The presumed death of mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a fiery plane crash leaves Russian President Vladimir Putin stronger in the short term, removing a powerful figure who had defied his authority and threatened to make him look weak.
But it would also deprive him of a forceful and astute player who had proved his utility to the Kremlin by sending his fighters into some of the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war and advancing Russian interests across Africa.
Russian air authorities have said Prigozhin, his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin and eight other people were on a private plane that crashed with no survivors north of Moscow on Wednesday, though neither the Kremlin nor the defence ministry have confirmed his demise. It is not yet clear what caused it to drop from the sky.
No evidence has emerged to support the widespread belief that Prigozhin was killed as an act of vengeance for staging a mutiny in late June – an assumption that analysts said may actually suit Putin’s purpose.
“Whatever the reasons for the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of retribution and reprisal, and the Kremlin will not particularly interfere with this,” Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik consultancy, said.
“From the point of view of Putin, as well as many among the security forces and the military, Prigozhin’s death should be a lesson to any potential followers.”
The Kremlin has remained silent on the crash and its cause, with Putin pressing ahead with business as usual by attending a World War Two commemoration late on Wednesday and addressing a BRICS summit by video link on Thursday.
The crash came two months to the day after Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries staged a mutiny in which they took control of a southern city and advanced towards Moscow, shooting down a number of Russian air force planes and killing their pilots.
Putin, who has spoken in the past of his hatred of traitors, described it as a “stab in the back”.
Since the mutiny, Prigozhin had halted a running feud with the defence establishment but otherwise continued his operations, appearing to move freely in and out of Russia despite a deal with the Kremlin under which he was meant to leave for Belarus.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter now designated a “foreign agent” by Russia, said Prigozhin had wrongly assumed he was indispensable to Putin because of the scale and importance of his activities.
These included extensive operations in Africa, where Wagner has expanded its mercenary services in countries such as Mali and the Central African Republic in exchange for gold- and diamond-mining concessions.
While portraying it as a purely private commercial operation, the Kremlin has used Wagner to expand Russian influence on the continent in competition with Western powers such as France and the United States.
Prigozhin “assumed that Putin would not want to risk all this”, Gallyamov said. “(He) underestimated how important it was for Putin to send a signal to all potential rebels: guys, don’t think you can do this and then remain alive.”
But the death of Prigozhin, if confirmed, is not without cost to Putin.
Analysts said it opens up the prospect of a messy struggle for control of Wagner’s huge business empire, and a possible split between pragmatists willing to integrate with the defence ministry and an aggrieved ultranationalist faction which is already venting its anger on social media channels.Mark Trevelyan, "Presumed death of Prigozhin removes one problem, may create new ones for Putin," Business recorder. 2023-08-25.
Keywords: Political science , Political leadership , International relations , Vladimir Putin , Yevgeny Prigozhin , Gallyamov Africa , Ukraine , BRICS