By Dan Dinello / Informed Comment
Chicago (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – Russia confirmed Tuesday that Yevgeny Prigozhin, ex-convict oligarch and leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenaries, died in a plane crash last week. Prigozhin had, in fact, been a dead man walking ever since he masterminded an aborted mutiny against Russia’s military leadership on June 23 of this year. His rebellion was an affront not only to Russian generals but to Putin himself, who called the uprising “treason,” “a subversion from within,” and “a stab in the back.” Exactly two months after Prigozhin’s rebellion, an explosion blew him and his private jet out of the sky.
The plane stopped in midair and plummeted down. Video showed the jet spiraling towards the ground, with one wing missing and smoke pouring from the fuselage shortly before erupting into a fireball. The crash left the charred and mangled remnants of 10 people found in the debris. The 62-year-old Prigozhin was identified by a missing part of his finger, an injury sustained while he served time in a penal colony. The identification was made certain via DNA testing.
Accompanying Prigozhin on the doomed flight were Wagner’s top commander Dmitry Utkin — the neo-Nazi sympathizer, who named the group “Wagner” after Hitler’s favorite composer. Besides crew members, the dead included Wagner logistics and security head Valery Chekalov and four key lieutenants. Currently, it is not known why these high-ranking Wagner leaders, normally exceedingly careful about their security, were all on the same flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg, where Wagner is headquartered.
The death of Wagner’s central leadership decapitates the group and disrupts Wagner’s ability to reverse the effects of the Kremlin’s campaign to subsume the mercenary organization into Russia’s regular army. Prigozhin’s violent demise also raises questions, for Putin, about securing the valuable alliances Wagner secured in the Mideast and Africa as well as control of Prigozhin’s global financial empire.
Despite these challenges, it was surprising that Putin tolerated Prigozhin so long after he apparently painted a target on his own back by launching a rebellion with the stated aim of knocking out Moscow’s military leadership. Prigozhin called them “mentally ill scumbags,” who had led Russia to disaster in Ukraine. Wagner’s leader even questioned the basis of the war. The organization’s gunners brought down Russian helicopters and a military surveillance plane, reportedly killing 13. As the world watched, Prigozhin posed the most dramatic challenge to Putin’s rule in decades.
Within hours the revolt was defused: the Kremlin announced an end to the mutiny, whereby Wagner soldiers — many were criminals who fought on Russia’s behalf in Ukraine, the Mideast, and Africa — would escape punitive measures and Prigozhin would leave for Belarus without facing prosecution, his security guaranteed. Most, including President Biden, thought this was laughable, saying, “If I were he, I would be careful what I ate.” Prigozhin signed his own death warrant if he believed in the security “guarantee” or Putin’s equally absurd “word of honor.”
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But, in the aftermath of the aborted insurrection, Prigozhin appeared unfazed. Putin met with him in Moscow. He soon appeared in St. Petersburg, at a forum for African leaders. Two weeks ago from somewhere in Africa, a video showed Prigozhin dressed in camouflage, holding an assault rifle, cheering the coup in Niger, and offering Wagner’s help.
“Prigozhin was scrambling to salvage his business empire from Kremlin control in the days before his death,” said a Business Insider story. Prigozhin found himself in a race with the Kremlin, which was at the same time trying to win over Wagner clients and have them deal directly with Russian officials instead of him.
Prigozhin’s continued posturing haunted Putin, who promoted himself as the omnipotent tsar. “Putin destroyed a whole propaganda narrative he himself had constructed,” an anonymous Russian official said. “It looked extremely humiliating. First, he got himself into a war he couldn’t win, and, when he inevitably encountered difficulties, he tried to find a cheap solution by allowing for the creation of an army of criminals — and then that army ended up turning against him.” Prigozhin cracked Putin’s shaky mystique.
Many Russians wondered how Prigozhin had been able to get away with such a brazen affront to Putin without consequence. Kremlin critic Bill Browder, a businessman with years of experience in Russia, said “Putin never forgives and never forgets. He looked like a humiliated weakling with Prigozhin running around without a care in the world after the mutiny. The dramatic assassination will cement Putin’s authority.”
Putin broke his silence about the plane crash last Thursday, some 24 hours after it happened. He described Mr. Prigozhin as a “talented man” with a “complicated fate.” Putin revealed that his personal ties with Prigozhin dated back to the early 1990s, and he acknowledged for the first time that he had personally asked Mr. Prigozhin to carry out tasks on his behalf. “He made some serious mistakes in life, but he also achieved necessary results.”
