Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Expert Commentary: Prigozhin’s Death and the Future of Putin’s Rule
Expert Commentary: Prigozhin’s Death and the Future of Putin’s Rule

Expert Commentary: Prigozhin’s Death and the Future of Putin’s Rule

Editor’s Note: The head of Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is presumed dead as a result of a plane crash on August 23. Below, FPRI experts examine what the controversial mercenary boss’s death means for Russia, Putin, and the war in Ukraine.

Olga Khvostunova

Prigozhin’s death offers a glimpse into the internal dynamics of the Putin regime, which increasingly resorts to the use of brutal power to assert the Russian president’s control over the political system. The mutiny, even though it was not directed against Putin, undermined his position as an unassailable leader, whose power is absolute and unchallenged. Russian elites were shocked not only by the president’s weak reaction to the march of the Wagner troops on Moscow but also by the consequent pardoning and alleged return to business as usual. The perception was: Can one raise a mutiny and get away with it?

Two months later, the answer came loud and clear: No, one cannot. There is little doubt that the plane crash that killed Prigozhin and other top people in the Wagner command, was a high-profile execution of the man whom Putin perceived as a traitor. The elites were given a clear signal: If you follow Prigozhin’s path, this will happen to you as well. In a sense, this was a return to “normality” with Putin in control, ruthless to his enemies, and everyone else deferring to his authority.

Additionally, Putin sent a message of support to the military, as all the critics of the Russian army’s actions in Ukraine have been removed from the public space: Privozhin is dead, a prominent pro-war nationalist Igor Girkin is in jail, General Sergei Surovikin, who headed the Russian aerospace forces and allegedly supported the mutiny, is demoted, and his whereabouts remain unknown. At the same time, the Russian president reached out to the members of the Wagner Group seeking to integrate them into the overall structure of the Russian military. It is unclear, however, if the current military command has Putin’s support and confidence.

Prigozhin’s death, even if it signals the restoration of the status quo, is still significant, as it showed the Putin regime’s readiness to resort to explicit and public acts of violence against perceived enemies and traitors. It also further exposes its criminal nature and radicalization within the higher echelons of power.

Raphael Parens 

While Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demise was predicted by many, its mysterious circumstances speak to the Wagner Group leader’s tumultuous relationship with Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin, and the Ministry of Defense. The Kremlin’s control over the judicial branch and willingness to use disinformation will block any objective investigation. In the short term, Prigozhin’s death coincides with an alleged purge of far-right influence in Russian military intelligence, the seizure of more Wagner and Prigozhin-owned assets by the Kremlin, and a reorganization of the group’s remaining troops and equipment.

Putin’s decision to tacitly support and later take credit for Wagner Group’s finances in Africa speaks to the Kremlin’s limited reach abroad. Still, limited military budgets across the Sahel and Sahelian frustration with Western and UN approaches to counterterrorism have given Wagner and the Kremlin a unique opportunity to gain influence, natural resources, and key port facilities. Despite Prigozhin’s and deputy Dmitry Utkin’s deaths, Wagner Group’s military capacity in Mali, Libya, and Central African Republic is still significant, and the group could still act as a spoiler in Niger and Sudan. Putin will need to decide whether to extricate the group, to leave them be, or to try to replace them in each state. All such strategies are fraught with risk, and Sahelian governments have proven remarkably willing to bring on new partners, particularly alongside new junta governments.

Meanwhile, the Group’s offensive around Bakhmut, Ukraine, while brutish and bloody, demonstrated both Wagner leaders’ combat ability and the Ministry of Defense’s lack thereof, both at the tactical and strategic level. General Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu have earned a political victory against a former rival, but this may be a pyrrhic victory. The July mutiny and Prigozhin’s death have hamstrung the military after the withdrawal of Wagner forces across the Ukrainian front, as Wagner mercenaries were shunted off to Belarus. Today, Shoigu and Putin are now caught between a rock and a hard place—they can re-employ mercenaries with questionable loyalty to Putin, or face all of the internal destabilization that would accompany a full Russian military mobilization.

