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Death of a warlord

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s assassination won’t help Russia’s flailing war effort in Ukraine.

By Lawrence Freedman

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s assassination did not come as a surprise. Even before his private jet was blown up, most observers, though not apparently himself, assumed he was a marked man ever since his day-long mutiny on 23 June. The rebellion had been aborted after negotiations with the Kremlin; Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, apparently sealed the deal by offering Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenary soldiers safe haven.

Prigozhin had shown no contrition. There were no grovelling apologies. Instead of relocating expeditiously to Belarus and returning to the shadowy existence of his past, he acted as if he was still a player in the Russian system. He stepped back from his public arguments with the Ministry of Defence but otherwise he could serve the Russian state in his own way. Soon he was moving around his old haunts, sorting out his finances and business affairs in St Petersburg. In particular he was picking up on Wagner’s African ventures. In late July he was in St Petersburg hobnobbing with African leaders as they visited the city for a summit hosted by President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin was last heard in a video posted on his Telegram channel on 22 August, the day before he died, reportedly in Mali explaining his intention to increase Wagner’s presence in Africa, and encouraging potential recruits to join the fight against “terrorists”.

[See also: Mutiny of the mercenaries]

Putin himself implied after Prigozhin’s death that this might have been a profitable role for his old comrade. In what amounted to a eulogy, the Russian president noted, a little euphemistically for someone he had recently denounced as a traitor, that his former colleague had “made mistakes”. Still, he was able to recall Prigozhin’s talents as a businessman, emphasising his work in Africa “in oil, gas and precious metals and stones industries”. He added that Prigozhin had met with some Kremlin officials on his return from his latest trip. Not only did Putin praise the sacrifices of Wagner men in the fight against Ukraine, but he also added that Prigozhin “achieved needed results”. This was both “for himself, and when I asked him for a common cause, as in these last few months”. This has a definite Godfather vibe, praising a man you have just had killed. It might have been intended to deflect attention from his own culpability, although even if he had not been responsible, it would probably have suited Putin if people assumed he was – if only to intimidate other would-be plotters.

We know, because of an official confirmation, that the two men had met five days after the mutiny. Accounts of this meeting suggest that Putin proposed that Wagner might continue under a different boss (possibly Andrei Troshev, a former member of the leadership group who had been trying to repair relations with the Ministry of Defence and was not on the doomed flight). According to Putin, many of Prigozhin’s lieutenants sitting with him were nodding their heads even as their boss ruled it out. 

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All this suggested that Prigozhin felt he was still playing a strong hand. One might think that Prigozhin had known Putin long enough not to trust him, despite an association going back to the 1990s. Maybe he had kompromat on his former patron that might provide some protection, or just assumed that his prominence and popularity within Russia would give him some immunity.

If this was the case, it was not a game Putin could keep going for too long. The more Prigozhin continued as if the mutiny had been no more than a minor misunderstanding, the weaker Putin looked, bereft of his supposed ruthlessness. Having called the man a traitor, could he really allow him to roam free? There was always a risk that Prigozhin might have reformed his Wagner Group as an independent fighting force within Russia, especially as he was still resisting having it placed under the regular army. Its men were loyal to him – and at least he paid them. Those who had moved to Belarus, ostensibly to train Belarussian troops or police the border with Poland and Lithuania, had already begun to drift away.

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The best current hypothesis for the timing of the assassination is that the Kremlin had been trying to get a better insight into the Wagner organisation in Africa in order to take it over. While Prigozhin was acting as if he was still going to be a significant figure in African affairs, Putin was alerting African leaders to the need to keep their distance. Prigozhin came back from his latest African trip to liaise with Moscow – and when the Kremlin realised what he was up to, he sealed his own fate.

Those most keen to see the back of Prigozhin and to get Wagner under their control were the minister of defence, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov. These were the men with whom he had clashed most vigorously in the months leading up to the mutiny. His main demand had been that they be removed from their positions running the war. Prigozhin was not alone in believing that these two were most to blame for everything that had gone wrong with the Russian campaign in Ukraine, from the operational design to the tactics employed and logistical support.

There were many public critics of the higher command of the war. Those with good military contacts were able to report in damning terms on how the situation at the front diverged from official claims that everything was going to plan. The most visible member of this group was Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov), one of the architects of the 2014 violence in eastern Ukraine. Girkin has been complaining about the Russian leadership ever since he was told to get out of Donbas following the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner in July 2014 (for which he was tried in absentia in the Hague and found guilty). After the full-scale invasion, he commented adversely on the inadequacy of the military effort on his Telegram channel, which had 875,000 followers.