Unlike the long list of people who have been shot, hanged, poisoned, and pushed out of windows because they criticized and undermined Putin, Prigozhin — until his mutiny — supported Putin, even helped create him. His arc of success was legendary: a crude and ambitious hustler like Putin, Prigozhin rose from convict to wiener salesman to warlord.
His ascension included a string of restaurants and a lucrative catering business that supplied food to Russian schools [until a 2019 dysentery scandal] as well as billion dollar, no-bid contracts to feed the Russian army and the Kremlin, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin later joked that “Putin’s butcher” would be more appropriate.
Wagner was born when the Russian state needed a deniable shadow force of mercenaries. On behalf of Putin’s agenda, Prigozhin built Wagner shortly after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. A year later, Wagner was secretly part of Russia’s military surge into Syria. Prigozhin’s paramilitary protected Syria’s oil fields and, as compensation, received a slice of Syria’s petrodollars.
As long as Putin controlled Prigozhin, Wagner was allowed to grow, reaching an estimated 50,000 fighters at its peak. Prigozhin’s personal fortune swelled too, elevating him to billionaire status: Wagner’s corporate soldiers plundered diamonds, gold, oil, and gas from countries in which they operated. Killing with impunity, Wagner fighters were accused of numerous war crimes. In one incident, Wagner men were captured on video beheading, dismembering, and incinerating a Syrian man.
Prigozhin also created the Internet Research Agency that became the notorious hub for bogus social media accounts, fake news, propaganda, and efforts to disrupt elections all over the world, including helping the con-man insurrectionist become U.S. president. Indicted in the Mueller investigation, Prigozhin basked in the accusations. “We have interfered, we are interfering and we will continue to interfere,” he said in 2022. The FBI put Prigozhin on its most-wanted list to Prigozhin’s amusement.
In Ukraine, Wagner achieved the only Russian victory so far this year. Aiding a flailing Russian war operation starved for personnel, Prigozhin recruited convicts, who fought the long, horrible battle of Bakhmut. 20,000 poorly trained Russian soldiers died in that months-long siege, thanks to military tactics so wasteful of human life — sending suicidal wave after wave against Ukrainian defenses — that they were described as the “meat grinder.”
Becoming a global media figure, the shaven-headed Prigozhin — speaking in rough, often obscene language — projected a savage, even deranged image. Prigozhin may have believed his own hype when he decided to launch his rebellion. He tacitly endorsed a video showing the murder, with a sledgehammer, of a Wagner defector. “A dog’s death for a dog,” Prigozhin said in a statement at the time. Known as “zeroing out,” the Wagner punishment for desertion or retreat is death.
Accusations of war crimes follow Wagner wherever its fighters go. “In mid-April 2023, two alleged former prisoners and Wagner fighters detailed atrocities committed against civilians and combatants in Bakhmut.” These allegations included terrorism, political assassinations, and the use of rape as a weapon of war as well as the execution of 70 Wagner soldiers for disobeying orders.
In early 2023, the United Nations called for investigations into possible war crimes by government forces and Wagner Group units in Mali. In designating Wagner a “transnational criminal organization” in January, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Wagner-related businesses and accused Wagner personnel of engaging “in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Mali.”
Ignoring such accusations as well as his own war crimes, Putin viewed Prigozhin as a useful opportunist with a ruthless streak and sent his guns-for-hire private military company across the Middle East and Africa to bolster Russian interests often in vicious fashion. Wagner is vital to understanding the Kremlin’s emerging global strategy.
Blatant imperialists and Putin’s shadowy enforcers, Wagner backed shaky foreign governments in Syria, Libya, the Sudan, Mali, and the Central African Republic among others and nailed down mineral rights and other concessions, enriching Prigozhin in side deals. Corporate soldiers of corruption, “Wagner is nothing more than an organized crime group sanctioned by the Russian government,” wrote The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Wagner has perfected a blueprint for state capture in the Central African Republic (CAR), according to a report in The Sentry. Titled “Architects of Terror,” the paper details Wagner efforts to amass military power, secure access to precious minerals — gold and diamonds — and subdue the population with terror. As Richard Engel says in his NBC documentary Blood and Gold, “They are stealing money from the poorest people on earth.” Recent reports even question the agency of the CAR government, calling it a “zombie” host to Russian interests. Wagner’s role in Libya and Sudan has been equally sinister.
