Prigozhin: A Bitter End or The Greatest Trick

Two months have passed since the alleged Evgeny Prigozhin’s ‘coup,’ multiple versions and the deconstruction of the events by various media outlets and experts. Right on the second ‘anniversary’ of Wagner’s ‘March on Moscow’ the media leader of the paramilitary company and some of his close subordinates are suspected of dying in the private jet crash. It feels like the events of the 24th of August should have been seen as the final chord of Evgeny Prigozhin’s military and media career and leave all the theories of his involvement in shady Russian politics resolved. However, the coda of the Prigozhin’s summer opus still leaves more questions than answers.

“The Black Spot”

The solution to the events of June 24th made by Russian President Vladimir Putin was unexpected for most of the observers:

  • Prigozhin was supposed to leave Russia for Belorussia.
  • Wagner was intended to transfer its assets to the Russian Ministry of Defense.
  • All Prigozhin’s Russian operations would be ceased.

However, Wagner was not to be dismantled entirely – the ones who declined Putin’s offer to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense had a chance to proceed to Belorussia to train local troops. Also, Wagner forces were to remain in African countries to support existing operations.

It may seem Vladimir Putin spared the lives of the Wanger command and all those participating in June’s ‘March.’ Although, some patriotic analysts and former Chief of Staff members pointed out that the ‘March’ was an act of treason, a criminal offence, and, alongside the caused casualties of the Russian air force, including Putin, will not let the perpetrators avoid the responsibility.

During the Kremlin meeting on the June 29th, Putin tried to mediate the conflict between the Wagner group and the Ministry of Defense. He even proposed to retain the command structure if they legalize themselves within regular Russian troops. However, regardless of his comrades’ visible signs of agreement, Evgeny Prigozhin openly refused to comply, seemingly putting his interests higher than others.

Putin tends to be irritated when those who are supposed to comply ignore his goodwill and mediation efforts or even criticize him during round tables (like it happened with Mikhail Khodorkovsky and musician Yuri Shevchuk). What is more important is that treason itself is something Putin never forgets and never forgives. Vladimir Putin once mentioned in an interview in 2018 that betrayal (read treason), in his understanding, is an unforgivable act. It is probably the result of his political career, KGB background and witnessing how particular hierarchs of the Soviet leadership dismantled the country. Furthermore, Putin’s attitude toward spies and traitors was very vibrant after Sergei Skripal’s poisoning. Putin called him a “traitor” without any signs of pity, regardless of the true circumstances of the poisoning. Thus, speaking in Robert Louis Stevenson’s terms after his ‘March,’ Prigozhin, in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, committed an act of betrayal and got a “black spot,” became a marked man and was supposed to die. The last straws could be his appearance at the African summit in St. Petersburgh in 2023 and his frequent visits to Moscow despite expulsion to Belarus.

The Western and Ukrainian media outlets immediately transmitted this course of events and the Kremlin’s trace in eliminating Prigozhin. It was surprising because Kyiv tried to use any means to maintain the image of weak Russia and bravely resisting Ukrainian soldiers, also boosting the morale of the military suffering severe casualties during the summer “counter-offensive.” Ironically, the same version was supported in multiple Telegram channels and among those who showed discontent with the course of the Special Military Operation. For those who believe in the Kremlin’s attack, it does not matter whether an explosive device was planted on the jet, it was an attack by the aircraft or whether air defense was involved. The main motive is Putin’s and Kremlin’s intention to eliminate the clingy piece from the chessboard. Furthermore, previous track record of strange deaths, like Litvinenko in the UK, Politkovskata on Putin’s birthday, Nemtsov in front of the Kremlin and others, supports the version.

“And like that… he is gone”

The circumstances preceding the crash may seem like a mistake or treason (very close to a paraphrase of Pavel Milyukov’s: “Is this stupidity or is it treason?”). For instance, the death could be a result of negligence from the Prigozhin’s and Wagner’s security or, in the worst case, Russian military command. Immediately after the jet crash, some Russian journalists speculated whether the Ukrainian military used missiles to reach Moscow District or whether it was an explosive device. The first scenario is unlikely without Russian higher command sanction, which would have been too evident and devastating in public as an act of revenge or ‘treason’ of former comrades. The second was possible but revealed intentional passive participation by the Russian military or a fatal mistake committed by the Wagner commanders: they neglected security requirements, gathered the crucial members on a single jet and did not commit to the second technical check before departing from Moscow.

Remembering Wagner’s substantial background in the African political, military and business landscape, and Prigozhin’s tools to disguise himself alongside multiple passports, it is very naïve to believe they would commit such a mistake. Evgeny Prigozhin claimed multiple times he was ready to die, including the consequences related to June’s ‘March’. Thus, those on the jet believed there was no threat to their lives, and all precautions were met. The latter leads to the previous version of the Kremlin’s revenge or internal struggle within Wagner. Nothing could be achieved without a mole within Wagner or intel from Russian intelligence, even if Ukrainian intelligence was involved.

Nevertheless, another viable version is voiced by the Russian financial analyst and journalist Igor Vittel during the podcast on Radio Komsomolskaya Pradva. Vittel quoted Verbal, played by Kevin Spacey, from the motion picture The Usual Suspects: “After that my guess is that you will never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… he is gone.” He suspected the whole crash was staged either with the Kremlin’s sanction or not. Moreover, there are arguments supporting this version. There were two jets; the one remaining returned to Moscow without any additional information about the passengers. Also, there is no evidence that Prigozhin was on the crashed jet. The expertise is still on the way. Even the U.S. officials did not confirm the death of Wagner’s media leader. A Wikipedia page about Prigozhin’s death was published shortly after the crash in multiple languages. Various media worldwide covered the crash, but the topic was rapidly overshadowed by Trump’s arrest and the Fukushima nuclear plant water disposal into the ocean.

This version is among the most viable ones: for the Kremlin, the alleged staging is favorable because it allows it to save face after the June events and grants enough time to reorganize its African operations and paramilitary involvement. For Prigozhin, it is also favorable – he remains alive and can peacefully continue his activities, if any, or retire somewhere without unwanted attention.

The Final Chord

Vladimir Putin said he had known Prigozhin for many years and was a person of a problematic fate who made serious mistakes.” It is indeed so, and the crash is a formal end of Prigozhin’s epic and complicated life, including his recent intrusion into the Russian political developments. His path was a mix of highs and lows: an ex-convict creating catering business and reaching the highest levels of the Russian elite circle, the man creating one of the most efficient paramilitary organizations, being on the frontline of the war for, as he claimed, Russian interests, got entangled in the confrontation with the Russian highest military command and attempted to topple them, finally being ostracized to Belarus and vanishing in the dust of the burning fuselage. Prigozhin may have died or disappeared, but this fact, alongside the ongoing war, a broad conflict with the Western countries and upcoming elections in 2024, confirms that Russian elites are not in stasis – the struggle has just begun.

Roman Kusaiko
Roman Kusaiko
Ph.D. candidate at Lingnan University in Hong Kong