The apparent violent death of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in a fiery plane crash on Wednesday is sending a chilling message to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s critics and enemies in that country — regardless of whether he was directly responsible for the jet’s fate.
While the Russian leader has not claimed responsibility for the crash, the cause of which is still under investigation, he has done little to snuff out speculation that he was behind it.
In comments that aired on Russian television, Putin said the mercenary boss “made serious mistakes in his life” and “had a difficult fate” but also thanked Wagner Group for contributing to Russia’s goals in Ukraine.
The Pentagon said on Thursday that Prigozhin was “likely killed” in the crash, but there has been no other public confirmation of his death.
The Wednesday crash came just two months after Prigozhin retreated from an armed march on Moscow that led many to question Putin’s power amid his faltering war in Ukraine. Analysts say the removal of Prigozhin may put those doubts to rest in the short term, though the death of one of Russia’s most powerful men isn’t without risk.
“Putin is going to be seen as strengthening his position of power,” said Jeffrey Treistman, the interim chair of National Security at the University of New Haven. “Potential opposition will think twice.”
Prigozhin’s presumed death came on the same day that Russian media reported Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s aerospace forces who had historically close ties to the Wagner Group, was fired from his post.
Treistman emphasized that Russia’s broader ambitions, especially in Ukraine, will be hurt by Putin’s silencing of critics, particularly those in the military who lent a sympathetic ear to Prigozhin.
“Removing these critics [and] policy advisors who are willing to speak truth to power undermines the information that Putin has at his disposal to ultimately craft a sensible, rational and balanced foreign policy,” Treistman added.
While Putin may have hoped to assert his power with the apparent attack on Prigozhin, it also exposed his weakness, argued Mark Galeotti, a Kremlinologist who authored “Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine.”
“The mark of a well-organized authoritarianism is that the regime does not need so openly to kill insiders, because they are deterred from breaking the rules of the system in the first place,” Galeotti wrote in The Spectator.
He argued that Putin may be further angering some of his most powerful critics, bringing the “tipping point” of a move against him closer.
“The ultra-nationalists are furious, some already vowing revenge, as they saw in the thuggish Prigozhin the kind of man who, in their eyes, would do whatever it took to win the war,” he wrote. “The wider elite are much more circumspect, but they may well be getting closer to the point at which they consider themselves his hostages rather than his supporters.”
Mark Schrad, a Russia expert and associate professor of political science at the Villanova University, said debating the “strength” or “weakness” of Putin was a fool’s errand, given how little outside observers actually know about dynamics within the Kremlin.
Schrad added that speculation that Prigozhin’s death could bring Putin’s regime closer to the brink were also reminiscent of two decades of Russian crises being interpreted as the “beginning of the end” for the country’s leader.
“Especially in the West, we kind of do a lot of hand wringing about what are the broader implications of this. And the general sense that I get is that [Putin’s system] is surprisingly durable, and it’s surprisingly resilient,” he said.
“I don’t expect any huge earthquakes to come out of this. And I think people who expect earthquakes are kind of wasting their time.”
There have been some reports since Wednesday that Wagner might be plotting revenge or a new march on Moscow. However, Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said that was unlikely in an interview with Foreign Policy.
“Prigozhin was an angry man who was not easy to deal with. I don’t think he has fans who will follow in his footsteps and try to carry on his activities,” she said. “People will be scared, especially those who stayed by Prigozhin’s side until now. Just imagine: they must think they’re next.”
The presumed death of Prigozhin marks the end of a lengthy feud between the mercenary chief and Putin that played out for several months this year.
After Wagner Group was invited to assist struggling Russian forces in Ukraine in the spring of 2022, the mercenary group quickly began achieving limited successes that contrasted with Moscow’s perceived weakness.
The eight-month battle for Bakhmut, led by Wagner, was a costly victory for Prigozhin when they raised the Russian flag in the embattled city in May. By then, Wagner had lost up to 20,000 soldiers.
During the monthslong Bakhmut siege, Prigozhin, visibly showing the dead bodies in videos he released on his Telegram, railed against what he called corruption in Moscow and a failure on the Russian Defense Ministry to carry out the war in Ukraine.
The feud eventually carried him to lead a mass of troops to capture a military base in southern Russia and march on Moscow, downing several aircraft on the way. He only halted the advance when he reached a deal with Putin to escape charges.
Most analysts say it was simply a matter of time until Prigozhin was killed — or jailed or otherwise stripped of power — given the public nature of his rebellion.
Kirill Shamiev, a visiting fellow with the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Putin has exercised his internal strength by apparently eliminating Prigozhin.
But, he added, the country was left much weaker by the clash, especially on the international stage where Moscow has relied on Wagner’s operations.
“Russia as a country is weaker now — that’s obvious,” he said. “Because the thing that happened two months ago should not have happened in a normal country … and probably we will see some pause and break in Wagner operations or they will be significantly scaled down.”
Still, Brian Whitmore, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, argued that Putin would have been left even weaker if he had not responded to Prigozhin’s mutiny.
“If Prigozhin were not forced to pay a heavy price for his rebellion in June, Putin’s regime would have been severely weakened,” Whitmore wrote in an analysis.
“This is because the Putin regime essentially operates according to the logic of a crime syndicate. Putin is the godfather. Prigozhin was a capo who apparently didn’t know his place.”
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