Andrew Roth and Pjotr Sauer
The Kremlin meeting was like a scene from The Godfather. Shortly after their mutiny was quelled in June, 35 Wagner commanders were summoned for a sit-down with Vladimir Putin. Putin said he offered them the chance to continue fighting in Ukraine. But Yevgeny Prigozhin, their leader and financier, was defiant.
“A lot of them nodded their heads” at the offer, Putin claimed. “But Prigozhin … didn’t see [their reaction] and said: ‘No, the guys won’t agree with that decision.’”
Two months later, Prigozhin is dead, probably assassinated, his demise confirmed by Putin on Thursday after nearly a day of silence after the crash. For many Russian insiders, the bigger question is how he defied Putin and remained alive for so long.
It was Prigozhin who launched the June mutiny, rejecting an ultimatum from the defence ministry to subjugate his mercenaries to the military. In so doing, he mounted the biggest challenge to the Russian state since Boris Yeltsin ordered his tanks to fire on Moscow’s White House during the 1993 constitutional crisis.
“The very fact that Prigozhin existed after the coup completely upended our understanding of the Putin regime,” said Abbas Galyamov, a political consultant and former Putin speechwriter. “The rule was that you can’t go against Putin. For two months, everything was upside down. Prigozhin created a massive problem for Putin, he humiliated him.”
In the two months after the mutiny, Prigozhin appeared down but not out. He was filmed in Belarus telling his mercenaries that the conduct of the war in Ukraine was a “disgrace”. He was photographed on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit, and then appeared this week armed and in camouflage somewhere in Africa, saying he was “making Russia even greater on all continents”.
Perhaps more importantly, he was never served with criminal charges after the mutiny. His companies continued to win multimillion-dollar catering contracts, and he continued to travel between Africa, Belarus and Russia on his Embraer jet until it crashed on Wednesday. “It gave the signal that it was permissible to go against Putin and everything will be OK,” Galyamov said.
Many had the sense that this would not last. The CIA director, William Burns, last month called Putin an “apostle of payback” and warned Prigozhin not to fire his food taster.
Still, Prigozhin thought he could manage a second act. Forced out of Ukraine, he was dedicated to continuing Wagner’s lucrative work in Africa, where his mercenaries are most active in Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Sudan, countries that have tenuous relations with the west.
“The whole African project completely relied on him,” said Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner commander and assistant to Prigozhin. “He was still very ambitious. Maybe he thought that he was too important for Putin. Overconfidence is definitely one of his flaws.”
When his death finally came, insiders in the Russian establishment said it had been the most likely end for Prigozhin, a tireless operator who made powerful enemies in the military and security services.
“I thought it would be different, like with novichok,” said a former Kremlin official. “But people turned out to be more creative.”
A former Russian senior defence official said: “The decision to kill Prigozhin was probably made from the very start after the coup, especially among the hardliners.” The source added: “Putin might have needed some convincing.”
As news of Prigozhin’s apparent death broke on Wednesday, Putin was striding on to stage at a gala memorial concert dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk. He was flanked by a full symphony orchestra, an image that quickly prompted comparisons to the Wagner fighters’ favourite nickname for themselves: musicians.
For weeks it had been clear that the Kremlin was moving against other Russian hardliners who had criticised the war effort.
Igor Girkin, a former commander of Russian proxy forces in Ukraine, was arrested last month after persistent criticism of Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. Gen Sergei Surovikin, a powerful Prigozhin ally in the defence ministry, has been held incommunicado since the mutiny and has been stripped of his command of Russia’s aerospace forces.
“Putin was taking his time to assess the damage,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and expert on the security services. “He decided to use this mutiny as a pretext to deal with the hardliners.”
Beyond the Kremlin, Prigozhin’s death is likely to help stabilise anger among the military top brass, including the defence chief, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov.
“Prigozhin’s elimination is a strongly stabilising factor for the current regime and for the mood in the army,” said another source close to the Russian defence ministry.
The Russian military had ample motive to kill Prigozhin. His soldiers shot down several helicopters and aircraft during the armed uprising, killing an estimated 15 airmen. And Wagner’s disputes with the military over ammunition had grown into low-level warfare.
A former Russian military commander who had been kidnapped by Wagner troops called Prigozhin a “stain of shame that has finally been washed away”.
Vladimir Putin at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the end of the Battle of Kursk.
The defence source said: “That Prigozhin would be killed was clear from the moment of his failed uprising in June. Although I would have expected that he would have been rubbed out somewhere in Africa.”
Rather than a quiet killing, he said, the Kremlin had clearly shown that it wanted to send a message.
Marat Gelman, a Russian art collector and opposition politician who once advised Putin, said: “The signal to the elites is obvious: don’t stick your head out one way or another. You can’t be against the war but you can also not be better at Putin in waging war. Strelkov [Girkin’s alias] and Prigozhin were more enthusiastic about the war than Putin and were punished.”
There is little likelihood of a backlash in Russia, but Prigozhin’s death sent shock waves through a small community of nationalists and war hawks who have most energetically embraced the war effort.
In St Petersburg, a fighter in full military garb was filmed falling to his knees and weeping near a makeshift memorial to Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, a senior Wagner field commander who was also believed to be on the flight. Others left red carnations, a symbol of mourning.
“This killing lowers the morale among those most passionate about the fighting,” Gelman said. He cited anger from prominent war hawks such as the nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin. “They are in a state of shock. They are the children of war, the ones driving it. It will be harder for Putin to mobilise these groups now.”
With Prigozhin gone, Wagner’s future in Africa is in question. It is likely that the Kremlin, defence ministry or other interested players will try to co-opt his lucrative business there.
John Lechner, an independent researcher writing a book on Wagner, said: “The Wagner guys that I have talked to said they will keep going, but at the end of the day with Prigozhin gone, questions raised over the [defence ministry’s] capacity to take things over are still there. Those problems won’t be magically solved now that Prigozhin is dead.”
Although they have been stripped of their heavy weapons and pose little threat to the Kremlin at home, the question remains as to whether those fighters will switch allegiance.
Gabidullin, who has written a memoir about fighting for Wagner, said: “The fighters are at a total loss, they have to think about what is next for them.”