It was easier to approach Moscow in June than to leave it in August. Wagner Group mercenary leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who staged a short-lived mutiny against the Russian military two months ago, was reportedly killed in a plane crash along with nine other passengers on Wednesday while traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg, according to Russian authorities and Wagner-affiliated Telegram groups. Some reports have indicated that the plane was downed by Russian air defenses. Just hours earlier, General Sergei Surovikin, who allegedly had advance knowledge of the Wagner mutiny and had not been seen in public since it occurred, was removed from his post as head of Russia’s air force.
What do the timing and circumstances of Prigozhin’s apparent death indicate about the state of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime? What will this mean for the future of the Wagner Group, including its extensive operations in Africa? And what impact will this power struggle have on the war in Ukraine? Below, Atlantic Council experts weigh in.
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The fact Prigozhin survived so long is evidence of cracks in Putin’s regime
Did the apparent death of the Wagner mercenary chief in a plane crash solve Putin’s Prigozhin problem? On the face of it, the answer is yes. Prigozhin had been publicly sparring with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov over their failures conducting the war in Ukraine since last fall. Then in late June he publicly challenged the official justifications for the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine—at least an indirect shot at Putin—and launched his mutiny, taking control in Rostov-on-Don and sending his troops to Moscow. While senior Russian officials denounced this as treason, within twenty-four hours the Kremlin made a deal that persuaded Prigozhin to end his march on Moscow in exchange for safe passage to Belarus. In short, Putin the strong man looked weak and vulnerable.
That perception only grew in the ensuing two months, as Prigozhin spent far more time in Russia than Belarus. He met with African leaders on the sideline of the Russia-Africa Summit in Saint Petersburg and even became the public face of Russian support for a coup in Niger. All this by a man who publicly questioned the stated reasons for Putin’s war on Ukraine.
So yes, Prigozhin had to go; and it could not wait, because each new public initiative he undertook was a reminder of the strong man’s vulnerability. And his reported demise was a warning that challenging the czar was a fool’s game. To underscore that, the Kremlin dismissed Surovikin, a reported Prigozhin pal, the same day the plane crashed.
This has certainly stanched the bleeding, but it has not solved Putin’s problem. He cannot undo the events of the past two months, and the Russian elite will not forget what they saw. Even if Prigozhin is gone, he is still admired—for Wagner’s relative success in Ukraine compared with the Russian army, for taking care of his soldiers, and for his willingness to say out loud his concerns about the wisdom of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The ultimate driver of Prigozhin’s rebellion, Putin’s flailing in Ukraine, remains. And while some senior players in Moscow may conclude that it is too dangerous to challenge Czar Putin, others may conclude that Prigozhin’s mistake was halting his forces’ march on Moscow.
—John E. Herbst is senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He served as US ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006.
Like ‘something out of the Godfather series’
After June’s mutiny led by Wagner warlord Prigozhin, many observers were astonished by the gap between Putin’s denunciation of the mutiny on the day it occurred and the diffidence with which the Kremlin seemed to treat Prigozhin immediately after the fact. That mystery seems resolved. In what seems like an act of slightly delayed revenge, something out of the Godfather series, Prigozhin’s plane was shot down and all on board, Prigozhin included, were reportedly killed.
While the circumstances are not yet clear, it seems best to assume that this was not an accident, but a targeted hit. The only unusual feature is that Prigozhin was not pushed out of a window or shot on the street or in an apartment stairwell, like other Kremlin opponents, but apparently shot down from a plane in lurid fashion.
What does it mean? (What follows is speculation that will be tested and likely revised as additional information unfolds.)
First, Putin has exacted a price against those who move against him. Prigozhin appears to be dead and Surovikin, former commander of Russian troops in Ukraine and by many accounts a competent one, and who was seen as close to Prigozhin, has been dismissed, arrested, and may face charges (or worse). The strange spectacle of Prigozhin’s initial lenient treatment is over; the delay in going after him may have meant only that Putin needed to gauge the degree of Prigozhin’s support before acting.
Second, this latest affirmation of Putin’s style—keep cool in a crisis and kill your opponents on your terms and timing—probably strengthens his position in the short term. The inconsistency and apparent wavering on the day of and shortly after the mutiny, which generated speculation that Putin was vulnerable, has been superseded.
Third, a tyrant maintaining power through murder and fear can work in the short run. But such rule exacts a price on the country. Putin has made bad decisions, like starting a war with Ukraine that Russia cannot seem to win. He may pay no immediate price for that decision (or other bad ones) unless he fails, on the battlefield or otherwise. At that point, he could be vulnerable. A tyrant such as Putin, history shows, has agents and servants but no real allies or friends.
—Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former US ambassador to Poland.
Putin sent a message to anyone who contemplates challenging him
Prigozhin looks to have died as he lived: violently. The Kremlin chef’s apparent fiery end, which some Russian sources say was brought by a missile fired by the Russian military, indicates that crossing his boss, Putin, is a deadly serious business. Reportedly, Dmitry Utkin, the Wagner founder and its military commander, also perished on board the Embraer jet.
Putin sent a message to anyone who contemplates challenging him, while earlier jailing his opponents from both the liberal and ultra-nationalist camps: Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza are jailed for nineteen and twenty-five years respectively, and Igor Girkin is under arrest and facing trial, to mention just a few.
The question now arises: What will happen with the Wagner Group assets in Russia, Belarus, African countries, and Syria? Integration into the Russian military will be bumpy, as many fighters are personally loyal to Prigozhin, and the state armed forces’ affiliation would even further dilute the already-tenuous plausible deniability the Russian state-supported mercenaries have enjoyed.
Clearly, Shoigu and Gerasimov won this round of the power struggle, but the jostling for power in Moscow never ends. Today what Winston Churchill called “the fight of bulldogs under the carpet” produced the dramatic pictures of the crashing business jet: Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.
In the future, there will be fights between the military and the Federal Security Service; the competent “system liberals” in the Central Bank of Russia against the economic nincompoops in the Duma; between the presidential administration and the security services; and among the different factions of the Kremlin-connected oligarchs. This struggle will escalate as the jockeying for Putin’s legacy proceeds to its inevitable end.
—Ariel Cohen is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
To preserve the regime, Putin needs to preserve fear
At the risk of stating the obvious, it is highly unlikely that the airline crash that appears to have killed Prigozhin was an accident. If Prigozhin were not forced to pay a heavy price for his rebellion in June, Putin’s regime would have been severely weakened. This is because the Putin regime essentially operates according to the logic of a crime syndicate. Putin is the godfather. Prigozhin was a capo who apparently didn’t know his place. And in the immortal words of Omar Little of The Wire, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Putin is famously vindictive and from the moment Prigozhin aborted his march on Moscow, he was a dead man walking.
Historically, political change comes to Russia when three factors are present: a divided elite (check), a dissatisfied public (check), and an absence of fear. If Prigozhin had been left unpunished, fear would have been removed from the equation and the regime would have been in peril.
A couple of other details are also worth noting. On the same day Prigozhin apparently died, his close ally Surovikin was relieved of his duties as chief of the Russian Air Force. And as news of the plane crash spread, Putin was busy presenting the Hero of Russia award to soldiers live on television. Russian journalists were quick to note that in June 2022, Putin gave the same award to Prigozhin. So the optics of Prigozhin’s elimination appear to have also been carefully choreographed.
—Brian Whitmore is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, assistant professor of practice at the University of Texas-Arlington, and founder and host of The Power Vertical Podcast.
With or without Prigozhin, for Russia in Africa, it is business as usual
After his rebellion, the question was: What will be Wagner’s future in Africa, its main ground, now that Prigozhin is exiled in Belarus? Three options were possible: its dissolution, its nationalization by the Russian state, or the appointment of a new leader.
The last two options would preserve Wagner’s achievements in Africa, which Moscow considers highly, including mining concessions and efficient anti-Western propaganda. None of these scenarios included Prigozhin. His apparent death would not change anything in Russians’ plans besides maybe getting rid of a potential future threat. For the Russians, it is very important that Wagner’s work in Mali and the Central African Republic “of course, will continue.” That is what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after Prigozhin’s rebellion a few weeks ago to his African friends, who were very worried about the situation.
Prigozhin or not, the Russians wanted to keep their business and security interests in Africa. It is a primary goal. Putin was very clear about that when he said the mutineers “betrayed the country.” He could not trust Prigozhin, who was under investigation for armed rebellion, any more. Even after his exile, Prigozhin was a threat to Russian interests in Africa, maybe a competitor with rival interests. Surprisingly, he showed up in Saint Petersburg at the recent Russia Africa Summit. Clearly, the interests of the Russian government and the Wagner Group were not aligned any more. Africa is key in Putin’s strategy in Ukraine: to prove he is not isolated, to circumvent Western economic sanctions and rebuild his forces via Wagner. Prigozhin’s uprising required a clarification on the nature of Russia’s partnership with African countries. It’s done.
—Rama Yade is senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and senior fellow for the Europe Center.
