, Prigozhin would not be the first person to fall — or plunge — out of Kremlin favor and die in suspicious circumstances.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told a news conference Thursday that the incident followed a “pattern in Putin’s Russia: deaths, dubious suicides, falls from windows,” which “underlines a dictatorial power system that is built on violence.”
The Russian president once said he could never forgive betrayal. So even after Prigozhin called off his mutiny and Putin appeared to show him rare leniency with the offer of exile, most observers agreed the Wagner leader’s days were numbered.
Prigozhin “was always a threat and a reminder that Putin is weak,” Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at London’s Chatham House think tank, said in an email. “It was only a question of the time and mode of Prigozhin’s elimination.”
The Kremlin was silent Thursday on the crash.
The incident only received a brief mention on Russia’s state-owned news channels, and Putin himself did not mention it during two public speeches.
Whether or not the Kremlin was involved, the Russian state won’t mind the implication that it was, according to Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the founder and head of the political analysis firm R.Politik.
“No matter what caused the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of vengeance and retribution,” she said in a post on the messaging app Telegram. “The Kremlin wouldn’t really stand in the way of that.”
Stanovaya added that, “Prigozhin’s death must be a lesson to any potential followers.”
It is the latest extraordinary event in a period of upheaval for Putin’s Russia.
Prigozhin was once one of the president’s most trusted fixers, going from providing catering services to building his own private army, the Wagner Group, which has been blamed for doing Russia’s brutal dirty work across Africa, Syria and, most recently, Ukraine.
While Wagner has been involved in some high-profile successes of an otherwise troubled invasion, Prigozhin has also been deeply critical of the Russian army, accusing its elites of corruption and failing to supply his forces with ammunition.
This came to a head two months ago when he called for the resignation of military generals, before marching toward Moscow and engaging in deadly clashes with Russia’s own military along the way.
The rebellion was Putin’s biggest leadership crisis yet. Even when Prigozhin relented, the bell of his open challenge against the Kremlin could not be unrung.