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Prigozhin’s Ultimate Fall from Grace
The Wagner warlord has apparently been assassinated by Putin—although mysteries and conspiracy theories abound.
IN THE WAKE OF THE BRIEF AND BAFFLING rebellion that shook Russia two months ago, led by onetime Vladimir Putin crony and Wagner mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, one question in particular perplexed many people: Why did Putin, who publicly accused Prigozhin of treason, nonetheless suffer him to live? Now, it appears that the answer to this question is: Putin was just waiting for the right moment to strike.
Prigozhin reportedly died with several other top Wagner men when his private jet crashed on Wednesday evening near the city of Tver on a flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg, most likely due to being shot down by Russian anti-aircraft fire. If the Wagner boss is indeed dead, this ends a very colorful if utterly reprehensible career. But at least for now, the mystification of which the (allegedly) dead man was so fond continues to surround the story of his demise.
Prigozhin’s jet crashed 185 miles north of Moscow after an explosion in the air. Initial reports from Rosaviatsia, Russia’s civilian aviation agency, said that he was on the passenger manifest; then came confirmation that he was, in fact, among the seven passengers on board. (All the passengers and three crew members were killed in the crash.) Wagner-affiliated social media channels also confirmed that Prigozhin was dead, along with Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin, a former lieutenant colonel in the GRU (military intelligence) and reputed Third Reich aficionado whose call sign, “Wagner,” after the composer, gave the mercenary group its name.
The crash is supposedly being investigated by Russian authorities, but many independent Russian news outlets have reported that the plane was shot down by a Russian missile-defense system—in which case just about the only viable explanation is a hit ordered by Putin himself. The Meduza news site says that some preliminary evidence does suggest a missile shootdown (a video of the plane falling seems to show a contrail from a missile; witnesses mention two bangs, and some of the photos of the wreckage seem to show damage consistent with a missile hit). But Meduza also says that the evidence is inconclusive, that the plane was apparently flying at a height at which only a large anti-aircraft system could have shot it down, and that a missile from such a system would have caused far more damage than the plane sustained. It’s also possible that the jet was brought down by a bomb, in which case the range of suspects is far broader; pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov quickly blamed “an act of terror” by Ukraine.
The list of people who had an interest in seeing Prigozhin shuffle off this mortal coil is probably quite long; besides Putin and Ukrainians, it may include Russian air force officers seeking to avenge the pilots killed when the Wagner rebels shot down planes and helicopters—or, argues scientist and political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky, members of an anti-Putin faction within the Kremlin who had secretly backed Prigozhin’s rebellion but now regard him as a liability.
THERE REMAINS, OF COURSE, another possibility: that the Wagner chief staged his own death in order to disappear and live out the rest of his years enjoying his ill-gotten wealth. While such a scenario obviously smacks of conspiracy theory, it is less far-fetched in Prigozhin’s case than in many others: the putative deceased is a notorious trickster and hoaxer, and the search of his St. Petersburg apartment after the mutiny yielded a stash of fake passports as well as a collection of wigs and a batch of infamous selfies showing the shady tycoon in various disguises. In yet another subvariant of this scenario, some think Prigozhin and Putin teamed up to stage his death and engineer his disappearance. (What Putin would get from such a scheme is not clear.)
In an unscientific poll conducted by a YouTube channel associated with the Russian opposition, 46 percent of the 44,000 respondents thought that Prigozhin had been assassinated while 40 percent believed that he had staged his death and another 11 percent thought that he had survived the assassination attempt by boarding a different plane. Meanwhile, in an appearance on the same channel, Abbas Galyamov, a political analyst who had once worked for the Kremlin, said that while no scenario could be ruled out, “Putin’s revenge” was still the most likely one—and not just revenge, but a strong message to anyone who might have gotten ideas from watching Prigozhin get away with insurrection. Occam’s razor cuts deep.
