It’s hard to imagine anyone was particularly surprised at the sudden demise on Wednesday of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the ultranationalist entrepreneur who founded the mercenary Wagner Group. An ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin ever since the former KGB agent made the transition to local politics in post-Soviet-collapse Saint Petersburg in the 1990s, Prigozhin died when the business jet in which he was flying crashed in a field northwest of Moscow – only two months after a public falling out with his boss.
“I want to express my most sincere condolences to the families of all the victims. It’s always a tragedy,” Putin said in a televised speech the day after the crash. “I had known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the start of the nineties.”
“He was a man with a difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life.”
One of those serious mistakes was when Prigozhin challenged Putin’s rule in a mutiny on June 23.
While a variety of news agencies have cited unnamed sources to say the plane was shot down by Russian air defenses or that it was brought down by a bomb onboard, the specific reasons for the crash – which killed all eight passengers and three crew members – are not clear at this time. But some Western officials – including President Joe Biden and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley – immediately implied Putin was to blame.
“I am not surprised.” Biden said. “There is not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind, but I don’t know enough to know the answer.”
Officials in Moscow were quick to chastise those who implied an assassination had occurred. “The West presents all this speculation from a particular angle. All of this is an absolute lie, and here, when covering this issue, it is necessary to base yourself on facts. There are not many facts yet,” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, told reporters.
But Russia experts are skeptical that the crash was simply an accident, and say it likely was not the mutiny itself that sealed Prigozhin’s fate: it was the fact that by standing up to the incompetence of the Kremlin war machine, the mercenary chief was increasingly seen as a credible alternative to Putin by the public. With the Russian presidential elections only months away, Prigozhin’s sudden popularity was a real problem.
“The Presidential Administration had been toying with the idea of using Prigozhin” in the 2024 election, says Mark Galeotti, a researcher who has specialized in security and international politics in Russia for decades, and is the director of Mayak Intelligence, a consultancy firm based in London. “He would have been a scarecrow, the far-right candidate who makes Putin look like a reasonable statesman.”
Amid widespread public dissatisfaction with the war in Ukraine, that dynamic changed in the wake of Prigozhin’s mutiny.
“The symbol of a tough-talking Russian man who speaks truth to power and stands up to the people in charge resonates,” Galeotti adds. “I suspect Putin saw that [Prigozhin] was getting the polling numbers. That would have been very dangerous.”
On June 23, Prigozhin and a group of his fighters abandoned their positions on the frontlines in eastern Ukraine and marched on Moscow, demanding that the military leadership be replaced. The mutiny was the first major public challenge to the Kremlin over the conduct of the war in Ukraine, and Putin’s panic as the soldiers took Rostov and advanced seemingly unopposed was evident. The Russian president publicly branded Prigozhin a traitor.
“This is treason in the face of those who are fighting on the front,” Putin said as the mutiny was ongoing, speaking in a televised nationwide address. “This is a stab in the back of our troops and the people of Russia.”
Then Prigozhin – who himself seemed shocked at the relative ease with which he was progressing – gave up, lulled into capitulation through a deal brokered by his old friend Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus.
Prigozhin seems to have honestly believed the accord would leave him free to carry out his mercenary work with the Wagner Group on behalf of the Kremlin – apparently traveling to Mali just days before his death to highlight a mission in Africa.
“Wagner is conducting reconnaissance and search operations, making Russia even greater on every continent – and Africa even more free,” Prigozhin, clad in body armor and fatigues and cradling a rifle, said in a recruitment video apparently filmed just days before his death.
In countries like Mali and the Central African Republic, Wagner has been adept at shoring up autocratic regimes, suppressing irregular militias, and terrorizing civilians while extracting resources from their erstwhile allies.
Through this work, Wagner has become a bugbear for Western media and think tanks, imbued with almost mythical powers to operate in the shadows and surgically apply violence to achieve the Kremlin’s goals. That reputation is somewhat overhyped. Wagner is a modern private military company like any other – light infantry formations of trained soldiers with a handful of heavy weapons and ad hoc logistics and support networks – albeit one that is well-funded and enabled by Russian state intelligence apparatuses.
Wagner’s limitations have been revealed consistently on the battlefields of Ukraine, where the mercenaries – well-equipped and well-armed though they may be compared to their conscript counterparts – were used as shock troops in numerous assaults, in most cases to little real utility.
It was this consistent pattern of misapplication and futile, bloody offensives that were leaving thousands of Wagner fighters dead, wounded or missing in Ukraine that prompted Prigozhin to mutiny in the first place. Only a month before his mutiny, he told a Kremlin politician that as many as 20,000 Wagner mercenaries had died in the months-long, brutal effort to take the town of Bakhmut.
“I acted to prevent the destruction of the Wagner private military company,” Prigozhin said in an audio recording released shortly after he capitulated in his mutiny. “We started our march because of an injustice. We went to demonstrate our protest and not to overthrow power in the country.”
Prigozhin was much more than just the head of Wagner: he was a skilled entrepreneur with an array of business interests operating under the parent company Concord Management and Consulting. His death could mean the end of the mercenary group.