Maximilian Hess

Prigozhin’s death, the spectacular manner in which it occurred, and the timing of it two months after his aborted mutiny is the latest example of how Putin’s decision to launch his full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year has weakened the political bargain at the core of his presidency. Putin had built up support and legitimacy through the offer of stability and strength at the expense of liberty and freedom of choice in the upper echelons of political and economic life. Although Putin spent years building up his plans for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he failed to understand how much this bargain had weakened the “home front” and was just as unprepared for major disruption there as he was for dealing with the consequences of Ukraine’s valiant resistance and subsequent Western support. 

Putin cannot give up on his war—he has staked his legitimacy on it and while this will not change in the aftermath of Prigozhin’s death, the incident goes to show how the war has also unleashed threats to the regime unthinkable just eighteen months ago. In addition to having been a war criminal and raider of mineral resources across Africa in a manner that echoes the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, Prigozhin was also one of if not the most effective of Russia’s military leaders in its campaign in Ukraine thus far. While the bar for that status is remarkably low in one of the world’s largest militaries, that Putin either approved of or ordered the decision to remove him highlights how the consequences of the war have come home to roost. It was better to have him taken out than leverage his skills in plundering and spreading Russia’s geopolitical influence Africa or to wage the war in Ukraine. For Putin, revenge always comes first, and much as he is misguided, he sees Ukraine in a similar lens, as an erstwhile vassal who challenged him and needs to be punished. Western leaders must avoid Prigozhin’s mistake and understand that Putin will not honor any peace deal in the long term, just as his pledge not to enact revenge on Prigozhin after his two-day aborted mutiny lasted only two months. The war in Ukraine will only sustainably end with Putin’s irreversible defeat.

Robert Hamilton

Prigozhin’s death, which Putin certainly ordered or at a minimum approved, shows the extent of Russia’s descent into a lawless, mafia-type state. Putin’s attempt to reassert his authority by killing Prigozhin has the effect of putting any other rivals to Putin’s power on notice.  Bids to replace him must either end in success or death. Future challenges to Putin will therefore certainly be better organized than Wagner’s semi-spontaneous and ultimately abortive “March on Moscow.”

The meaning of Prigozhin’s death for the Wagner Group is unclear. On one hand, Putin has an interest in pulling it more directly under his control, to avoid future challenges like that Prigozhin represented. On the other, doing this removes the veneer of deniability for Wagner’s actions the Kremlin currently enjoys.

Philip Wasielewski 

Prigozhin is dead.

Putin ordered it.

Therefore, it is time to consider what is next for Russia and how the immediate aftermath of Prigozhin’s death may offer some clues to this.

The first will be Prigozhin’s funeral. What happens at the funeral (if a funeral is allowed), who of significance attends, how many of the general public try to attend, and what is the content and tone of the eulogies will all be indicators of what may come next? The larger the crowd and the more aggressive the funeral oratory, the greater will be the fear in the Kremlin and the more it will increase its efforts to purge its critics on the far right. Then the question will be what counter-reaction might there be from the far right and other nationalist forces?

Next, who will be the sacrificial lamb charged with Prigozhin’s murder? If it is someone in the Wagner Group, then as mentioned above, the purge of that organization and far-right opponents will continue. However, if people outside the Wagner Group are charged, either in military intelligence or some other Siloviki “clan,” then this could be a harbinger of a new direction of repression. Like Sergei Kirov’s murder in 1934, which provided Joseph Stalin the excuse to begin his purges, Prigozhin’s death may be the beginning of a new series of Putin’s purges of suspected disloyal elements.

Finally, whoever is appointed to take over Wagner Group’s overseas operations will be a clear winner of inside Kremlin politics for this lucrative position. Equally important will be those who wanted the position, did not get it, and how they react. As Russia’s economic pie to be divided among competing Kremlin factions gets smaller and smaller, the rivalry between these factions moderated by Putin is sure to increase. Should Kremlin power struggles lead one or another faction to again challenge Putin, they will certainly remember from Prigozhin’s mutiny the old political saying, “When one shoots at the king, you had better kill him.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.