When Vladimir Putin finally addressed the airplane crash that claimed the life of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and his deputy, and Wagner founder, ultranationalist former intelligence officer Dmitry Utkin, the Russian president was circumspect. He referred to Prigozhin in the past tense, and expressed “condolences to the families of all the victims,” for the “tragedy” that took his boisterous underling’s life. But the inescapable subtext was the understanding in both Moscow and the West that it was Putin himself who was almost certainly responsible for whatever caused Prigozhin’s Embraer Legacy 600 private jet to suddenly break apart and plunge from the sky, killing all 10 people on board.
In fact, it was crystal clear. This was retribution.
And that’s exactly what Putin wanted to cultivate: a stark message and pointed reminder to Russian elites of precisely what befalls those who betray him, and by extension, the Russian state he personifies. When Prigozhin led his Wagner fighters to seize Rostov and march on Moscow, in a brief but humiliating mutiny that shocked the entire world, and shattered confidence in political stability in Putin’s Russia, the Wagner chief signed his own death warrant. Every day Prigozhin lived made Putin look weaker, something intolerable for a wartime strongman wholly dependent on a carefully curated image of unassailability and brute strength.
In other words, there was no conceivable world in which the dictator did not move against him and destroy him for his sins, sooner or later.
Indeed, the fact that Prigozhin was allowed to walk away from the mutiny at all was interpreted as a sign of feeble indecisiveness in the Kremlin. But in the fullness of time, or rather a scant two months, Putin’s characteristically patient and calculated act of vengeance has been revealed. It was a classic Putin feint: meticulous, lethal, and just barely deniable. He appeared to offer Prigozhin an olive branch, receiving him in the Kremlin after the mutiny and dropping the criminal charges against him, before yanking forgiveness away and slaughtering him, his responsibility for the murder only thinly and poorly disguised, likely by design.
Simply put, Prigozhin had to go. In the brutal wilderness that is Russian politics, there’s no place for a man brazen or stupid enough to cause political problems for the president, no matter how effective or talented he might be. Ultimately, the Wagner boss should have known this, and perhaps most surprising of all is that he believed he was somehow immune from the rules governing betrayal in Russia. After all, he most certainly knew how these things end, having celebrated the grisly murder of traitors and defectors in his own ranks via the infamous Wagner sledgehammer.
As he himself said, “A dog’s death for a dog.” He just didn’t realize he was the canine on the chopping block, surprising for a man of his savviness and intellect, even if the rest of the world suspected as much.
A ‘difficult fate’
Meeting in the Kremlin with Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed head of the DPR or Donetsk People’s Republic, the miniature statelet illegally annexed from Ukrainian territory in 2022, Putin finally breached what appeared to be the assassination of Russia’s most infamous mercenary commander, 24 hours after his death had been covered widely in Russian media and on international front pages. Putin said Prigozhin was “a talented man, a talented businessman,” and someone he had known “for a very long time,” when both men rose up among the grimy mafia-ridden streets of post-Soviet St. Petersburg in the early 90s, along a parallel and intersecting path that would end in Prigozhin’s early demise.
“He was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results needed both for himself and when I asked him about it — for a common cause, as in these last months,” referring to Prigozhin’s efforts recruiting and feeding tens of thousands of Wagner fighters into the fiery hell of Bakhmut and elsewhere in occupied Ukraine, as Putin waged a difficult and costly war to subdue and absorb that country. Implied was that Prigozhin’s usefulness to Putin had run its course, and that he was no longer required, the caterer having served his final dish.
After years of propping up friendly African dictators in exchange for minerals, and fueling proxy wars in Syria and Ukraine on behalf of the Kremlin, the ex-convict turned mercenary tycoon died as he lived, in a fireball at 28,000 feet. He flew too close to the sun and burned.
A political purge
On the very same day that Prigozhin’s private jet fell out of the sky like a burning star, perhaps due to an explosive device placed on the aircraft by the Russian security services or an S-300 air defense missile, the highly regarded air force commander General Sergei Surovikin was dismissed. He was seen as an unusually competent commander in a Russian military riddled with corrupt buffoons and sycophantic thieves, known as “General Armageddon” for his brutal tactics leveling cities like Aleppo, Syria. He was responsible for building up the defensive fortifications that are stymieing Ukraine’s counteroffensive, and he led the overall war effort for a time.
General Surovikin had been in detention since Prigozhin’s ill-fated mutiny fizzled out and died. Now, he was relieved of his command on the same day Prigozhin died, in timing that’s hardly coincidental. In a state where projecting an image of strength is the epitome of leadership, the efficacy of political terror cannot be overestimated, power politics being what it is.
Prigozhin and Surovikin were said to be quite close, having worked together first in Syria and then Ukraine. Surovokin allegedly knew about Prigozhin’s insurrection beforehand, and he released a bizarre hostage-style video pleading with Prigozhin to stand down as the coup unfolded, advice Prigozhin ultimately heeded.
Nevertheless, this is precisely what a political purge looks like in Vladimir Putin’s Russia: traitors get the knife, and everyone knows exactly who’s responsible for sliding in the blade. It’s a deliberate message meant to clarify the ruling order, in case there was any doubt about Putin’s staying power, during what has been the most difficult and turbulent period of his more than two decades in power.
The Kremlin issued flat denials that it had anything to do with the assassination of Yevgeny Prigozhin, but it’s hard to believe anyone took these seriously. On Friday, Putin signed a decree ordering all Wagner fighters to sign a mandatory oath of allegiance to the Russian state, offering yet another hint about his intentions. Clearly, Putin’s tying up loose ends, sending an unmistakable message to any other would-be rebels in his midst: submit or die.
In the short term, Prigozhin’s murder will strengthen Putin’s grip on power, making Russian elites even more terrified of crossing the boss. In the long term, though, it’s likely to contribute to an increasingly brittle dictatorship, where the president receives bad information because his underlings are fearful of incurring his wrath. It’s not a recipe for success during a painful war that requires competence and critical thinking, as opposed to ideologically driven yes-men spewing propaganda points. As for those unhappy souls within the regime who may have been considering moving against Putin, they’ve been offered a healthy dose of terror to keep them quietly in line.
Clearly, crossing Putin is bad for your health, and elite Russians might consider foregoing their Gulfstreams and Bombardiers, and taking public flights. It’s certainly safer.
Views expressed in this article are the author’s own