Prigozhin may be dead, but Putin’s position remains uncertain

The assassination of Wagner’s leader removes a domestic threat. But it does not repair the damage done to Putin’s international position by the June mutiny.

Expert comment Updated 2 October 2023 Published 24 August 2023 2 minute READ

Retribution against Yevgeniy Prigozhin, leader of Wagner’s failed coup attempt in June, was inevitable.

Prigozhin knew President Vladimir Putin’s methods well enough to take precautions. It is known that multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeniy Prigozhin as part of the mercenary leader’s efforts to obfuscate his travels.

Therefore it may never be established for certain that he died in the private jet. Even President Putin, in his first comment on the incident, delivered a stilted obituary but stopped short of saying Prigozhin was definitely among the dead. And the crash is so politically significant that there is no chance of a transparent or credible investigation.

Wagner’s revolt in June had challenged Putin’s position and his narrative about the invasion of Ukraine.

Regardless, Wagner’s revolt in June had challenged Putin’s position and his narrative about the invasion of Ukraine. The deal that ended the mutiny and supposedly ensured Prigozhin’s safety surprised many analysts, showing Putin to be a leader who could not rely on his security forces to crush the mutiny or even demonstrate their loyalty.

Much of the damage done by Prigozhin’s mutiny will have been undone with his death. Theatrical murder sends a powerful message to anyone who might also have been considering standing against Putin. But the Russian leader’s international position will not be strengthened by this act.

Timing

There will have been multiple factors that influenced the choice of timing.

Western analysts may struggle to understand the chosen moment and method of the assassination but however illogical it may appear, this kind of event is a significant, established part of ‘Russian governance’, designed to display power and control.

It is a clear message to all Russian elites that no matter how powerful they think they are, if they oppose Putin they will meet a similar fate.

If it was a deliberate assassination of Prigozhin, it is a clear message to all Russian elites that no matter how powerful they think they are, if they oppose Putin they will meet a similar fate.

Part of that message was the announcement on the same day that four-star general Sergei Surovikin, widely seen as a Wagner ally, had been removed as commander of the Aerospace Forces.

Surovikin’s command was responsible for Russian air defences, which have been unable to provide effective protection against Ukrainian drone attacks. Removing Surovikin might also have eliminated a potential obstacle to orders to shoot down Prigozhin’s aircraft with an air defence missile.

These moves will certainly help Russia’s state media distract public attention from a period of bad news.

These moves will certainly help Russia’s state media distract public attention from a period of bad news. The rouble has weakened dramatically in recent months, the optics of Putin’s ‘remote attendance’ at the BRICS summit were embarrassing, and the country has been humiliated in space: India successfully landed on the moon days after Russia’s own mission failed spectacularly.

In Ukraine, Russian forces are still on the defensive, the prospects for the war highly uncertain.

Reaction

It remains to be seen if Prigozhin’s supporters accept their leader’s death or seek retribution.

Prigozhin was popular in certain parts of the armed forces, and his death could backfire. Some Russian bloggers are decrying what they call ‘Putin’s treason’ in not keeping his word to Prigozhin.

‘The murder of Prigozhin will have catastrophic consequences. Those who gave the order do not understand the mood in the army and morale at all,’ warned the pro-Prigozhin Telegram channel ‘Grey Zone’. 

Outcome

Whatever happens next, the assassination will mainly serve to restore Putin’s reputation for strength and ruthlessness, after it was called into question by allowing Prigozhin to survive his mutiny. Within the context of Putin’s mafia state, the incident will be viewed by many as natural punishment for challenging the leader.

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However, Russia’s international allies will not be convinced that the threat to Putin’s regime is now extinguished. Ukraine’s leadership, meanwhile, will be encouraged.

The conflict within Russia’s security and defence agencies will probably continue and deepen – and while his most visible domestic opponent may be dead, Putin’s position internationally is not much stronger than it was last week.