Usually what looks like an accident really is just an accident. Sometimes, however, it’s impossible to believe this. The plane crash that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, boss of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, falls into this second category.
President Vladimir Putin may well not have directly ordered Prigozhin’s assassination. One theory is that the plane crash may have been mounted to avenge the aircrew shot down by Wagner during its brief march on Moscow in June.
But surely the intelligence services reporting to Putin would have discovered this conspiracy and could have stopped it if he had wanted them to.
A “former senior Kremlin official” told the Financial Times, “I thought they were definitely going to rub him out. And so they did.”
Putin needed Prigozhin dead for two reasons. First, to show the price of rebellion. It’s a liberal exaggeration that Putin rules by terror. He restored stability in the 2000s by providing a stable environment in which Russia’s oligarchs could enrich themselves and by regulating the distribution of rewards and punishments among them.
But this was underpinned by Putin’s control of the military and security apparatus and by his readiness ruthlessly to use it if necessary. The Wagner rebellion cracked this facade, and someone had to pay for this.
Secondly, Putin needed to show that he is back in control. Indeed, the best reason for thinking that he was behind Prigozhin’s death is that it comes at the end of a process in which the Kremlin gradually restored control over repressive apparatuses fractured by the Ukraine War.
The Ministry of Defence has taken control of the bulk of the Wagner forces. Emissaries have been sent to reassure client governments in the Middle East and Africa, where Wagner first became active. Sergei Surovikin, a senior general sympathetic to Wagner, was sacked before the crash.
Among those who died with Prigozhin was the sinister fascist Dimitry Utkin. An ex-colonel in Russian Military Intelligence (GRU), he founded Wagner in 2014, naming it after the antisemitic German composer Richard Wagner.
Utkin was the operational commander of the mercenary army fronted by Prigozhin and initially used by Putin and the GRU for “deniable” operations abroad.
According to András Rácz of the German Council on Foreign Relations, “whoever made that aircraft crash took out both the financial and military leadership of Wagner.
This was an opportunity that Prigozhin and Utkin could be neutralised together, hitting two birds with one stone.”
The decapitation of Wagner may have been part of a broader clampdown aimed at both right and left. Igor Girkin, aka “Strelkov”, an ex-Federal Security Service (FSB) officer initially active in the pro-Russian breakaways in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, was recently arrested.
The veteran anti-Stalinist and anti-war socialist Boris Kagarlitsky has been imprisoned on absurd charges of “justifying terrorism”.
It remains to be seen whether Prigozhin’s elimination provokes a serious backlash on the part of the ultra‑nationalist right and the junior and middle-rank army officers among whom he was popular.
Nevertheless, there are two elements of the broader situation that suggest Putin may be able to contain far right discontent.
First, Ukraine’s offensive against entrenched Russian positions has so far failed to break through. Indeed, Washington’s criticisms of Kyiv’s strategy are being increasingly widely leaked.
Secondly, whatever the wider significance of the recent Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) summit, it showed the failure of the United States and its allies to isolate China and Russia.
The expansion of the Brics to include three of Washington’s closest Middle East allies—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt—alongside its greatest opponent in the region, Iran, is a truly remarkable development.
Putin’s position is thus stronger than it seemed back in June. So he may be able to ride out the crisis initiated by the Wagner rebellion.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that invading Ukraine, far from strengthening Russian imperialism, has undermined its coherence. It will be hard to close Pandora’s Box.