An elaborate Wagner scheme to plunder Sudan’s riches was reported by CNN: “Russia has colluded with Sudan’s beleaguered military leadership, enabling billions of dollars in gold to bypass the Sudanese state and to deprive the poverty-stricken country of hundreds of millions in state revenue.” Wagner actively supported Sudan’s 2021 military coup which overthrew a transitional civilian government, dealing a devastating blow to the Sudanese pro-democracy movement. Despite another coup that removed Wagner ally and Sudan president Omar al-Bashir, companies linked to Prigozhin maintain de-facto control of gold-mining interests there.
In Sudan’s neighbor Libya, Wagner has fought in the civil war, where it allied with the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who has been fighting against the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The Wagner Group has provided security, training, artillery, snipers, and landmines to the LNA, as well as participating in combat operations. Its activates are closely tied to oil and gas resources affiliated with Prigozhin companies.
The Wagner boss established one of the world’s most mysterious and complicated corporate organizations across Africa, which included enterprises in media, logistics, mining, cinema, and catering in addition to his mercenary activities, according to an investigation by the Dossier Center. It remains unclear what is going to happen to the sprawling network now that its leader is dead.
After Prigozhin’s mutiny, the Kremlin moved to defuse his power and curtail his business empire. His contract for feeding the Russian army was canceled. Putin dissolved the Internet Research Agency, but did not shut down Wagner. Russian officials have indicated to Syria, Libya, and Sudan that they want Russian involvement to continue, suggesting that Wagner fighters could come under the Defense Ministry. The assassination of Wagner’s top leadership was likely the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organization, according to The Institute for the Study of War.
The Kremlin was pushing to dismantle Wagner’s presence in the Middle East and Africa, by forming new private military companies (PMCs) from existing Wagner personnel. Putin may have decided that Wagner personnel had reached a point where they were sufficiently more interested in payments and deployments with these new PMCs than their continued loyalty to Prigozhin and that he could safely kill Prigozhin without Wagner recriminations.
Prigozhin never turned his nascent popularity into a coherent movement. Public mourning for him is subdued rather than a national outpouring of grief. The remaining Wagner commanders will grasp the lesson of Prigozhin’s murder — he shouldn’t have launched the rebellion or he shouldn’t have halted it. In any case, Wagner relinquished much of its vast arsenal of heavy weaponry to the defense ministry, and its fighters are now scattered across Belarus, Russia, the Mideast and Africa. In short, an immediate revolt, in Prigozhin’s memory, is unlikely.
Putin needed time to secure Kremlin control of Wagner’s complicated empire so Prigozhin survived for two months before his elimination. In Africa, for instance, Russia sought to reassure leaders who relied on Wagner for security that the firm will continue to operate under Putin’s control. As the Kremlin sought to untangle itself from the once-loyal warlord, it has also become clear that Prigozhin was the glue holding together a splintered kingdom and that it could all collapse.
“Wagner’s – and Moscow’s – clout in Africa may eclipse because of the rising influence of China and other core members of the now-expanding BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) bloc,” said Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch. “Russia’s sway in Africa will weaken irrespective of personalities at the helm of Wagner.”
Beyond wanting to control his far-flung financial realm, Putin’s spectacular public liquidation of Prigozhin is an attempt to reassert his dominance in retaliation for the humiliation that the Wagner Group’s armed rebellion caused him. He needed to exact ostentatious revenge against Prigozhin not only to prove that he is not a weak leader, but also to instill fear in Russian élite, and send a message to Russian oligarchs: No measure of effectiveness and accomplishment can shield an individual from repercussions when they breach Putin’s loyalty.
Though Putin may have frightened the élite into obedience, they all know, if they didn’t already, that his claims of a pardon or forgiveness can’t be trusted. “Never before has someone so central to Russia’s ruling establishment been killed in a suspected state-sponsored assassination,” said Mikhail Vinogradov, a Moscow political analyst. “This is a rather harsh precedent.”
The plane crash came on the same day that General Sergei Surovikin, known as “General Armageddon,” — a former top commander in Ukraine who was reportedly linked to Prigozhin — was dismissed from his post as commander of Russia’s air force. The Russian élite, whether in government, military, or business, can’t help but notice that it’s neither profitable nor safe to challenge Putin’s official hierarchy. Still, eliminating top generals and blowing up a dependable mercenary leader are not the actions of a confident, efficient, stable autocracy amidst an ongoing war.
The outcome of the Ukraine war will be crucial to Putin’s continued status. Thanks to Surovikin, Russian defenses have surpassed expectations against Ukraine’s counter-offensive. If this unfortunate trend continues and Ukraine’s summer campaign fails to reclaim significant Russian-occupied land, Putin’s authority will likely endure. However, if Russian defenses falter, especially near Crimea, Putin’s legitimacy could weaken even more than from the challenge of Prigozhin.