What Comes Next for Prigozhin?
Speculative scenarios after his high-speed mutiny.
FOLLOWING THE BIZARRE 24-hour armed rebellion launched by Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, the hotly debated question both in the West and in the expatriate Russian media remains: “What the hell was that?”
Was the mutiny by the Wagner private military company, which brought tanks, armored vehicles, and anti-aircraft guns to Russian highways and cities, staged by Vladimir Putin for some still-inexplicable reason? (Very unlikely.)
Was Prigozhin, the restaurateur nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for his role as the Kremlin’s court caterer, out to depose and replace Putin himself? (Also extremely improbable.)
Was the whole thing merely Prigozhin’s attempt to get the attention of the patron he once referred to as “Papa”? (Possibly.)
Was his real goal to save both his skin and his multibillion-dollar business at a point when the Kremlin was seeking to disband the Wagner Group and fold it into the regular armed forces? (Now we’re getting warm.)
Did he have allies high in the corridors of power? Did he get cold feet, some 125 miles short of reaching Moscow, because he realized his rebel army would lose—or because he was afraid it might win? Or because he didn’t get the support he expected? Or because the Russian secret police was holding his family hostage? We may not know the answers for some time, if ever.
Given the details that still remain unknown, the fallout is even more uncertain. That includes the question of what comes next for Prigozhin.
According to most reporting, on Saturday Prigozhin accepted a deal to go to Belarus, ostensibly after Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko reached out with an offer of help. After leaving Rostov-on-Don, one of the two major cities taken by the Wagner rebels, Prigozhin fell off the radar, and there was speculation that he might no longer be among the living. Then, on Monday, his press service released an eleven-minute audio clip offering his version of the events. There have been no visuals, however, and it is not entirely clear where Prigozhin is. A U.S. official has told CBS News that he was still in Russia on Monday. On Tuesday, Lukashenko said that he had arrived in Belarus, and his private jet was tracked entering Minsk. But as of this writing he still hasn’t made any public appearances.
So, what next? Here are several possibilities currently floated by Ukrainian and independent Russian pundits.
Dead man walking.
This prognosis is strongly endorsed, among others, by exiled Russian lawyer and former parliament member Mark Feygin, who strongly believes that Prigozhin is done and will either be murdered in Belarus—where the Russian secret police, the FSB, has a free hand—or extradited to Russia despite the promise of a safe haven. Neither Putin nor Lukashenko is known for meticulously keeping promises and respecting agreements. There has been some bizarre back-and-forth on whether mutiny charges against Prigozhin would be dropped as part of the deal; Putin, in a televised statement on Monday, spoke of the unnamed ringleaders of the mutiny in extremely harsh terms as criminals and traitors. On Tuesday, however, it was confirmed that the on-and-off mutiny charges are in fact off—though Putin also suggested, without naming Prigozhin, that he might be investigated for financial improprieties related to his catering business’s contracts for supplying meals to the army.
If prosecution on more serious charges is out, polonium-laced tea or a fall from a window always remains an option. There are, however, at least two points against such a finale. One: Prigozhin is considered too canny and paranoid to accept a deal without meaningful safeguards for his life—though, of course, it’s also possible that his reputation as a canny political player is greatly exaggerated. Two: Having Prigozhin murdered after being publicly humiliated by his mutiny will make Putin look even weaker and may even be, in the view of Russian economist and sociologist Vyadislav Inozemtsev, “the stupidest thing Putin could do.” On the other hand, given Putin’s track record over the past year and a half, his knack for doing the stupidest thing should not be underestimated.
A very different scenario proposed by, among others, expatriate Russian journalist Yevgeny Kiselev and Ukrainian journalist Taras Berezovets is that Prigozhin and the Wagner Group—or at least its core of 8,000 to 10,000 fighters who joined Prigozhin’s rebellion—could become a formidable military force in Belarus, a personal “Praetorian guard” of sorts to Lukashenko. This theory presupposes that Lukashenko is an independent actor, not just a Putin vassal, and has political ambitions of his own. Given that the relationship between Putin and Lukashenko has been contentious and that Lukashenko has resisted Putin’s attempts to draw him into full engagement in the war in Ukraine, this scenario is at least somewhat plausible. (Lukashenko’s remarks on Tuesday, in which he claimed all the credit for ending the Prigozhin rebellion even as Putin thanked the Russian military for putting it down, suggests that the discord continues.)