“Wagner is going to fade away now. It was so dependent on Prigozhin,” Galeotti tells Rolling Stone. “Wagner was operating within the ecosystem of companies that Prigozhin controlled,” and none of the group’s surviving leadership has the money, political connections or entrepreneurial chops to keep such an ecosystem alive. “Its great value was that it was operating within this wider commercial enterprise.”
In Putin’s Russia, all large business ventures are part of the kleptocracy, part-and-parcel of a mafia state where, so long as money flows to the center, businessmen are given free reign to grow their financial empires. Much of that growth occurs through padded government contracts, and it was through government catering contracts – an outgrowth of his restaurant business – that Prigozhin built his wealth.
Now that Prigozhin has fallen, the constituent businesses that make up Concord are already being torn apart by his former rivals. One of the crown jewels of the empire, the infamous Internet Research Agency, was dissolved in the wake of the mutiny. But its components are too useful to destroy. IRA was set up in Saint Petersburg to carry out propaganda and influence operations around the world, using fake accounts and troll farms to control narratives on social media. It was so effective in this role that in 2018 it earned itself and Prigozhin an indictment from a grand jury in the United States for election interference, along with 12 other individuals and two other entities.
“Defendant organization had a strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election,” the indictment asserts, adding “Concord funded the organization as part of a larger Concord-funded interference operation.”
In June 2018, an Austrian journalist asked Putin if Russia was using disinformation to interfere with politics in Europe and America. “These so-called troll factories are owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin – you know him very well, he is referred to as ‘Putin’s chef,’ since he caters for all your guests. Is it good that a person who maintains such close relations with the Russian leadership is managing troll factories?”
Putin responded with the plausible deniability that is characteristic of his decades-long rule:
“You have just said that Mr Prigozhin is referred to as ‘Putin’s chef.’ Indeed, he runs a restaurant business, it is his job; he is a restaurant keeper in Saint Petersburg,” Putin told the Austrian broadcaster ORF. “But now let me ask you: do you really think that a person who is in the restaurant business, even if this person has some hacking opportunities and owns a private firm engaged in this activity – I do not even know what he does – could use it to sway elections in the United States or a European country?”
Putin would later describe Prigozhin as a mere private citizen with an interest in global politics, akin to George Soros, saying that Soros regularly funded activism abroad, “but it doesn’t make him — his position, his posture – the posture of the United States.”
Trump, in the same press conference, publicly declared that he was more inclined to believe Russia’s president than the CIA.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that president Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said.
In March 2020, Trump’s Justice Department would drop the case against IRA and Prigozhin, only weeks before it was set to go to trial.
Meanwhile, Prigozhin himself admitted in November 2022 to his interference in the 2016 election, and promised to interfere again in the future.
But of course, things have played out differently than Prigozhin planned.
“As I wrote 16 years ago, if you want to understand Putin’s regime, don’t read history books, read Mario Puzo,” Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster who fled Russia in 2013 after his involvement in a series of ill-fated anti-Putin protest movements, tweeted. He was referring to an op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2007, comparing Putin’s rule to The Godfather series of novels. “If a member of the inner circle goes against the capo, his life is forfeit.”
Prigozhin did not heed this warning, and Putin must now find a way to fill the gaps created by the downfall of his former ally, even as he struggles to keep everyone in line.
“With Putin, [the mutiny] has been a shock to the system,” says Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University who specializes in authoritarian regimes, and is the author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present. “Killing Prigozhin is going to set off a new stage of greater paranoia, greater suspicion and greater repression. And it will all depend on how the war goes.”
It isn’t useful to claim that one side or the other is winning or losing the war at present, but it is easy to see that neither side has yet come close to achieving its long-term strategic goals. And whatever the result, for now the war has been a bloody fiasco for the Russian military. Prigozhin’s march on Moscow exposed that, but also demonstrated something else in the eyes of Putin’s critics.
“Prigozhin and his mutiny did serve a purpose,” Kasparov wrote as news of the Wagner chief’s demise in a plane crash began to circulate. “It proved that Putin bows only to force and threats to his power, as I’ve said for years. It refuted the myth that Putin would escalate when confronted. Instead, he caved immediately and explained it away.”
From the Kremlin’s perspective, much now depends on eroding Western support for Ukraine – by wearing down public opinion and sapping political will within NATO. That task will be made more difficult without a ready-made, “plausibly deniable” global influence operation at hand, ready to exploit divisions within Western democracies.
“When you look at the last stages of autocrats, when you look at what happened with Hitler, he pissed off the military and then there were all of these assassination attempts,” Ben-Ghiat says. “With Mussolini, when he was removed from power it was from inside. It was a palace coup, once the war began to go against him.”
The apparent assassination of Prigozhin, while reinforcing Putin’s thuggish image as a ruthless capo dei capi, is yet another sign of the decline and long-term unsustainability of his regime. But there is – as of yet – no reason to expect sudden regime change in Moscow or reversal of policy. Ad there is no reason to expect a quick end to the war in Ukraine.
“Putin has survived another crisis. But it comes at a cost,” says Galeotti. Still, he adds: “Things have to get much worse before people think the dangers of standing up to Putin are worth it… It will have to come from a coalition of competing power centers. There is no one institution that can really be sure of being able to successfully move against him.”
Nevertheless, as Kasparov observed:
“The knives are out and must taste blood.”
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