Thursday, 24 August 2023 21:08

The Wagner leader’s fate was decided when his forces rebelled

A screengrab captured from a video shared online shows Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Russian private security company the Wagner Group, holding a rifle in a desert area while wearing camouflage in an undated video released on August 21, 2023.

Two months ago, Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin led his militia in a mutiny against the Russian regime. Now, Prigozhin is believed to have been involved in a fatal plane crash, Russian state media has reported.

Prigozhin was listed as a passenger on a private plane that crashed north of Moscow Wednesday, killing all 10 passengers aboard, according to media reports. Russian authorities have not officially confirmed the paramilitary leader’s death, but some Telegram channels linked to the Wagner Group have said that he was killed. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered condolences to victims of the plane crash, describing Prigozhin as a man with a “difficult fate.”

If Prigozhin is officially confirmed among the crash fatalities, it would be a dramatic — but not altogether surprising — development. In June, Prigozhin led his militia on a rapid march toward Moscow, a brazen challenge to Putin’s regime. Prigozhin abruptly halted his revolt before reaching the capital, and the Kremlin later said Prigozhin had accepted a deal — apparently brokered by Belarus — to go into exile in Belarus.

Few thought Prigozhin was about to enjoy a relaxing retirement in Minsk — or anywhere else, for that matter. As one Wagner watcher told Vox months before Prigozhin’s short-lived coup: “He knows that if the current regime or if his Wagner Group goes down, he goes down with them.”

What we know about Prigozhin and the plane crash

An Embraer jet en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg went down near the city of Tver on Wednesday. Videos circulating on social media showed an image of a plane plummeting from the sky; another appeared to show the wreckage ablaze.

Russian media has reported that all 10 bodies have now been recovered from the crash and that the plane carried three pilots and seven passengers. Russia’s aviation authorities have said they are “investigating the circumstances and causes of the accident,” according to the New York Times, and are currently testing the passengers’ remains.

Prigozhin was on the passenger manifest, though it’s still unconfirmed whether he was actually on the flight. Some Telegram channels, including those tied to Wagner Group, have begun to post that Prigozhin has died. The Wagner-affiliated account, Grey Zone, indicated Wednesday that Prigozhin, a “true patriot of the Motherland,” had “died as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia.”

“But even in Hell he will be the best! Glory to Russia!” the Telegram post read, according to reports.

Other individuals with Wagner ties were also reportedly listed on the flight manifest, but their deaths are also not yet officially confirmed. Among them is Dmitry Utkin, who is sometimes cited as the operational leader or co-founder of the Wagner Group, although the evidence of that is a bit murky.

Utkin is reportedly a former commander for the special forces of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. As the story goes, he had a thing for the Third Reich and used “Wagner” as a nom de guerre. However, some researchers believe that Utkin is more likely a straw man, helping to disguise some of the paramilitary’s more direct ties to the Russian state. Somebody who may be Utkin appears to have worked for Wagner, but he may not have actually been in charge, or a founding figure.

Utkin’s name on the passenger list, alongside Prigozhin’s, hints at the possibility that this was an effort to purge known Wagner associates in the wake of the mutiny.

A lot remains unknown. Russian authorities and state media remain the primary sources on this crash right now — entities not exactly known for their transparency. Putin finally addressed the crash late Thursday, offering condolences to the victims, whom he indicated were Wagner Group employees. Putin called Prigozhin a talented businessman who “made serious mistakes in life.”

“He achieved the results needed both for himself and when I asked him about it — for a common cause, as in these last months,” Putin reportedly said.

At least one Western intelligence official confirmed Prigozhin’s death to the New York Times on Thursday. Some US and Western intelligence officials have now said they believe an explosion likely took down the plane, but that is not a firm conclusion just yet.

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement Wednesday that the administration had seen the reports. “If confirmed, no one should be surprised. The disastrous war in Ukraine led to a private army marching on Moscow, and now — it would seem — to this.”

Prigozhin’s rebellion challenged Putin, and Putin doesn’t typically let his enemies stick around

Known as “Putin’s chef,” Prigozhin had long been something of a fixer for Putin’s regime. He rose from the criminal underworld in post-Soviet Russia, and that always made him a bit of an outsider among Russia’s elites. He wasn’t exactly in Putin’s inner circle, but he had the skills and connections to make himself useful and needed.

