If Prigozhin is gone, long live Putin?

by Andreas Kluth

Yevgeny Prigozhin might have retired in peace someday. Or he could have been found writhing in the throes of Novichok, a nerve agent favored by Russia’s spy agencies. He might also have fallen out of a window, crashed in his car, or slipped in his bathroom — like so many Russians lately, and like any of us potentially.

As it happens, Prigozhin, the boss of the Wagner Group, a notorious Russian private army, appears to have died when a private plane crashed while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing him and the three pilots and six other passengers said to be on board.

That’s assuming that Prigozhin really was on board. His death has been proclaimed twice before, once in an African plane crash. Both times Prigozhin later turned up professing surprise at reports of his own demise. What’s been said about the autocratic and repressive reign of President Vladimir Putin also applies to Russia generally, including Prigozhin’s Wagner Group: “Nothing is true, and everything is possible.”

We do know that Prigozhin’s assassination, if that’s what it was, would have made a chilling kind of sense. A big question mark has floated above his head since he led a short-lived mutiny two months ago against parts of Putin’s government.

At the time, Prigozhin, once nicknamed “Putin’s Chef” because he was so close to the big boss, professed that his uprising wasn’t aimed at the president personally. But he still made Putin look weak. With his KGB-trained mind and his avowed intolerance for betrayal, Putin was unlikely to just let this insubordination slip. He may have deemed some sort of vengeance necessary, if only to remind potential copycat mutineers of the rules in today’s Russia. When the attempted coup was over, Putin promised that the “traitors” would “inevitably be punished,” and “harshly.”

Everything from the style of the crash to its timing now resonates with the Putin regime’s macabre sort of rhyme and meter. Also this week it was confirmed that Sergei Surovikin, a general who was said to be in cahoots with Prigozhin, was removed from his post.

The first question is what Russians should think about the news of Prigozhin’s presumed death. Putin wouldn’t want them to interpret the hit as a sign that he’s worried, although some may come to exactly that conclusion. Instead, he’d want to signal to all of his potential adversaries that insubordination means punishment up to and including death. This doesn’t mean he’ll no longer have enemies; only that the bar is now higher — think Claus von Stauffenberg — for them to plot their next steps.

That may not stop Prigozhin’s hardcore supporters or Russia’s ultra-nationalists, though, some of whom are now baying for revenge. If Prigozhin were yet to turn up alive, moreover, he’d immediately become an even greater threat to Putin than he ever was.

A different question is what will happen to the Wagner Group if Prigozhin is indeed dead. It’s long been one of the Kremlin’s preferred paramilitary armies, notorious for its brutal methods, on bloody display in places such as the Sahel, the arid belt across Africa just south of the Sahara. There, Prigozhin’s mercenaries have been hawking their war-waging services to any junta or dictator willing to pay — in diamond franchises or other currency. A positive side effect from Putin’s point of view is that these operations often drive out the French and Americans, draw in the Russians, and push more Africans to flee en masse toward the European Union which Putin so despises. Precisely this sinister motivation is one reason why Europe will never solve its migration crisis.

Now, though, Wagner’s future is in doubt. After the mutiny in June, Putin’s initial plan was to let Prigozhin decamp with his mercenaries to Russia’s neighbor and de facto vassal state Belarus, presumably to await further instructions. Poland and the Baltic countries, which are members of the EU and NATO, have kept a wary eye on these Wagner fighters, lest they cross the border and cause mischief.

Without Prigozhin, however, the Wagner Group is in effect decapitated. He didn’t start the outfit (which, under Russian law, shouldn’t even exist at all), although its founder, Dmitry Utkin, was reportedly on the plane too. But Prigozhin became Wagner’s public face, posting crude Telegram rants from Ukrainian battlefields that verged on violence porn. Wagner was an unofficial proxy of the Kremlin, but Wagner was also Prigozhin.

In this way, Prigozhin’s disappearance will echo far beyond the crash site, far beyond even Russia and Ukraine, and all the way to Africa. There, yet another junta recently seized power in Niger, and may look to Wagner mercenaries to resist retribution from neighboring African democracies, the former colonial power France, or the erstwhile superpower, America. One way to tell if Putin is sure that Prigozhin is dead will be if he names a new Wagner boss swiftly.

A third question is how foreign leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, nominally one of Putin’s few remaining allies, should think about the plane crash. A curious aspect of its timing is that it coincides with the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, where the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are meeting in a show of defiance to the U.S.-led West. Putin can’t attend this gathering in person, because the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against him for allegedly kidnapping Ukrainian children — a war crime. He dialed in via video link, but probably found that awkward.

Will Xi and the other attendees in Johannesburg interpret the hit against Prigozhin as a sign that Putin is still a fearsome tsar to be reckoned with? Or as a reminder that Putin cannot be a legitimate and reliable partner in their nascent geopolitical bloc?

Optimists should hope that countries such as South Africa and India, and others in the so-called Global South, now come closer to siding openly with the Ukrainians in their self-defense, and against Putin the aggressor, whose reputation for ruthless brutality will become ever more of a burden for anybody who associates with him.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. diplomacy, national security and geopolitics.