Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner Group mercenaries who staged a coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin exactly two months ago, is dead, along with Dmitry Utkin, the actual Wagner military commander. Their plane fell from sky some 30 miles from Putin’s Valdai residence, protected by four S-300 divisions, the obvious inference being that the plane was shot down (although some in Western intelligence think a bomb may have exploded onboard). This is the same residence that Putin fled to during the coup.
Putin himself acknowledged that Prigozhin came back to Russia from Africa on the eve on his fatal flight and was “meeting with certain officials.” It is unclear whether he was to meet with Putin himself or just with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council, but Prigozhin must have had some pretty high assurances or pressing problems to be lured onto this flight.
Another strange fact is that he travelled with Utkin on the same plane. As a precaution, the two men usually flew in separate aircrafts. In fact, Prigozhin used two different planes, often switching between them right on the tarmac. On Aug. 23, he also used two planes. The second one took off later and, upon hearing the news, flew in circles until finally landing. Nothing was heard from the passengers of this second plane, and for obvious reasons their fate is a topic of much speculation.
It is also strange that usually reclusive Putin chose this day for a field trip to an obscure village of Ponyri in Kursk region to celebrate a World War II battle. It looks like an alibi: Look, it wasn’t me whom Prigozhin was flying to meet while flying over my residence. He was just on a business trip to St. Petersburg.
Anyway, it is apparently quite unsafe to want to oust Putin and use business jets. The usual end of a Wagner opera: everybody dead.
Putin regained his status of alpha male, and there was no subtlety about it. It is the army that operates S-300 and it is only the FSB (the post-Soviet successor to the KGB) that could be sure which jet Prigozhin was taking. There’s only one man who can coordinate the army and the FSB like this.
Putin promised to pardon Prigozhin, and now we see his promise was not worth a dime. During the past two months, Prigozhin’s business empire was dismantled. His closest allies were bought off, the intricate web of clandestine cash and military contracts he had in Africa taken over. Utkin was offered an out, but stayed at Prigozhin’s side.
All Wagner operatives in Syria were given an option: join the Russian army at a much lower pay or be flown honorably to Russia. Very few resigned. They were flown, as promised, to Russia, to the military airfield at Mozdok. Vladimir Osechkin, a Russian dissident and specialist in all thing Wagner who writes for the anti-corruption site Gulagu.net, says the FSB met them at the airfield and whisked them away. And if there was any dirt Prigozhin had on Putin, then Prigozhin had to be neutralized.
All in all, it looks like it was the not-so-subtle business pressure combined with false assurances that led to Prigozhin’s fateful flight. Sort of reminds you of Cesare Borgia, who 500 years ago called his rebel commanders to Senigallia to make peace, only to cut their heads off. A “Red Wedding.”
As I have said, Prigozhin’s spectacular execution is an immediate gain for Russian dictator. The message is clear: The gang boss has punished the detractor. There’s no way out of the submarine; all are in it together.
But the Wagner Group made up Putin’s best shock troops in the Ukraine war. It was their fight for Bakhmut that bought Putin the time needed to build impressive defense lines. But these lines are now creaking. Ukrainian troops are fighting some 16 miles from Tokmak, a major railway hub in the south of Ukraine. If Tokmak is captured and the Crimea bridge is severely damaged, Putin will find it an arduous task to supply Crimea. And if Tokmak is captured near the time of the winter rains, it will be very hard to take it back without Wagner.
The second major point is that Prigozhin’s death caused no protests. A plane with a supposed war hero was shot down, and nobody stirred. That’s a very clear indicator that the war is deeply unpopular — people don’t give a damn, and the ardent Russian militarists are mostly just paid pro-government bots on Telegram channels. Zero unrest after Prigozhin’s demise is a clear sign of zero genuine support of Putin’s war.
And third, but not last, all this disaster was entirely of Putin’s own making.
It was Putin who couldn’t reform his own regular army. It was Putin who created a private army instead and entrusted its governance to a man who was clearly mentally unstable — a man who was put in prison in 1981 for trying to strangle a young woman whom he followed out of a restaurant because he wanted to take off her earrings, for god’s sake! A psychopath who used forged passports, numerous disguises, kept in his house photos of severed heads and reveled in smashing people with a sledgehammer.
The very idea behind Wagner was crazy. Why would a modern ruler create a secret unit to operate in Africa? What’s there to gain? Blood diamonds? Uranium? The modern world is the world of Tesla and SpaceX. The war simply doesn’t pay for itself. It is crazy even for a dictator to use private military companies as an investment vehicle in blood diamonds in Africa. It’s a thug gaining absolute power and still acting like a petty gangster.
Not only did Putin create a secret military unit that filmed itself cutting off heads, he put in charge of the operation the craziest man he could find. And then he could not contain the ambitions of this man while mired in an unwinnable war. He tried to solve the problem by dissolving Wagner into the army and by luring its mercenaries to other units, where the pay was better and the discipline was much more relaxed than in Wagner, which actually prompted the coup.
As a result, Putin destroyed the best part of the Russian fighting machine and had to sideline his ablest generals, who tended to favor it.
This well may cost him his war and his life, for there are two lessons from the warlord’s demise. One: Never believe in Putin’s promises. Two: If your tanks are 120 miles from the Kremlin, don’t stop.
Yulia Latynina is a Russian writer and journalist formerly with Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow, two major Russian independent media now shut down. She’s a Kennan alumnus and a recipient of the U.S. State Department Defender of Freedom award.
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