If Putin has eliminated Prigozhin

Samantha de Bendern

‘‘We will all go to hell. But in hell we will be the best,’’ commented Yevgeny Prigozhin, discussing his attitude to death in an undated interview that was published last night on the pro-Wagner Grey Zone Telegram channel. In the absence of any remarkable developments, it is looking increasingly likely that, as per Russian reports, the Wagner boss was killed on Wednesday afternoon in a plane crash in the Russian region of Tver, on his way from Moscow to St Petersburg.
Prigozhin shot to international notoriety almost a year ago, when a video of him recruiting convicts in Russian prisons to fight in Ukraine for his Wagner private military company established him as one of the most important Russian players in the war in Ukraine. This culminated in May this year when Wagner took the symbolically important town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine after nine months of bloody fighting. During the battle, Prigozhin became increasingly vocal in his criticism of Russia’s top military leadership, and even went so far as to make veiled criticisms of Vladimir Putin. Then there was the coup-that-wasn’t. In late June, the world watched with bated breath as Prigozhin led an armed rebellion that captured the Russian military headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and headed towards Moscow, demanding that Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov, be removed from their posts. Then, under circumstances that are still unclear, Prigozhin halted his rebellion some 125 miles (200km) from Moscow and was supposedly forgiven by Putin (who the day before had stated that all traitors would be punished). Prigozhin was offered safe passage to Belarus and the criminal charges against him were dropped – implying something of a pardon. Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko offered safety guarantees to all Wagner fighters.
According to Russian news reports, 10 bodies have been recovered at the site of the crash, and the list of passengers indicates that Prigozhin was on board, together with reported Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin. Other dead include senior Wagner figures. Although Prigozhin had reportedly drawn up contingency plans on who should take over the group in case of his death, the presence of other key Wagner members on the plane suggests that the organisation has been all but decapitated.
What is interesting here is that Prigozhin, Utkin and other senior Wagner commanders appeared to feel confident enough of their safety in Russia to ignore the golden rule of leaders of any important organisation – which is to not travel on the same plane. Russia has opened an investigation into the crash – and some Russian commentators are suggesting that a terrorist act was committed. Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels are claiming that a Russian surface-to-air missile shot the plane down.
On Thursday morning, the UK government said it was monitoring the situation closely, but has not yet commented on the crash. Joe Biden has been less circumspect, noting, in response to a question about culpability: “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind. But I don’t know enough to know the answer.” The plane crash that appears to have killed Prigozhin happened two months to the day after the start of his aborted rebellion. In view of Putin’s fondness for anniversaries and other significant dates, it is hard not to see his hand behind the downing of the plane. The death of Prigozhin also happened the same day that Sergei Surovikin, who disappeared in the aftermath of the aborted June rebellion, was officially relieved of his duties as airforce commander. While not confirming his whereabouts, this is a step up from the official line that he was simply on holiday. This suggests that whatever loose ends Putin needed to tie up before dealing with Prigozhin that were somehow linked to Surovikin have been dealt with. This could be related to Putin’s fears that, through Surovikin, Prigozhin could still count on support in the army.
The mood on the pro-Wagner Telegram channels is sour. Grey Zone calls those who killed Prigozhin “traitors to Russia”. Russian military blogger Roman Saponkov writes that “Prigozhin’s murder will have catastrophic consequences. The people who gave the order do not understand the mood in the army.” Other Wagner-affiliated channels are threatening a second rebellion, but at the time of writing it is hard to tell how much credence to give them. The next few days will be crucial in determining whether Putin comes out in a stronger position after Prigozhin’s reported death. A clear message has been sent to anyone thinking of defying him: no matter how powerful they are, they will be put away or put down.
But the surviving Wagnerites choose to interpret both Lukashenko and Putin’s words as promises to Prigozhin that were broken. “If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that one must always see something through to the end,” writes the pro-Wagner Telegram channel DSHRG. None of this bodes well for the Russian leader’s negotiating authority with any future mutineers, or anyone else for that matter (people in favour of quick negotiations over Ukraine, please take note). If Putin is not able to consolidate absolute power over all armed forces in Russia, anyone who opposes him will have no choice but to push through till the end. Paradoxically, with the elimination of the most serious threat to Putin’s power, Russia could emerge even more unstable than ever.