Expect Xi and Putin to move closer once again
The apparent killing of Prigozhin and the ousting of Surovikin, who was rumored to have supported Prigozhin during June’s mutiny, is a show of force meant to deter other would-be domestic challengers and signal to outsiders that Putin remains in charge of the power vertical. The near-simultaneity of these major actions—which took place exactly two months after the June mutiny started—is not a coincidence.
Beijing will likely be pleased with Putin’s cold and lethal decisiveness, as well as its implications. Putin likely would not have liquidated Prigozhin unless he judged that the domestic political fallout would be minimal and that Russian forces can withstand any Ukrainian attempt to exploit an opening. Accordingly, Beijing may believe with greater confidence that Putin will survive domestic and foreign policy challenges.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) initially sought to institutionalize China-Russia relations in the wake of the mutiny but may be re-emphasizing personalistic ties.
Beijing appeared genuinely shocked by the intensity and duration of the Prigozhin mutiny and was slow to issue expressions of support for Putin. Moreover, on July 10, a little over two weeks after the failed mutiny, Beijing invited Russian Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko to a meeting in China, where CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping framed Sino-Russian relations as a “strategic choice made by the two countries based on the fundamental interests of their respective countries and peoples.” This new rhetoric apparently sought to downplay the Xi-Putin personal relationship and formalize political ties.
With Prigozhin out of the way, however, Beijing may be willing to reemphasize leader-to-leader ties. On July 25, exactly a month after the mutiny concluded, the Russian side announced that Xi and Putin would meet in China in October. While the Prigozhin mutiny and Xi’s slow support for Putin in the crisis exposed the limits of the personal relationship between these two “best and bosom friends,” the two figures may be moving closer, once again.
—Joseph Webster is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and editor of the China-Russia Report.
The plane crash shows Lukashenka that Putin is still the boss
Two months ago, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka extended security assurances to Prigozhin. Throughout the uprising and its aftermath, Lukashenka adeptly assumed the role of a peacemaker, positioning himself as an essential player in resolving the tensions within Russia. His propaganda went as far as claiming that he had rescued the Russian people.
Wednesday’s plane crash in Russia’s Tver region has significantly compromised Lukashenka’s standing. Primarily, his image as a skillful mediator has taken a hit. This incident exposes a lack of autonomy on his part, confirming a subordinate connection to Putin. Both he and Belarus were used as instruments to facilitate the “agreement.”
If the plane crash was not a mere accident but a deliberate targeted action, it should serve as a stark reminder to Lukashenka and his associates of the Kremlin’s readiness to test the limits in its treatment of its allies—particularly those allies who have shown any form of opposition or resistance. Such actions will be interpreted as acts of betrayal. A response will follow.
The motivations for Wagner mercenaries to remain in Belarus are diminishing rapidly. The future course of action for them remains uncertain. Their presence in Belarus initially stemmed from Lukashenka’s effort to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin. It was then manifested through the intimidation of neighboring Western countries and Ukraine, a stance that found favor with Putin. Now, following Prigozhin’s apparent death, there is a possibility that the mercenaries could face pressure to leave Belarus.
Their departure is likely to bring a sense of relief to the Belarusian people. But once again, it’s evident that Lukashenka’s control is restricted. The Kremlin will dictate the schedule for their presence. This dynamic also extends to forthcoming developments concerning Belarus, where Lukashenka might be overlooked or regarded as a secondary figure.
—Hanna Liubakova is a nonresident fellow with the Eurasia Center and a Belarusian journalist.
Putin may have frozen further threats to his regime
In the Greek myth of Icarus, a man ignores warnings against flying too close to the sun and eventually falls straight from the sky, perishing on impact. Recent reports of Prigozhin’s death after allegedly being shot down in his private jet roughly three hundred kilometers from Moscow may be a new grisly parable for today’s Russia. Just two months earlier, Prigozhin led a mutiny against Russian military leadership and marched toward Moscow, only to halt on the M4 highway and reverse course after striking a deal with Putin, brokered by his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Armed with security guarantees and assurances that he would maintain some control over his Wagner Group paramilitaries, it looked like Prigozhin had gotten away with the whole thing. He popped up regularly over the next few weeks, claiming to be variously in Belarus, Saint Petersburg, and even with Wagner forces in Africa.
