Perhaps the most unexpected thing about the plane crash that reportedly killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the bombastic head of Russia’s infamous Wagner group, is that it happened a full two months after he brought Russia to what President Vladimir Putin warned at the time was the brink of civil war.
Prigozhin certainly seemed to be living on borrowed time. His bizarre revolt against Russia’s military leadership, which saw an armoured Wagner convoy proceed largely unchallenged through southern Russia until it stopped just short of Moscow, flew in the face of the twin rules for survival in Putin’s Russia. One, you don’t rock the boat. Two, you don’t challenge the tsar.
But the popular assumption that Prigozhin would swiftly be eliminated – which shifted to surprise when he wasn’t – tells us much about the current weakness and fragility that surrounds Russian politics. In fact, Prigozhin’s apparent elimination is likely to exacerbate that weakness rather than lead to a magical reassertion of Putin’s authority.
First, it shows Russian elites they can’t trust anything their president says. That’s a significant departure from the Kremlin’s previous modus operandi, whereby those in positions of power and influence were protected by Putin. They could count on him as long as they played by his rules.
Although Prigozhin eventually departed from that, he went out of his way for many years – even after his mutiny – to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin.
Following the Wagner revolt it seemed perplexing for Putin to give Prigozhin and his Wagner co-conspirators a public assurance they would be safe from retribution. Now, Prigozhin’s subsequent likely death – the crash was reported by Wagner’s Telegram channel as having been caused by a Russian air defence missile – means it matters very little whether it was an accident: nobody will believe this was anything other than revenge.
While that may initially give the more ambitious members of the Kremlin clans some pause, they now have real incentives to seek out an alternative. Put simply, Putin’s politics of terror has a self-destructive flaw: ruling through fear and deception inevitably prompts those who might be targets (which is essentially anyone) to eventually try to change the rules of the game.
Second, Prigozhin’s death won’t spell the end for private military companies (PMCs) in Russia. On the contrary, they’re likely to continue to proliferate. Already the energy giant Gazprom has several of them, with operators in Ukraine as well as Russia. There is also speculation the fast-expanding Redut group may now try to step in to fill the Wagner void.
But this has a bearing on Russian domestic politics too: PMCs are likely to be used by influential figures as private armies for their own protection from the Russian state, just as much as they might be employed as proxies in its service.
That, in turn, raises the spectre of a society of warlords – not just confined to strongmen on Russia’s periphery, such as the Kadyrovites who are loyal to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov – but in other parts of Russia closer to the centres of power in Moscow and St Petersburg. Under those circumstances, the prospects for stability in Russia are grim.
Ironically, perhaps the least significant impact of Prigozhin’s death will be on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Wagner forces had been withdrawn from combat a couple of months previously. They have not been redeployed to the front since Prigozhin’s revolt.
Wagner troops have been offered the choice of joining other Russian PMCs or signing contracts with the Russian armed forces: the former remains the preferred option given the regular Russian military is poorly paid in comparison. There will also be those who choose neither option, leaving the problem of significant numbers of Russian men trained for violence at large in its society.
As for the future of the organisation itself, Wagner is at a crossroads. In addition to Prigozhin, two other victims in the crash were Wagner’s alleged co-founder Dmitry Utkin, who was responsible for its combat operations, and its head of security Valery Chekalov. The crash has therefore not only killed a Putin rival, but also permanently erased Wagner’s senior command structure.
Yet Wagner remains important for the promotion of the Kremlin’s interests in damaging US and European influence in Africa. Beyond its active role in Syria, it has been instrumental in boosting Russian prestige by propping up regional dictators in Mali and the Central African Republic, which have rewarded Wagner with lucrative natural resource contracts. It may continue in an abridged form under new management, or be subsumed into another proxy Russian force.
A final important puzzle concerns why the Kremlin waited so long to rid itself of Prigozhin. We can only speculate here, but one theory is the intelligence services needed time to discover how deeply the pro-Wagner rot had extended into the armed forces and other power structures.
It is striking that Sergei Surovikin (the former commander of Russian forces in Ukraine who had disappeared under suspicion of being a Wagner sympathiser) was formally removed from his post as Russia’s Air Force chief at almost the exact same time as Prigozhin’s plane went down.
Prigozhin’s career trajectory saw him rise from a convicted felon to presidential caterer, then Russia’s main disinformation peddler, and eventually the wealthy and brutal head of a semi-private military company that sought to outcompete Russia’s own Defence Ministry for influence.
But despite his colourful CV, one suspects his real legacy will be that in abortively mounting a challenge to Moscow’s established power structures, Prigozhin ultimately established a precedent for one that succeeds.
Matthew Sussex is an Associate Professor (Adj), Griffith Asia Institute; and Fellow, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, Australian National University. This first appeared in the Conversation.
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