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'Message Sent': Russian Elite, Nationalists On Notice After Prigozhin's Presumed Death

A protester with a face mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a rally in London as part of the International "Putin Is A Killer" day of action across Europe on August 20.
A protester with a face mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a rally in London as part of the International "Putin Is A Killer" day of action across Europe on August 20.

After the Wagner mercenary group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin led an abortive rebellion this summer that posed the greatest challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s 24-year grip on power, many experts said the billionaire Kremlin insider now had a target on his back.

As Prigozhin’s troops marched toward Moscow on June 24, demanding a change in the military leadership amid heavy losses and serious setbacks in the war against Ukraine, Putin called their act “treason” and compared it to momentous events in World War I that led to the collapse of the Russian Empire.

The message Putin is trying to send is, ‘Don’t even think of trying to rebel. Prigozhin ultimately did not get away with anything. So your fate will be his fate if you try anything stupid like this.’”
-- Mark Katz, George Mason University

Putin has said in the past that the one thing he cannot forgive is betrayal, and he repeated that during the mutiny, warning that “those who consciously chose the path of betrayal…will suffer an inevitable punishment."

So, when a private jet with Prigozhin on the manifest crashed in a field northwest of Moscow on August 23 -- killing all 10 people aboard, according to Russian aviation authorities -- the only surprise to some experts was how soon it happened, exactly two months after the short-lived insurrection.

“It is pretty straightforward,” Maria Snegovaya, a Russia analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told RFE/RL. “He did something that was taboo. He was going to be eliminated sooner or later, and this time it came quite fast."

An Embraer Legacy 600 affiliated with Wagner was flying from Moscow to Prigozhin’s hometown of St. Petersburg when it fell from the sky shortly after 6 p.m., bursting into flames upon impact in a field and sending a black cloud of smoke high into the air.

A day later, there was no official confirmation that Prigozhin, 62, was among the dead.

WATCH: Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led an armed rebellion in Russia, has presumably died in an air crash aged 62. The incident occurred two months after the mutiny. Prigozhin spent years in a Soviet jail, before becoming known as "Putin's chef" for growing rich off Kremlin catering contracts.

Yevgeny Prigozhin: From 'Putin's Chef' To Malcontent Mercenary
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The cause of the crash was not immediately known, and an investigation has been opened. There was no information on whether rescuers had found the plane’s black box, which could provide insight into whether pilot error, technical malfunction, a bomb, or a missile had brought down the plane.

Putin, who was awarding soldiers medals at the time of the August 23 crash, has yet to comment on it.

A missile strike would be highly symbolic as Prigozhin’s forces had shot down aircraft during their rebellion, reportedly killing more than 10 Russian servicemen.

But the truth may never be known. Critics say that under Putin, Russian authorities have frequently shied away from conducting thorough investigations of events that cut too close to the Kremlin or covering up the results of such probes. Nonetheless, Russians will connect the dots, experts said.

“I think a lot of people are going to assume that this is not an accident, that this is yet another example of Putin getting rid of people who are inconvenient,” Mark Katz, a political science professor at George Mason University in Virginia, told RFE/RL.

Prigozhin appeared in a video released on August 21 that was possibly shot in Africa.
Prigozhin appeared in a video released on August 21 that was possibly shot in Africa.

In late June, following the Wagner mutiny, Katz told RFE/RL he believed it was highly likely that Prigozhin would be assassinated within a few months.

While the Kremlin will deny any involvement, the crash will send a clear message to those dissatisfied with Putin’s management of the war effort in Ukraine, Katz said on August 23.

“The message Putin is trying to send is, ‘Don’t even think of trying to rebel. Prigozhin ultimately did not get away with anything. So your fate will be his fate if you try anything stupid like this,’” he said.

At first, it did appear that Prigozhin might just get away with what many observers said -- even though its stated targets were military leaders -- amounted to the most brazen attack on Putin’s authority since the former KGB officer rose to power in 1999.

The mercenary leader appeared to move freely around Russia and Belarus in the days after the mutiny and even showed up on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit that Putin hosted in St. Petersburg in late July, giving the impression that the two had settled their differences.

To many, including some in Russia’s elite, the seeming leniency appeared to be a sign of Putin’s weakness. High-profile critics of Putin have in several cases suffered terrible fates, killed by bullets or exotic poisons.

However, others said Putin was biding his time, waiting for the mutiny to fade from the front pages before getting his revenge. The seeming reconciliation between the two men also offers the Kremlin a veneer of deniability in the crash.

Prigozhin rose to prominence and fabulous wealth in the 2010s thanks to his proximity to Putin, though the exact nature of their personal relationship remains cloudy.

In 2022, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine struggled, Prigozhin deployed his Wagner forces to the front and appeared to achieve greater success than the regular armed forces, capturing the Donbas city of Bakhmut in May after months of extremely deadly fighting.

Over the course of several months, Prigozhin allowed himself to harshly criticize Russia’s military leadership and won the minds of many pro-war propogandists, bloggers, and nationalists in the process -- people who back the invasion but believe Moscow is botching it badly. He even showed political ambitions.

When he launched his mutiny on June 23, after numerous calls for the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, his troops faced little resistance as they approached within 200 kilometers of Moscow, raising questions about loyalties and levels of support for the Kremlin among members of the military and security services who are dissatisfied with the progress of the war.

Days before the plane crash, Bloomberg News reported that hawks in the security services have been pushing the same demands as Prigozhin, calling for new military leadership and an escalation of fighting.

Putin initially allowed pro-war bloggers and nationalists to criticize his military leadership even as he jailed anti-war activists. Prigozhin’s mutiny seemed to show clearly that he had let it go too far.

“The nationalists were useful at one point and now they are not so funny anymore and he has to deal with them,” Katz said.

Igor Girkin, a rabid nationalist and pro-war commentator who called Putin a “useless coward” in a Telegram post to his 800,000 followers, was arrested last month in a move widely seen as a warning to his ilk.

Prigozhin’s death, if confirmed -- or even his disappearance, if he does not resurface -- will do the same.

“It is about reasserting control in a very demonstrative way. If you dare to challenge the boss, this is what happens to you. It is very much a godfather-type of situation. That is how the system works,” Snegovaya said.

Experts also said that Prigozhin’s death opens up an opportunity for Putin to dismantle the near-monopoly Wagner held as Russia’s go-to mercenary group and bring parts of it under greater Kremlin control to prevent it from threatening him again.

Prigozhin concentrated a lot of power in his hands as he deployed Wagner forces to numerous states in Africa and the Middle East.

“This is the first big step toward Putin reimagining how he can use the operational infrastructure that Wagner has built up in a way that continues to advance Russian goals while also being more reliably loyal to him,” said Catrina Doxsee, an expert at the CSIS, who analyzes transnational threats, including mercenary groups.

However, she said it remains to be seen how the Wagner’s rank-and-file would react to a change in control, noting that Prigozhin had enjoyed “a lot of loyalty.”

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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