It was curious. Only days after Yevgeny Prigozhin had humiliated Vladimir Putin, capturing the southern military headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don and marching an armed column toward Moscow, the mercenary boss was reportedly moving around freely between St. Petersburg and Moscow. He was supposed to be sequestered in Belarus with his Wagner fighters, according to the deal supposedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, but he wasn’t.
He was traveling around Russia seemingly without a care in the world, collecting his weapons and millions of dollars in hard currency that had been seized by the authorities, and tending to his varied business interests as if he was not a marked man. His bravado would cost him dearly.
Apparently, Yevgeny Prigozhin seemed to believe that all had been forgiven in the Kremlin, that his aborted coup d’etat had simply been overlooked by his patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man not known for his mercy, particularly to traitors. But the former ex-convict hotdog salesman turned mercenary warlord had been received by Putin for a lengthy conversation in the Kremlin, not long after the failed rebellion that shook confidence in his wartime regime.
In any case, Prigozhin clearly thought he was safe, immune and perhaps untouchable. He believed he had been pardoned for his error, even as the entire world speculated about his days being numbered in tiny digits.
Indeed, Putin’s actual response to his former caterer seems to be written in the fire that is now consuming the wreckage of the Embraer Legacy 600 private jet currently burning in a field in the Tver region of Russia. Four bodies have reportedly been removed from the crash site, presumably including Prigozhin’s. He lasted exactly two months, following his failed insurrection, perhaps long enough to believe he would survive it unscathed.
Of course, Putin has a long and bloody history of slaughtering rivals and eliminating those he considers troublesome or politically inconvenient, and this plane crash, together with the Russian media’s rapid announcement of Prigozhin’s death, smells like political murder.
It’s quite a clear message: Don’t embarrass the president.
“An investigation has been launched into an Embraer plane crash that occurred tonight in the Tver region. According to the passenger list, the name and surname of Yevgeny Prigozhin is among them,” according to Rosaviatsia, Russia’s aviation agency, and then announced by Russia’s official TASS news agency.
Notably, Dmitry Utkin’s name also appears on the flight manifest, lending credence to the notion that this might have been something of a decapitation strike by the Kremlin, as the Wagner leader and his top deputies were disposed of cleanly and “accidentally.” Video shows the smoking plane falling out of the sky vertically, as if it was hit by a missile or perhaps destroyed by an explosive device placed on the aircraft itself.
Likewise, Russia’s air force commander, General Sergei Surovikin, has been dismissed on the same day as Prigozhin’s demise, an extraordinarily telling detail. Surovikin, known as General Armageddon for his brutal tactics in Syria, was linked to Prigozhin, and apparently knew about the Wagner rebellion beforehand. He has since been “on vacation” in detention. He has reportedly been replaced by Colonel General Viktor Afsalov.
Taken together, this paints a vivid picture of a purge of those connected to Prigozhin’s coup. It’s quite likely Vladimir Putin himself ordered this operation, though Kremlin insiders were quick to imply that Ukraine’s intelligence services were behind Prigozhin’s assassination, something that feels quite unlikely.
Rather, Vladimir Putin has simply made his move, ridding himself of these disloyal lieutenants stupid enough to challenge him at home. Prigozhin’s ill-fated “march for justice” was exactly 2 months ago, during which time he was allowed to walk around and breathe a bit of air, even going to Africa and meeting with African leaders, before his plane fell out of the sky today.
As they say, revenge is a dish best served cold. Putin has clearly served his former “chef” a dish, a slight reversal of roles, though it’s not terribly surprising. It’s nearly impossible to believe this was anything other than a carefully executed hit undertaken at the Russian president’s behest, though direct evidence of the Kremlin’s responsibility is naturally scarce.
Winston Churchill said that “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.” The bones have now flown, dropping from the sky in a fiery mess of smoldering metal, and the world is reminded once again that Vladimir Putin is not a man that forgives or forgets.
Views expressed are the author’s own