Mercenary Challenge to Putin Is Put Paid — for the Moment — in What Americans Believe Was a Carefully Choreographed Assassination

‘Prigozhin had many violent friends in the military, mercenaries and jails,’ warns an analyst at London. ‘I think Russia is now going to get very bloody.’

Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
President Putin marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk at a memorial in the village of Ponyri, August 23, 2023. Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The explosion on a business jet that decapitated the top leadership of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group increasingly looks like a choreographed hit worthy of “The Godfather.” With no satellite tracks of a surface-to-air missile, American experts are leaning toward the theory that a bomb was placed aboard the private aircraft in Moscow.

“Our initial assessment is that it’s likely Prigozhin was killed,” the Pentagon spokesman, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, told reporters this afternoon. With one explosion, Wednesday’s jet crash took out the three men who organized the June 23 armed march on Moscow, the biggest challenge to President Putin in his 24 years in power.

Exploding exactly two months after the mutiny, the destruction of the company jet killed seven Wagner members. They included: the group’s charismatic leader, Yegveny Prigozhin; the founder of the 50,000-man fighting force Dmitry Utkin; and the group’s financial director, Valery Chekalov. Utkin, a fan of Nazi Germany, named the mercenaries after Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer.

In this image taken from video released by Razgruzka_Vagnera telegram channel on Aug. 21, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company speaks to a camera at an unknown location. Prigozhin made his name as the profane and brutal mercenary boss who mounted an armed rebellion that was the most severe and shocking challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule. (Razgruzka_Vagnera telegram channel via AP, File)
Yevgeny Prigozhin in a video released on August 21, 2023. Razgruzka_Vagnera telegram channel via AP, file

While the Embraer Legacy jet was burning north of Moscow Wednesday, Mr. Putin was 500 miles to the south, in Kursk, listening to a different kind of music. Bathed in an eerie red light, Mr. Putin could be seen live on national TV standing before a macabre Soviet war memorial. As Mr. Putin listened to a symphony orchestra, he barely suppressed a smile.

On the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory at Kursk, the largest tank battle in history, Mr. Putin presented Hero of Russia awards to veterans of the war in Ukraine. It was the same award he gave to Prigozhin last summer. This time, no mention was made of the fallen star.

“The optics of Prigozhin’s elimination appear to have been carefully choreographed,” writes a fellow of the Atlantic Council, Brian Whitmore, today. “The Putin regime essentially operates according to the logic of a crime syndicate. Putin is the godfather. Prigozhin was a capo who apparently didn’t know his place.”

Moving carefully after the mutiny, military allies of the Russian president thinned Wagner’s ranks by signing them up to work with different units of Russia’s Army. Unconfirmed reports from Belarus say that Wagner units are now confined to their bases, unable to cross the normally open border with Russia. Since the mutiny, generals and bloggers seen as sympathetic to Wagner were interrogated and, in some cases, detained.

Turning to Wagner’s gold and diamond operations in Africa, Mr. Putin’s emissaries reassured African leaders that their protection from Wagner military units would continue unchecked. On Tuesday, the day before Prigozhin’s plane crash, Russia’s deputy defense minister, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, visited Libya to meet with renegade general Khalifa Haftar, a Russian ally.

After two months, Prigozhin apparently believed he had worked his way back into Mr. Putin’s good graces. On Monday, he released his first video since the mutiny. Ostensibly filmed in Africa, Prigozhin wore camouflage, held a rifle and started his recruiting pitch saying: “We’re working.”

Prigozhin apparently did not take seriously what is called “Sudden Russian Death Syndrome.” Whether by poisoning or falling out of windows, death has come early to dozens of opponents of Mr. Putin — officials, journalists, businessmen, and politicians.

Before the mutiny, polls indicated that Prigozhin was one of the top five most popular figures in Russia. After his death, shock spread through his followers. In front of Wagner recruiting offices, flowers were laid and candles lit, sometimes by men in camouflage wearing the group’s skull-and-crossbones patch.

Lights in the building of the former Wagner Center in St. Petersburg were illuminated to form the shape of a cross. State media gave the disaster low-key coverage.

“The murder of Prigozhin will have catastrophic consequences,” Russian military correspondent Roman Saponkov warned on Telegram. “The people who have ordered it have no idea about the mood and the morale inside the army.”

Grey Zone, a channel close to Wagner, wrote: “All of us are emotional now, but we have to hold ourselves together. Don’t do anything stupid.” Another Wagner channel wrote of Prigozhin: “It was a huge honor to have known and worked with Number One. The country has lost its hero and best conductor.”

People carry a body bag away from the wreckage of a crashed private jet, near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, reportedly died when a private jet he was said to be on crashed on Aug. 23, 2023, killing all 10 people on board.
Wreckage of a crashed private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia, August 24, 2023. AP

Reaching out to Wagner followers, Mr. Putin went on national television Thursday and offered his condolences to the families of the 10 victims of the plane crash. Referring to the mercenary leader in the past tense, Mr. Putin said: “I had known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the start of the 90s. He was a man with a difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life.”

In a touch that even Mario Puzo would have had a hard time topping, Mr. Putin promised that Russian investigators would pursue the crash investigation “to the end.” Short term, Putin has undoubtedly strengthened his hand, signaling to Russians that rebellion is a capital crime. 

To many analysts, though, this just raises the stakes. “Prigozhin had many violent friends in the military, mercenaries and jails,” London-based analyst Timothy Ash wrote Thursday. “I think Russia is now going to get very bloody.”

The New York Sun

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