Prigozhin’s Death, A Perfect Consolidation Of Power For Vladimir Putin
Two months after his failed coup, the Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has reportedly died on Wednesday in a plane crash. Many questions remain unanswered, but one thing is for sure: we know who is bound to benefit the most.
MOSCOW — Yevgeny Prigozhin's days were numbered. Exactly two months after his iconic "rebellion," a spectacular but futile insurrection that humiliated and weakened Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, the 62-year-old paramilitary leader Wagner died on Aug. 23 in a plane crash that looks quite clearly like an assassination.
Neither the Kremlin nor any other Russian political authority has officially confirmed it, but the state media made it pretty clear, right after the downing of the Embraer Legacy private jet that was scheduled to fly from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
According to the national air transport agency, on board the private jet that crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region, leaving no survivors, was the former friend and personal chef who Putin had called a “traitor” on June 24, and who had since been living on borrowed time, flying back and forth to Russia despite his pariah status.
" Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner group, hero of Russia and true patriot of his homeland, was killed as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia. But even in hell, he'll be the best!” reacted his supporters on Grey Zone, a Telegram channel reputedly close to Wagner on social media.
Putin so far has not commented on the apparent death of his former ally. And yet...
Settling of scores
On Wednesday evening, shortly after the crash, public television channels showed the Kremlin leader at the podium of a major military concert. Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk during the Second World War, he paid tribute on stage to the "dedication" and "loyalty" of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
Ten bodies have been found in the wreckage, according to Russian state media. Some have been identified, including that of Prigozhin, but they are burnt and in poor condition, and their identities will have to be confirmed by DNA testing. Other victims include Dmitri Outkin, Prigozhin's right-hand man who, known for his neo-Nazi sympathies, was the real founder of the Wagner militia. Strangely, for the moment, only an investigation for "violation of air transport safety regulations" has been opened.
Prigozhin needs to look after himself. And what he eats...
“An accident seems unlikely. It's probably a settling of scores between clans," a well-placed source in the Kremlin told Les Echos. "After his mutiny, I had the feeling this was going to end badly. The Kremlin doesn't forgive such things," added a former senior Kremlin official who has kept in touch with influential contacts. Back in July, the official ironically warned: "Prigozhin needs to look after himself. And what he eats...".
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin in a clip shared online on Monday.
A death foretold
The top suspect is the military command, which Prigozhin had constantly criticized for its ineffectiveness in the conflict in Ukraine over the past 19 months, and which was the target of his insurrection.
In a carefully orchestrated event, his main supporter in the army, Sergey Surovikin, who is also known as “General Armageddon" and, like the Wagner chief, is known for his brutal methods, was replaced on Wednesday, just hours before the crash. Both men were key figures in the Russian assault on Ukraine — one briefly at the head of the "special operation," and the other with his paramilitary troops. But, on the front line and in the corridors of power, both made numerous internal enemies. Conspiracy theories are now running rampant.
Putin does not tolerate betrayal.
"His death seemed programmed. It was rather the reprieve granted that was surprising. Putin does not tolerate betrayal. His system does not tolerate autonomous players, even those who have rendered services and supported the projects of power. This is in line with Russian historical continuity: Lenin and Stalin similarly got rid of any figures who stood out from the crowd," says Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, Director of the Russia-Eurasia Center at the French Institute of International Relations think-tank.
“Whatever the causes of the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of retaliation, and the Kremlin won’t get particularly involved. From Putin’s point of view, as well as that of many member of the security forces and the army, Prigozhin's death should be a lesson to all his potential supporters. It will frighten, rather than inspire, protest. There will be resentment and discontent, but no political consequences," assures Tatiana Stanovaya, a political scientist at R.Politik, an independent think tank focusing on Russia.
In Russia's military and political game, Yevgeny Prigozhin's existence and death risk being nothing more than micro-events, soon to be forgotten, so as not to upset the sacrosanct "stability" of Putin's regime.
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