[See also: Casualties of the counteroffensive]

These critics created a quandary for Putin. He had seen to it early on that liberal critics of the war were either imprisoned, exiled or cowed into silence, but was less sure when it came to dealing with those criticising the conduct of the war from an ultra-nationalist perspective. Although the attacks were rarely directed at Putin, they were aimed at people he had appointed. From his point of view, their long-time service and undoubted loyalty could compensate for a certain lack of competence. Despite the denunciations, Putin would give them his backing so long as they backed him.

The Kremlin warned the ultra-nationalist military bloggers that their commentary was tantamount to treason and defamation of the armed forces. Girkin was arrested on 21 July and then imprisoned on charges of “extremism”, an indicator of the regime’s determination to shut down criticism coming from any direction. An associate of Girkin, a far-right former colonel in military intelligence, Vladimir Kvachkov, was recently fined in a Moscow court for criticising the special military operation and the Russian leadership.

Girkin was no friend of Prigozhin. He criticised the Wagner operations in the city of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, earlier this year and then had a public spat with Prigozhin after he refused an invitation to join the fight. He was also a minor irritant compared with Prigozhin, whose challenge to Shoigu and Gerasimov in the months leading up to the rebellion was far more substantial – because he presented himself as a successful commander who had been held back by the ineptitude of these two men. As the Wagner campaign to occupy Bakhmut dragged on, Prigozhin complained that he had been denied necessary ammunition. In retaliation, Shoigu announced that all private military contractors, including Wagner, would come under the direct control of the Ministry of Defence. This was an immediate threat to Wagner’s income stream and the trigger for the mutiny. This power struggle was complicated for Shoigu and Gerasimov because Prigozhin was well connected, and many other senior officers were discontented and sympathetic to his critique.

Of these, by far the most important was Sergei Surovikin. He had been put in charge of the special military operation in September 2022 and had arguably been the most effective commander, not least because he understood the demands of defence, managing an orderly evacuation of Russian forces from Kherson City and ordering the elaborate defences that have caused the Ukrainians so much trouble during the current counteroffensive. Surovikin mounted the sustained campaign against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, one of the better organised operations of the war, which came close to succeeding last December. 

He was demoted in January in favour of Gerasimov, apparently because Putin wanted someone more offensive-minded in charge. As the arguments with Prigozhin intensified during the spring, Surovikin was clearly identified as someone close to the Wagner leader. While the mutiny was underway, he appeared in what looked like a hostage video pleading with Prigozhin to turn back. Little was heard from him thereafter. Another plea came from Vladimir Alekseev, deputy head of the military spy agency, the GRU, who was later seen negotiating with Prigozhin when he reached the Southern Command HQ at Rostov-on-Don. He also was suspended.

Against this backdrop we can consider the events leading up to the assassination. First, on 19 August, Putin visited Rostov with Gerasimov. This presumably was to demonstrate that he is very much in charge, as well as to get a briefing on the state of the war. Then, on the morning of 23 August, it was announced that Surovikin had been removed from his post as commander of the aerospace forces. The destruction of Prigozhin’s private jet later that day did not only take out Wagner’s boss but also his close aides, notably Dmitry Utkin, a former GRU man who had built up Wagner into a ruthless fighting force. He was the one leading the march on Moscow while Prigozhin was negotiating in Rostov.

The timing of the assassination may have had something to do with gaining control over Wagner’s Africa operations, but the motive was to assert the primacy of Shoigu and Gerasimov in the running of the war and the consequences of mounting a challenge to Putin. Within Russia the Wagner Group officially no longer exists. As hardened, experienced fighters are in short supply, its soldiers are being encouraged to join the regular army, but not as a separate entity and so long as they make clear their allegiance to the Russian state. There are reports that some are in a vengeful mood after Prigozhin’s death and, with new leadership, are looking for forms of retribution, but there are limits to what they can do.

A leadership that has survived one mutiny will be looking out for signs of another, aware that it no longer enjoys the full confidence of the officer class. These events will not have lifted the mood of Russian commanders. They will know of colleagues being suspended for insubordination and so will grumble only in private. Those at the front will be increasingly cautious in their dealings with headquarters, reporting continuing progress and not being candid about setbacks until they become too serious to ignore. They will continue working for the same management that has failed to deliver anything approaching a victory after 18 months of war – and seems bereft of ideas about how to achieve one now, other than to carry on as before.  

[See also: What realists get wrong about Ukraine’s counteroffensive]

This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con