It’s unclear whether there is a legal framework within which the Wagner Group could exist in Belarus, but such considerations are unlikely to stop either Lukashenko or Prigozhin. It is worth noting that the two men are apparently longtime friends. There are also reports that military camps for Wagner mercenaries are already being built in Belarus and that the Wagner fighters currently stationed in Rostov-on-Don will supposedly be transferred to those camps. What they will be doing there, assuming the report is true, is unknown. On Tuesday, Lukashenko said that no camps were being built “for now” but added that Belarus was prepared to house the Wagner fighters “if they wish.”
Return to Ukraine.
One disturbing scenario is that the Wagner fighters stationed in Belarus may be used as reinforcements for Russian troops in Ukraine—or even as the core of a new Russian offensive targeting Kyiv. There are also reports that Wagner men may be returning to their positions in Ukraine. However, the complicating factor is that over the last two months or so, Prigozhin has emerged as an increasingly blunt and vocal critic of the war—not just of the way it’s being conducted, but of its ostensible goals.
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A long video interview posted on June 23, on the eve of the rebellion, was particularly startling: In it, Prigozhin explicitly demolishes the Kremlin’s rationale for the war, rejecting claims that NATO was planning to use Ukraine to attack Russia and that the Ukrainian government was terrorizing ethnic Russians in Donbas. While Prigozhin did not name Putin as the culprit, he asserted that the war in Ukraine was a project of corrupt government officials who used the Russian-dominated enclaves in Eastern Ukraine for self-enrichment and wanted full-fledged war for self-interested reasons. Some of Prigozhin’s rhetoric still stresses that a more competent war effort could have resulted in a quick, victorious “special military operation.” Nonetheless, it is difficult to see the Wagner Group—at least with Prigozhin at the helm—reclaim a prominent role in a war Prigozhin himself has recently decried as senseless and destructive to Russia. Such a scenario seems even more far-fetched considering the new level of tensions between the Wagner Group and the Russian army. (At least ten to fifteen Russian servicemen were killed in clashes with rebellious Wagner forces when Wagner’s anti-aircraft defenses shot down Russian military airplanes and helicopters.)
Escape to Africa.
Could Belarus be merely a waystation for Prigozhin, whose real goal, a number of commentators such as Yulia Latynina have argued for some time, has been to get out of Ukraine and shift Wagner operations to Africa, where the mercenary group’s role in local coups, wars, and security operations is linked to large financial interests? As the Financial Times reported earlier this year, Wagner’s revenues from oil, gas, diamond, and gold extraction in Africa and the Middle East totaled as much as $250 million from 2018 to 2022. Thousands of Wagner mercenaries are still deployed in African countries such as Mali and the Central African Republic as either combat troops or military contractors engaged in mining operations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has just reassured countries in the region that those forces are not going anywhere despite the Wagner mutiny in Russia. But their status is unclear: Will they remain a nominally private military company or be subordinate to the Ministry of Defense? And if it’s the former, could Prigozhin join those troops and settle into a new role as a warlord?
A second act in Russia.
This seems extremely improbable, considering that over the past weekend, Prigozhin spectacularly torched his bridges to Putin and Putin loyalists and rapidly went from hero to zero in the eyes of those who hailed him as a rebel. (While there is a widespread view that support for the Wagner mutiny came from war hawks who wanted the war in Ukraine to be waged more brutally and effectively, it seems likely that many others were thrilled by what looked like the sudden possibility of regime change or at least genuine resistance to the authoritarian state.)
Nonetheless, there is a contingent of pundits who believe that, despite the ostensible collapse of the Prigozhin rebellion, Prigozhin has actually succeeded—that is, in exposing the Putin regime’s clay feet, the weakness of the Russian armed forces and security forces, and Putin’s inability to control the state or muster genuine popular support. According to veteran Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, this demonstration of weakness will increase not only foreign but domestic pressure for an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine and a withdrawal of Russian troops, at the very least, from all Ukrainian territories seized after the February 24, 2022 invasion: It’s blindingly obvious that if 8,000 to 10,000 Wagner mercenaries may have come close to seizing Moscow, Russia is in no position to win any kind of victory in Ukraine.
Where does Prigozhin come in? In Belkovsky’s view, he is currently a “key figure in this party”—that is, the pragmatic peace party—within Russia. What’s more, he believes that Lukashenko’s deal with Prigozhin means Lukashenko is joining this faction as well.
For now, all of these scenarios remain strictly in the realm of speculation. There is a nontrivial possibility that the Prigozhin rebellion will prove to be the beginning of the end for Putin. It could also be the end for Prigozhin. Then again, given Prigozhin’s improbable career, maybe it’s just the beginning of a new chapter.