This explanation is also supported by some developments that immediately preceded the plane crash. On Tuesday came the news that General Sergei Surovikin, a Prigozhin ally who may have known in advance about the rebellion and disappeared from view in its aftermath, had been relieved of his post as head of Russia’s aerospace forces (he was also said to be “on a short vacation”). Maybe it’s a mere coincidence that Surovikin’s removal was immediately followed by Prigozhin’s, in a much more drastic and final way. Or maybe Putin was cleaning up after the mutiny—and settling scores—after a two-month delay.
Another thing happened on Tuesday as well. Prigozhin, who had kept an uncharacteristically low profile since the rebellion, released his first new video clip. It showed him in fatigues and with a submachine gun, standing in what looked like an African desert landscape. “We’re working,” he said. “The temperature’s plus 50 [degrees Celsius, or about 120 degrees Fahrenheit], just the way we like it. PMC Wagner is doing reconnaissance and search missions, making Russia even greater on every continent and making Africa even freer. Justice and happiness for the peoples of Africa! We’re terrorizing ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other thugs, hiring real heroes, and carrying out the tasks that were set before us and which we promised to complete.”
Journalist Michael Nacke suggested that refraining from public statements may have been a part of Prigozhin’s deal with Putin and that Prigozhin’s Africa video may have finally crossed the line, giving Putin an excuse to break the deal and end the reprieve. The offense may have been compounded if Putin saw the video as a veiled insult to himself: It coincided with Putin’s humiliating remote appearance at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, which he could not attend in person because of the outstanding warrant from the International Criminal Court. Prigozhin’s video could have been perceived (or perhaps intended!) as an “I’m in Africa laboring for the glory of Russia, and you’re not” taunt? Could Prigozhin’s line about “justice and happiness” have been read as a coded reference to his aborted march on Moscow, which he dubbed a “march for justice”? Did Putin decide that the former “chef” had tested his patience one too many times?
LASTLY, NACKE AND OTHER WAGNER WATCHERS had noted in recent days that the Russian military was trying to squeeze the Wagner group out of its operations in Africa and replace it with а new “private military company,” Redoubt, formally subordinate to the Ministry of Defense. If this move was successful, it can also explain why Putin finally acted to get rid of Prigozhin: there was been widespread speculation that the key to Prigozhin’s continued survival was his value to the Kremlin due to Wagner’s role in maintaining a Russian presence in Africa. If that role had been largely handed over to another unit, Wagner and Prigozhin may have outlived their usefulness.
We may never definitively find out the answers to the questions of whether Prigozhin died on Wednesday, how it was done, and exactly why now. But even if Putin wasn’t behind Prigozhin’s apparent murder, there’s certainly a widespread perception in Russia that he was.
And while, as Galyamov says, that may be exactly the way Putin wants it—to send the message that rebels and traitors will be inevitably punished—this perception also has its dangers. Prigozhin’s de facto public execution less than two months after he reportedly met with Putin in the Kremlin cements the sense that Russia is a gangster state where mob-style hits have gone mainstream and no one—including government officials and business elites—is safe. It is likely to alienate a lot of people in the military; whatever the tensions between Wagner and the regular armed services, Prigozhin was credited with securing Russia’s only recent victories in Ukraine and had been decorated with the Hero of Russia award. It has already infuriated the war hawks; the Wagner-linked Grey Zone Telegram channel blamed the death of the “hero” and “patriot” Prigozhin on “traitors to Russia.” Prigozhin’s too-obvious murder may even tap into discontent among ordinary Russians who may have related to his elite-bashing message (however hypocritical it may have been in view of his own lavish lifestyle).
One striking analogy was offered in a YouTube commentary by writer Dmitry Bykov, who called Prigozhin “the Rasputin of our time”—another fringe character who, like the mad monk under the last tsar, had acquired mainstream clout, become a scandalous presence on the political scene, and made claims to speak for the common people. Rasputin’s notorious assassination by members of the court, Bykov noted, was followed by the collapse of the Russian empire a year later.
Dead or alive, Prigozhin could yet deliver some unpleasant surprises for his former patron.