Overnight on June 23 of this year, Wagner Group commander Yevgeny Prigozhin played his hand, launching a mutiny against the Russian Ministry of Defense after months of bickering with its head, Sergei Shoigu. The episode led Prigozhin and his men nearly to the gates of Moscow before a last-minute intervention from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko defused the immediate crisis with a deal: Prigozhin would head to Belarus with other Wagner members, and any who remained would fall under the Ministry of Defense’s command.
It was apparent then that things weren’t over, regardless of the manner in which the Kremlin portrayed the outcome. President Vladimir Putin had never before faced such a bold challenge to his rule and would certainly not let it go unanswered, even if it took some time to maneuver.
On Wednesday, a plane carrying Prigozhin – and other key Wagner figures such as war criminal Dmitry Utkin – crashed in the Tver region. While the Russian government officially is investigating the circumstances, there are strong indications that it was, in fact, shot down by Russia’s own air defense systems. As a U.S. intelligence source told The Wall Street Journal, “We’ll see what the Russian government spin is, but we can probably safely eliminate ‘accidental’ if he is indeed dead.”
Prigozhin’s brief and failed rebellion prompted observers around the world to share some iteration of the quote, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” U.S. President Joe Biden, asked about the coup days later, said, “If I were [Prigozhin], I’d be careful what I ate. I’d be keeping my eye on my menu.” So his killing does not come exactly as a surprise, but, as ever, there are murky details with the apparent death of Prigozhin.
Two of Prigozhin’s business jets were in the sky on Wednesday – the one that was shot down, and another that landed soon thereafter at Ostafyevo Airport, south of Moscow. As news of the crash emerged, there was some speculation that perhaps Prigozhin was on the other plane, but Wagner-associated social media channels bemoaned the group’s “beheading” fairly rapidly. Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency soon thereafter released a passenger list, based on the aircraft’s flight manifest, that includes Prigozhin’s name. Reportedly, Prigozhin’s body and that of Utkin have been identified in a morgue. Given the circumstances, however, these are not exactly trustworthy sources.
Intriguingly, the crash occurred within a day of news emerging that Sergei Surovikin had been formally replaced as head of the Russian Aerospace Forces. Surovikin, widely seen as sympathetic to Prigozhin, has not been seen since the abortive coup in June. (He’s on a “short vacation,” according to state media.) It is quite unlikely that he was performing any official duties after the mutiny, but his official replacement within 24 hours of the killing of Prigozhin raises eyebrows.
In the two months between his mutiny and his plane going down, Prigozhin had been seen in Russia, raising some questions given the fact that he was rather publicly exiled to Belarus. And just days prior to his demise, the Wagner commander was seen on video, filmed at some point in Africa, vowing that he was “making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free.”
Perhaps that was Prigozhin pleading his case. Moscow certainly has interests in supporting, for example, the military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, and now Niger, and Wagner made its name deploying to exotic battlefields in the Middle East and Africa. But Wagner is not irreplaceable to the Kremlin; where it falls, another Russian paramilitary outfit, PMC Redut, can rise in its place.
That it took two months for Putin to eliminate Prigozhin after his failed mutiny underscores the delicacy of the Russian political environment at present. Bogged down in a war of the Kremlin’s choosing in Ukraine, Moscow leaned on pro-government paramilitary outfits who were more than willing to feed waves of personnel into the frontlines of battle. Zealous ultra-nationalists made good soldiers – until they turned their guns on the state.
Wagner is in the process of being dismantled and, as an organized entity, presumably will not pose much of a threat any longer. But if it wasn’t obvious before, Putin has now made it exceedingly clear he chose Shoigu over Prigozhin, a fact that infuriates those ultra-nationalists who have nothing but contempt for the defense minister, whom they blame for Russia’s lackluster performance in the war.
The genie is out of the bottle, leaving Putin in damage control mode. Above all else, however, Putin demonstrated that while others may have hands to play, he still owns the cards.