In the end, Prigozhin’s antics may have proved intolerable for the Kremlin. If Prigozhin really is dead, and if his plane was shot down, as has been alleged, then this is a major win for Putin. Despicable though Prigozhin is/was—leading thousands of Wagner troops against Ukraine, sponsoring violence in Africa, and sowing discord in the West—it is also true that he represented the most dynamic domestic threat to Putin’s power and to his more than two decades-long rule. The Kremlin has gone to extreme lengths to silence any sort of dissent at home, especially against Russia’s war on Ukraine. But Prigozhin not only chirped at the Russian military for months and questioned the war effort, he actively led a rebellion to change Russia’s military leadership. Putin’s authoritarian kleptocracy is largely based on the quiet assent of the masses and proved brittle when faced with armed resistance from Prigozhin and Wagner.
If Prigozhin really is off the chessboard, along with his Wagner number two Dmitriy Utkin, then the best-organized armed threat to Putin’s power may have been disarmed, at least for now. As more details come out, Prigozhin’s reported death will also likely have a chilling effect on any other pretenders to the Kremlin thinking of striking against Putin, few though they may be. The Russian dictator may not maintain complete control, but the apparent death of his most significant rival may very well freeze further domestic threats to his regime.
—Andrew D’Anieri is assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
Wagner mutiny’s last chapter has yet to be written
Prigozhin’s apparent death represents a continuation of the storm that brewed in Russia two months ago during the Wagner Group’s mutiny. What comes next? A few important questions to ask:
Does evidence emerge clearly showing this was a deliberate act to down Prigozhin’s plane? Supporters of Prigozhin may not need definitive evidence to prompt their next move, but it would certainly further exacerbate tensions between Putin’s regime and Wagner forces/sympathizers if proof emerged showing this was a decapitation strike.
Can—and if yes, do—Wagner forces organize a formidable challenge to Putin and their opponents at the highest levels of Russia’s Ministry of Defense? Wagner forces were approaching Moscow two months ago; now, many of them are in Belarus and their leader appears to be dead. Their desire and capacity to organize a new challenge to Putin’s regime remains to be seen.
What happens in Ukraine? Should violence return in the near term, Russian morale on the front lines could deteriorate, while command-and-control weakens. If Prigozhin’s supporters bide their time, they could wait for continued, hard-fought Ukrainian successes to leave Putin in a more politically precarious state before launching a new challenge to the regime.
These are just a few of the questions worth asking in the days and weeks ahead. One thing is certain: The last chapter of June’s mutiny has yet to be written.
—Jeffrey Cimmino is deputy director of operations and a fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
If you come for the king, do not miss
When it became obvious that the Wagner mutiny had failed, it also became totally clear that there would be ramifications for Prigozhin and the top Wagner aides that had engaged in the insurrection against the Russian state. Putin—as everyone knows—is infamously unforgiving of betrayal. Many of us asked one another what it was exactly that Prigozhin possessed that was so useful to the regime that he could possibly assume he was safe. The most logical supposition, outside of kompromat, was that Wagner was far too powerful and important within Russia’s African operations and that he could not very easily be replaced as CEO of the corporation and its many subsidiaries without incurring transaction costs and losses to the Kremlin.
That answer has now proven itself to be incorrect. Putin and the regime that he oversees were wounded enough that a very public example needed to be made. Coupled with Surovikin being removed from his command for allegedly knowing what was about to transpire, the apparent killing of the maverick mercenary leader will send an unmistakable message to the Russian army and general population: If you come for the king, do not miss (and even if you make a deal do not expect to survive the next six months). In the long term, the apparent killing will likely make morale among the leftover Wagner men even worse and will likely mean that the mercenary organization has no future outside of the direct command of the Russian Defense Ministry. None of this makes the cohesion of the Russian state look particularly great, however.
—Vladislav Davidzon is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Since 2018, he has served as a co-producer for a television series on the effects of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
With Prigozhin’s apparent death and Surovikin’s dismissal, Putin is cleaning house
This was a big day for Ukraine. Ukrainian forces destroyed a Russian S-400 air-defense system in Crimea, brought in a Russian defector and captured his helicopter, and shot down a Russian warplane over the Black Sea. But the best news of all was the downing of a plane reportedly carrying Prigozhin, who was responsible for the butchering of countless Ukrainians. Ultimate responsibility may rest with a vengeful Putin seeking to eliminate the man who openly challenged him two months ago, but there will be few tears shed for the warlord’s demise.
One reason Prigozhin may have lived as long as he did after his attempted rebellion is that Putin might still have needed him for Russian operations in Africa and to ensure that he wasn’t turned into a martyr by his Wagner fighters. Two months later, that no longer appears to be the case. Prigozhin’s apparent death is likely to be a signal to the rest of the Russian elite that challenging Putin’s rule is a death sentence.
