Two months after challenging Vladimir Putin’s leadership in an apparent but abortive “mutiny”, Yevgeny Prigozhin – the former owner of the mercenary private military company Wagner Group – has joined a long list of prominent Russians to die in mysterious circumstances.
Prigozhin’s private jet apparently crashed on a routine flight from Moscow to St Petersburg just after 3pm local time. Confirmation of Prigozhin’s likely demise came in the form of announcements by Russia’s authorities and a Telegram channel linked to the Wagner group. Conveniently, there was also video footage of the plane falling out of the sky and burning on the ground.
With him on the aircraft was Dmitry Utkin, widely considered to be his second in command at the Wagner Group. Other passengers are reported to have included Valery Chekalov, the head of Wagner security, Yevgeny Makaryan, who has been described as Prigozhin’s bodyguard and other Wagner Group personnel.
While it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure how, why and on whose orders Prigozhin might have been killed, it is far less difficult to imagine that he finally paid the price for his march on Moscow at the head of a column of his Wagner Group troops at the end of June 2023. The deaths of other top Wagner personnel in the crash spell the likely end of the group in its current form.
At the time, Prigozhin went to great lengths to paint his mutiny as directed against the top brass in the Russian ministry of defence and not as a direct challenge to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Yet the brief episode exposed cracks in the regime. Unopposed by local and regional security forces, Prigozhin’s troops were able to take Rostov-on-Don and the headquarters of Russia’s southern military district and command centre of the war in Ukraine. They also marched to within 200km (125 miles) of the Russian capital, again mostly unopposed.
Following a deal brokered by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, Prigozhin called off his rebellion, agreeing to relocate his men and himself to Belarus and Wagner’s overseas bases – mostly in Africa.
Despite some concerns over an increasing Wagner presence closer to Nato members Poland and Lithuania, little of the agreed relocation seems to have happened. Prigozhin himself appears to have enjoyed significant freedom of movement in Russia in the weeks after his abortive mutiny, including making an appearance on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa summit at the end of July.
Though abrupt, his death is not unexpected. Under Putin, a former KGB operative himself, Russia has carried out several high-profile assassinations and assassination attempts, including in the UK and Germany, to go after alleged traitors and Putin critics.
Many opposition figures in Russia have either died mysteriously or been assassinated. The list includes figures such as Alexei Navalny (who survived novichok poisoning), former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
Meanwhile, some regime critics may have thought themselves to be beyond his reach in the UK or other countries, have also been disposed of. These include oligarch and former friend turned critic, Boris Berezovsky, and former spies Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, who were both poisoned (although Skripal survived) have been targeted.
Putin’s message here has been clear for two decades: opposition will not be tolerated and will probably have fatal consequences.
Prigozhin’s likely assassination reaffirms this message spectacularly. But it is not the only step that Putin has taken to reassert control. On the day of Prigozhin’s death, one of his presumptive allies in the military establishment, Sergei Surovikin – a former commander of Russian forces in Ukraine – was apparently dismissed as head of the Russian aerospace forces. This followed weeks of speculation following his disappearance after the Prigozhin mutiny.
Other top military officials critical of Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine, including the commander of the Russia 58th Combined Arms Army, Ivan Popov, were dismissed. Other officials, considered close to Prigozhin, including the deputy head of military intelligence, Vladimir Alexeyev, are still unaccounted for.
Outside the military, alleged critics of Putin’s war in Ukraine have not been safe either. A series of mysterious deaths struck fear into Russian oligarchs in the months after the full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine began in February 2022. Since then, criticism from the Russian business elite has been muted.
The apparent assassination of Prigozhin would therefore seem to be business as usual for Putin. It was foreshadowed in the Russian president’s speech on June 24, the morning after Prigozhin’s mutiny began, when he vowed to punish the “traitors”, as he described them.
Back to business as usual?
Prigozhin’s demise also draws a line under the apparent power struggle within the Russian military. As the chief architects of the war in Ukraine, the defence minister, Sergey Shoigu, and chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, are the most obvious beneficiaries of Prigozhin’s death and the wider purges of critics inside and outside the military.
Putin, and his inner circle, clearly have prevailed on this occasion. This is not surprising, given how little direct and public support Prigozhin received over the course of his mutiny. In this sense, Putin’s regime is still highly effective and has demonstrated its capacity to survive domestic challenges.
But the underlying problem – a disastrous military campaign in Ukraine – has not gone away with the death of Prigozhin. Putin may have silenced one of the most outspoken critics of the conduct of the war, and have others arrested or murdered, like prominent pro-war bloggers Igor Girkin and Vladen Tatarsky. But many who share Prigozhin’s misgivings without backing him publicly will have survived Putin’s clean-up operation.
Putin can be sure that they will now be extra careful not to stand too close to high windows or accept cups of tea from anyone connected with Russia’s security services. But this may not be the only lesson they have learned from Prigozhin’s demise – and that will likely worry the Kremlin and increase the paranoia of Putin and those around him.