By Andreas Kluth
Yevgeny Prigozhin could one day retire in peace. Or he may have found himself swirling in the maelstrom of Novichok, the nerve agent favored by Russian spy services. He might have fallen out of a window, or crashed into his car, or slipped in his bathroom – like many Russians have lately, or maybe any of us.
Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, Russia’s notorious private army, appears to have died when his private jet crashed while flying from Moscow to St Petersburg, killing him, the three pilots and six other passengers said to be on board. Planes.
All this if…
All this assuming Prigozhin was indeed on board. He has been reported dead twice before, once in a plane crash in Africa. Both times, Prigozhin later appeared to express surprise at reports of his death. What has been said about President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian and repressive authoritarianism applies to Russia in general, including Prigozhin’s Wagner Group: “Nothing is true, and everything is possible.”
We know that Prigozhin’s assassination, if faced with something like this, would have a frightening meaning. A big question mark has hung over his head since he led a short-lived insurgency two months ago against parts of Putin’s government.
At the time, Prigozhin, who was once dubbed “Putin’s chef” because he was so close to the big boss, said his rebellion was not targeting the president personally. But it still makes Putin look weak. With his KGB-trained mind and avowed hatred of betrayal, Putin was unlikely to let this insubordination go unnoticed. Perhaps he saw some sort of revenge as necessary, if only to remind potential future rebels of the rules that apply in Russia today. When the coup attempt was over, Putin promised that “the traitors will be punished inevitably,” and “severely” at that.
Everything from the style of the incident to its timing now resonates “correctly” within the apocalyptic rhyme and inner rhythm of the Putin regime. Also this week, it was confirmed that Sergei Surovikin, a general who was said to be on the same wavelength as Prigozhin, had been removed from office.
The first question is what Russians should think about the news of Prigozhin’s alleged death. Putin does not wish to interpret the strike as a sign of his concern, although some might jump to that conclusion. Instead, he prefers to point out to all potential opponents that disobedience means punishment, even death. This does not mean that he will no longer have enemies. Only the standard is higher now – think of Claus von Stauffenberg – when planning their next steps.
But that may not stop Prigozhin’s hardline supporters or ultranationalists in Russia, some of whom are now vowing revenge. Moreover, if Prigozhin turns up alive, he will immediately become an ever greater threat to Putin.
A different question is what would happen to the Wagner Group if Prigozhin did indeed die. It has long been one of the Kremlin’s favorite paramilitary weapons, notorious for its brutal methods, which have been seen in bloody action in places like the Sahel, the arid belt across sub-Saharan Africa. There, Prigozhin’s mercenaries offer their war services to any junta or dictator willing to pay – with diamond concessions or other currency. A positive side effect, at least from Putin’s point of view, is that these processes often expel French and Americans, replace them with Russians, and drive more Africans to flee en masse to the European Union that Putin so loathes. This deeply destructive impulse is one reason why Europe will never solve its migration crisis.
But now Wagner’s future was in doubt. After the mutiny in June, Putin’s original plan was to allow Prigozhin to retreat with his mercenaries to Russia’s neighbor and de facto client state, Belarus, apparently awaiting further instructions. Poland and the Baltic states, members of the European Union and NATO, are closely watching Wagner fighters, for fear that they will cross the border and cause a war accident.
But without Prigozhin, the Wagner Group was effectively decapitated. Nor was he the founder of the scheme (which, according to Russian law, should not exist), although its founder, Dmitry Utkin, was also on board. Nevertheless, Prigozhin became the public face of Wagner, posting vulgar comments on Telegram from the battlefields of Ukraine bordering on violence porn. Wagner was an unofficial agent of the Kremlin, but Wagner was also Prigozhin.
In this respect, Prigozhin’s disappearance will reverberate far beyond the point of the accident, beyond Russia and Ukraine and into Africa. There, the military junta that recently seized power in Niger will likely turn to Wagner’s mercenaries to counter the response being prepared by neighboring African democracies, former colonial power France, or once-superpower America. One way to know if Putin is sure Prigozhin is dead is if he will quickly appoint a new boss in Wagner.
And the third question is how would foreign leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping, one of Putin’s few remaining allies, feel about the plane crash? One curious aspect of its timing is that it coincides with the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, where the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa gather in a show of scorn for the US-led West. Putin cannot attend the gathering in person because the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for him for kidnapping children from Ukraine – a war crime. He connected via video call, of course, but he may have found that uncomfortable.
Will Xi and others in Johannesburg interpret the strike on Prigozhin as a sign that Putin is still a formidable tsar? Or a reminder that Putin cannot be a legitimate and reliable partner in their emerging geopolitical bloc?
Optimists hope that countries like South Africa and India, as well as others in the so-called global south, will now come close to openly siding with Ukrainians in self-defense against Putin’s aggressor, who has a reputation for ruthless brutality. He will become more and more of a burden to anyone he is associated with.
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