Just the day before his plane was downed, Prigozhin posted a video claiming to be in Africa where he vowed to make “Russia even greater on every continent.” Especially with Prigozhin apparently dead, Russia’s operations in Africa should remain under close scrutiny.
Prigozhin’s apparent death also comes as Surovikin, who disappeared during the Wagner uprising and was reported to be under house arrest, was formally removed from his post as head of the air force under suspicion of aiding Prigozhin. In all likelihood, Putin is finally cleaning house.
—Doug Klain is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
Putin will seek plausible deniability by blaming Ukraine
Assuming Prigozhin and his deputy Dmitry Utkin were killed aboard his jet, this was “no accident, comrade,” as Lenin observed. Most likely, it was purposeful sabotage engineered by one of Russia’s intelligence services, ordered by Putin. A missile strike would be detected, as with the 2014 attack on a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet, and would have been an act of supreme incompetence and stupidity, as it would have placed blame squarely on the Kremlin.
For Putin, this is a “hat trick” from hell. First, Russians will understand who was responsible and that this is a case of “shock and awe,” letting all know who is in charge. Second, Ukraine will be accused as the perpetrator, giving Putin plausible deniability that many Russians will accept. Last, whether or not this was revenge, Putin plays for keeps. Past and current US presidents failed to understand this.
The United States and NATO need to ask basic questions about how safe air travel is over Russia, and why and how this happened. Second, they need to send a consistent but low-key message that NATO maintains an overwhelming conventional military superiority over a desiccated Russian army. Teddy Roosevelt was right—speak softly and carry a big stick. But will we?
—Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council and the author of The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.
Proximity breeds paranoia in men like Putin
On July 4, 1943, all of Europe was at war. It was a clear day with perfect flying weather. A single Royal Air Force B-24 Liberator took off from Gibraltar on a routine transport flight, only to crash shortly after take-off, killing sixteen of the seventeen people on board. Among the dead was Wladyslaw Sikorski, the commander-in-chief of the Polish Army and the prime minister of the free Polish government-in-exile. His death removed a powerful obstacle to the Kremlin’s plan to reassert its control over Eastern Europe. Though it was never conclusively proven, the crash was suspected to be the work of the Soviet intelligence services, a charge they vehemently denied.
Eighty years later, the largest war since World War II rages in Europe, and another threat to the Kremlin’s plan for reasserting Russian dominance in Eastern Europe appears to have been eliminated by a plane crash. Like the Gibraltar mishap, it is unlikely that we will ever know the truth about what happened, but Prigozhin’s apparent death seems too convenient to be a coincidence. Putin remains a KGB officer at his core, and like his predecessor Joseph Stalin his perceived enemies are eliminated, preferably in ways that give him plausible deniability.
Prigozhin was many things, but a student of twentieth-century Russian history was not one of them. Had he been, he would have realized that the dictator’s favor does not last long. Proximity breeds paranoia in men like Stalin and Putin, as so many of their former allies and comrades learned the hard way, especially if they had the audacity to publicly challenge them.
What does Prigozhin’s likely death mean for the Wagner Group and Putin’s hold on power? The Wagner Group may survive to be used as a future Russian proxy force in the Middle East and Africa, as it has been in the past, but it is unlikely ever to regain its prominence. Putin has sent a clear message to other would-be rivals that he remains firmly in control and that the consequence of betrayal is death. This may work for him in the short term, but if the war in Ukraine turns into a multi-year quagmire, Putin may not be able to find a plane large enough to shoot down all the enemies he will have made within Russia.
—Col. John B. Barranco (Ret.) was the 2021-22 US Marine Corps senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and is currently executive vice president of Potomac International Partners and an adjunct professor at the Naval War College.
It’s time for the West to tighten sanctions and global energy firms to pull out of Russia
On the surface, there is little connection between Russia’s energy sector and Prigozhin’s apparent death. However, the way Putin seems to have dealt with his adversary should worry international partners with remaining investments in Russia, particularly those in the energy sector—the life raft of the Russian economy. This public display of revenge is a blunt reminder that Russia will choose violence over courts to resolve threats to Putin’s agenda. The importance of energy exports for Moscow cannot be overstated, and any business decisions that stray from helping Moscow generate the highest possible revenues are now a personal threat to Putin.
This should signal two messages to international players. First and foremost, energy companies should urgently decouple their operations from Russia. Second, Western allies should leverage the internal turbulence in Russia as an opportune time to tighten sanctions and lower the price cap on oil exports to crash Russia’s ability to sustain its bloody war.
—Olga Khakova is the deputy director for European energy security at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.
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