Amy Knight is the author of Orders To Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder.
Western observers, including U.S. President Joe Biden, have said that they were not surprised to hear that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of Russia’s infamous Wagner Group, met his apparent demise on Wednesday when his business jet crashed en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg. After Mr. Prigozhin’s ill-fated mutiny in June, he was widely considered to be a marked man, awaiting retribution from Russian President Vladimir Putin. “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind,” Mr. Biden remarked when asked about the plane crash.
To be sure, the numerous murders of Mr. Putin’s political enemies that have occurred over the past two decades give strong grounds to assume that the Russian President ordered the destruction of the jet. But rather than strengthening his image as a powerful leader who deals decisively with those who threaten him, Mr. Prigozhin’s case makes Mr. Putin seem more like a mafia crime boss than a government leader.
On Thursday, Mr. Putin broke his 24-hour silence and spoke about the crash, expressing his condolences to the victims’ families and even acknowledging that Mr. Prigozhin was “a talented man.” But he did not go so far as to confirm Mr. Prigozhin’s death, and Russian aviation authorities have only said that Mr. Prigozhin was on the list of passengers. Such equivocation recalls the oblique politics of Soviet days, when Western Kremlinologists assessed the power balance by looking at the leadership lineup on Red Square to see who was missing. And it suggests dysfunction and instability in Mr. Putin’s entourage.
This is not the first time that an aircraft disaster killed a political opponent of Mr. Putin. In April, 2002, General Alexander Lebed, governor of Krasnoyarsk, perished in a helicopter crash in Siberia. Mr. Lebed was a highly popular political figure who had even challenged Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential elections. He had apparently gotten under Mr. Putin’s skin by criticizing the war in Chechnya, and some speculated that the cause of the crash was sabotage. But there were several survivors, and an investigation revealed that the aircraft had hit a power line that was concealed by dense fog.
Perhaps the choice of an air crash to get rid of Mr. Prigozhin was made because other Wagner officers were on the plane, including Dmitry Utkin, a veteran of both Chechen wars who achieved the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the GRU (military intelligence) before becoming field commander of the Wagner Group in 2014. Mr. Utkin, an alleged admirer of the Third Reich, led the columns that marched on Moscow in June, while Mr. Prigozhin stayed back with the Wagner troops stationed in Rostov-on-Don. As Russia expert Andreas Umland quipped: “The usual end of a Wagner opera: Everybody’s dead.”
In the case of Mr. Prigozhin, there is little room for plausible deniability. His plane was either shot down or was blown up by an explosive device on board – and Western officials reportedly believe that the latter scenario is more likely. And the events leading up to the incident suggest that a confrontation with the Kremlin was inevitable. Apparently because he feared an uproar from hard-line Prigozhin supporters, Mr. Putin had refrained from punishing Mr. Prigozhin for his mutiny, allowing him to continue as Wagner’s boss and to travel back and forth from his new Belarus headquarters to his native St. Petersburg. Although Mr. Prigozhin kept a low profile after the June debacle, abstaining from his inflammatory daily posts and videos on Telegram, he had appeared in a video shortly before the crash, apparently from Africa, claiming that Wagner was back in business and recruiting men. Then, on Aug. 22, the day before the crash, Russian media outlets reported that Sergei Surovikin, a top Russian general with close ties to Mr. Prigozhin, had been removed from his post as commander of Russia’s Aerospace Forces.
Will Mr. Prigozhin’s death benefit Mr. Putin? It will mollify his generals, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov in particular, who before the Wagner mutiny had endured months of Mr. Prigozhin publicly castigating them for failures in Ukraine, even suggesting that they be executed. Tired of Mr. Putin’s hesitation to confront Mr. Prigozhin, they may even have pressured the Russian President to finally get rid of him. But the Wagner Group has played an important role for the Kremlin, not only in Syria and Ukraine but also in Africa, where it has become a key foreign-policy tool. Now the group has no leader. And Mr. Putin is already facing a backlash from Mr. Prigozhin’s many supporters, who assume that he was the one who ordered the destruction of the plane. Rather than consolidating Mr. Putin’s power, the presumed murder of Mr. Prigozhin and nine other passengers casts a shadow on his presidency that could darken as inevitable repercussions follow.