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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Gangster Logic, Is Prigozhin Hit The Start Of Putin's Ultimate Purge?

Veterans of Wagner PMC, the mercenary group run by now-deceased Yevgeny Prigozhin, are scattered all over Russia. Many are now threatening to exact their revenge. But it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who wields the power, and there are plenty inside and outside Wagner who may be in his sights.

photo of Putin listening to an official in the Kremlin

Putin listens to acting governor of the Kherson region Vladimir Saldo during a face-to-face meeting at the Kremlin on Thursday.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Pool/Planet Pix via ZUMA
Bartosz T. Wieliński


WARSAW — It’s a country within a country, with its own military and a wide network of veterans in every large Russian city. On Telegram, many Wagner mercenaries are already making threats, saying that the killing of their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was the work of “traitors to Russia," who will soon face “catastrophic consequences."

We are used to seeing a troubled Vladimir Putin. Instead of bringing about a quick win in Ukraine and a liquidation of the entire country, his invasion has led to ongoing catastrophe. It has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers, thousands of damaged tanks and helicopters, and the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

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The second-strongest army in the world has often turned out to be second-strongest when fighting in Ukraine. The sanctions imposed by the West are working, and the ruble’s value has fallen into an abyss.

Beyond the war, Russia was recently, once again, humbled on the world stage when one of its rovers failed to land on the moon — followed by a successful landing by India. Everywhere you turn, Russia’s failures are on display, which even the Kremlin's powerful disinformation and propaganda apparatus can no longer falsify.

But Putin, speaking recently in Ponyri, in the Kursk region of Russia, was beaming with joy.

Putin is consistent

The reason for his happiness is an explosion which took place 700 kilometers to the north of where he gave his speech, in the village of Kuzhenkino in Russia’s Tver region. It is the wreck of the Embraer on which Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin flew from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

This Kremlin oligarch was once so close to Putin that he could serve him at dinners with world leaders, for which he earned the nickname “Putin’s Chef." With Putin’s permission, he created the Wagner Group mercenaries, which sowed death on the African continent, in Syria and Ukraine.

But Prigozhin went too far when it came to privatizing the war in Ukraine, and ended up in strong conflicts with Russian generals and with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, finally daring to raise a hand against Putin, his once-benefactor.

The spectacular coup attempt ended in failure, and a national fiasco. Prigozhin emerged unscathed. But, two months later, he was returning from Africa to his hometown of St. Petersburg, via Moscow; his remains were identified only a few hours after the catastrophe, to Putin's apparent delight.

Putin, a former KGB officer, is consistent with his enemies. In order to kill former FSB Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Litvinenko, Russian agents smuggled a quantity of radioactive polonium — 10 times the lethal dose — to the UK, where Litvinenko had sought refuge. In 2006, Litvinenko died after suffering the effects of the poisoning for several days. The signal was clear: Putin’s enemies are ruthlessly removed.

Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, on the other hand, were poisoned with Novichok. This is a substance classified as a weapon of mass destruction, which is produced only by Russia. For Russians and the international community, the message was the same.

Close up photograph of Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Russia, Vladivostok - May 31, 2023: Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a presentation event for the PMC Wagner Second Front youth outreach project.


What's next for Wagner? 

Members of the Wagner Group say that Prigozhin’s plane was shot down by Russian air defense using a surface-to-air missile. In spectacular, brutal, uncompromising fashion, Putin has eliminated yet another enemy, showing that he will stop at nothing.

Putin is an alumnus of the Russian criminal underworld, after all.

"Judgment Day" is underway in Russia. The assassination of Prigozhin coincided with the official dismissal of Air Force Commander Sergei Surovikin, who was allegedly supporting Wagner as well.

The question now is whether Putin will allow him to die a natural death, or whether he will once again conjure up a spectacular ending.

And what about Ivan Girkin, a former FSB officer who criticized Putin and led to the separation of part of the Donbas from Ukraine nine years ago? Criticism was passed over in the Kremlin, but after Prigozhin's coup, everything changed.

Girkin will wait for his trial, after which he may be sentenced to 20 years in prison. Will officers find him hanging in his cell on their morning rounds?

More important than these questions, however, is what will happen to the Wagner Group. The gangster logic that Putin follows would require the Wagnerians to be wiped out, so that no one would dare raise a hand against him again.

The question now is: will the Russian security apparatus, which has proved itself unable to defend the capital from Ukrainian drones, be able to carry out another great purge?

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Putinism Without Putin? USSR 2.0? Clean Slate? How Kremlin Succession Will Play Out

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, political commentators have consistently returned to the question of Putin's successor. Russia expert Andreas Umland foreshadows a potentially tumultuous transition, resulting in a new power regime. Whether this is more or less democratic than the current Putinist system, is difficult to predict.

A kid holds up a sign with Putin's photograph over the Russian flag

Gathering in Moscow to congratulate Russia's President Vladimir Putin on his birthday.

Andreas Umland


STOCKHOLM — The Kremlin recently hinted that Vladimir Putin may remain as Russia's president until 2030. After the Constitution of the Russian Federation was amended in 2020, he may even extend his rule until 2036.

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However, it seems unlikely that Putin will remain in power for another decade. Too many risks have accumulated recently to count on a long gerontocratic rule for him and his entourage.

The most obvious and immediate risk factor for Putin's rule is the Russian-Ukrainian war. If Russia loses, the legitimacy of Putin and his regime will be threatened and they will likely collapse.

The rapid annexation of Crimea without hostilities in 2014 will ultimately be seen as the apex of his rule. Conversely, a protracted and bloody loss of the peninsula would be its nadir and probable demise.

Additional risk factors for the current Russian regime are related to further external challenges, for example, in the Caucasus. Other potentially dangerous factors for Putin are economic problems and their social consequences, environmental and industrial disasters, and domestic political instability.

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