In the days after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s thwarted mutiny in Moscow, many questioned what would become of the man who had so brazenly turned on Vladimir Putin. Two months to the day after that rebellion began, there seems to be an answer: on 23 August, Russia media reported that an aircraft purportedly carrying Prigozhin had crashed; all aboard had died.
Grey Zone, a Telegram channel linked to Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries, reported that the aircraft was travelling from Moscow to St Petersburg and had been shot down by Russia’s air defences. The Financial Times reported that videos posted online by social media accounts connected to state security services appeared to show the plane plummeting from the sky “accompanied by a plume resembling shots fired from anti-aircraft defences, before crashing to the ground in a ball of flame”.
Few analysts or commentators reacted with surprise to the initial reports. Putin is notorious for exacting revenge on his political opponents and those who betray him. And few have betrayed the Russian president as severely and as publicly as Prigozhin.
As Katie Stallard wrote in the New Statesman in June, “Prigozhin is Putin’s creation”. Prigozhin was a former convict who worked his way up in the restaurant business in the 1990s before becoming friendly with Putin. He went on to win lucrative catering contracts and became Putin’s loyal fixer. In 2014 a private military company named the Wagner Group was formed, bankrolled by Russian state funds and run by Prigozhin. Wagner became known for its often brutal tactics and was heavily involved in operations in Ukraine, Syria and multiple African countries. Meanwhile, Prigozhin’s wealth and power grew.
Yet as Russian forces, including Wagner troops, found themselves floundering in the current conflict in Ukraine, Prigozhin became increasingly hostile towards the Russian military leadership, openly accusing top generals of failing his troops. Even when he seemed to criticise Putin directly, he faced no repercussions. By 23 June, as Prigozhin and his men embarked on a “march for justice”, first seizing the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and then moving toward Moscow, it seemed as though Putin’s grip on power was slipping.
Even after Prigozhin abruptly abandoned his march, that impression lingered. Though Putin condemned the rebellion in a televised address in June, for two months after the mutiny ended it appeared as though Prigozhin had escaped any sort of consequences for his actions; he was able to travel freely within Russia and even to meet Putin directly. As Prigozhin’s former colleague, Marat Gabidullin, told Bruno Maçães in July, the Wagner commander was planning for a long political future in Russia.
That future, it now seems, is no more. The rebellion has ended.
[See also: Russia’s war on the future]