The same was true in his role as the head of the Wagner Group, a sort-of-private army that carried out the geopolitical aims of the Russian state, especially in places like Africa and the Middle East. In the past year, Wagner had been some of the more effective Russian fighters in Ukraine, eventually taking the eastern city of Bakhmut in a bloody, grinding, months-long battle. It was one of Russia’s rare victories from its winter counteroffensive, and Prigozhin had used his clout to intensify his criticism of Russia’s top military brass, posting scathing videos accusing generals of denying Wagner the ammunition and support needed to fight effectively.

Prigozhin’s attacks were so bold that Putin finally seemed to lose patience, and Russia put out a directive that the Russian military would formally integrate Wagner fighters by July. Prigozhin claimed he wanted to avoid that, and that at least partially motivated his rebellion.

That revolt lasted about 24 hours, with Wagner fighters seizing military installations in Russia’s south and marching on Moscow. Then, just as abruptly, Prigozhin halted that movement, saying he did not wish to shed Russian blood. The Kremlin later said a deal had been reached whereby Prigozhin would avoid prosecution in exchange for going into exile in Belarus, and Wagner fighters could either join him or enlist with the Russian army.

Putin pretty much tried to go back to business as usual in the wake of Prigozhin’s mutiny, albeit with a lot more public appearances. Prigozhin has not been widely seen in public since his June rebellion, with only vague or sketchy reports of his whereabouts. That includes a statement from the Kremlin in July that claimed that Putin met with Prigozhin shortly after the rebellion, at least one video that sounded like Prigozhin’s voice greeting Wagner recruits in Belarus, and a photo posted in July apparently taken in St. Petersburg with an official from the Central African Republic.

But he did seem to be getting around, and just this week, a person who appeared to be Prigozhin spoke in a short video clip about Wagner’s operations in Africa — though the date and exact location of the video were unconfirmed. It was his first video since his rebellion, posted about before Wednesday’s plane crash.

That adds to the somewhat auspicious timing for this plane crash, as does the reported removal of Gen. Sergei Surovikin from his position as Russian aerospace commander. Surovikin, a top Russian military leader, was seen as a Prigozhin ally, and US intelligence reportedly had evidence that Surovikin might have had advance knowledge of the Wagner rebellion. Surovikin hadn’t been seen since the mutiny, and some reports had suggested he had been detained in the rebellion’s aftermath.

Surovikin’s apparent removal and Prigozhin’s potential demise all seem to suggest that Putin may be purging what he sees as potential threats to his power. Prigozhin’s position was always dependent to a degree on Putin’s largesse, and staging a mutiny against the president put him, pretty unequivocally, in an extraordinarily precarious state. Prigozhin has always maintained that his revolt was not a coup attempt, but his rebellion made it look at least possible that Putin could be overthrown, undermining his image as an infallible strongman.

Which always meant the idea that Putin would let Prigozhin — or any of his Wagner fighters — casually reconstitute in Belarus was very, very unlikely. Putin has been known to pursue his perceived enemies at home and abroad for far less than an armed rebellion. Putin’s critics have been poisoned, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Opponents have fallen out of windows. Russia has also been suspected in plane crash assassination plots: Polish authorities allege the Kremlin was responsible for the crash that killed Poland’s president in 2010. And it’s probably also worth mentioning Russia’s role in downing a civilian jet over Ukraine in 2014.

Even if Prigozhin suffered the same fate as other Putin foes, it’s still uncertain what it means for the Russian regime. Putin can’t fully undo the conditions that led to Prigozhin’s mutiny. Russia is still facing setbacks in Ukraine, and Prigozhin’s criticisms of the Russian military have found continued purchase among the nationalistic right in Russia. Russian authorities have quietly begun to crack down on some right-wing military bloggers in recent weeks, a signal that a post-rebellion purge of Putin’s perceived enemies was already underway.

The world has seen more than a few twists in the various plots that have emerged following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Prigozhin’s possible demise may yet be another one. Prigozhin himself was a master of misinformation, using propaganda as part of Wagner’s portfolio and beyond. He has some incentives to make himself disappear, too.

But whatever happened with this crash — and whether or not Prigozhin really was on the jet and died in it — Prigozhin was likely never going to be the exception to the rule in Putin’s Russia.

Update, August 24, 1:30 pm ET: This post was originally published on August 23 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to include Putin’s comments on the crash and information from Western intelligence officials.