Prigozhin’s Apparent Death Strengthens Putin, Puts Wagner Group in Doubt

Press service of “Concord”/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo
Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin speaks inside the headquarters of the Russian southern army military command centre in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in this still image taken from a video released June 24, 2023.

RIGA, Latvia – The presumed death of the high-profile leader of Russia’s Wagner Group has thrown the future of the mercenary force into serious doubt and strengthened the hand of President Vladimir Putin, two months after a short-lived Wagner rebellion left him looking weaker than at any point in his nearly 25-year rule.

Putin made his first comments Thursday about the mysterious plane crash in the Tver region of Russia that is believed to have killed Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin, along with his operations commander, Dmitry Utkin, and other senior members of the group – effectively decapitating a force that was once central to Russia’s war in Ukraine and still has fighters deployed across Africa and the Middle East.

“He was a talented person,” Putin said, speaking of his former ally in the past tense without explicitly confirming his death. “He made serious mistakes in his life,” the Russian president continued, promising a full investigation but saying it would take “some time.”

The U.S. government’s “initial assessment” is that Prigozhin was probably killed in the crash, the Pentagon said Thursday.

His death had yet to be officially announced by Russian authorities or by his Concord group news service as of Thursday night in Moscow. Russia’s federal aviation service reported Wednesday that Prigozhin and Utkin were on the passenger list of the private Embraer jet that went down and that all 10 people onboard were killed.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, declined to address whether the U.S. government believes Prigozhin was assassinated, saying “we’re continuing to assess the situation.”

Other American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss preliminary findings, said early intelligence pointed to the possibility of an explosion onboard the aircraft. There is no indication, officials said, that the jet was downed by a missile, as some had speculated online.

The bodies of those killed, including the three crew members, were transported to a local forensic unit in Tver for analysis, as police blocked access to the crash site near the village of Kuzhenkino. “And now an examination, technical and genetic examinations are being carried out,” Putin said. “Let’s see what the investigators say.”

Eyewitnesses on Wednesday described two explosions before the plane tumbled from the sky, local media reported. The plane’s tail separated from the body and landed just over a mile from the main crash site.

The flight appeared normal until seconds before the crash, when it went through several sudden ascents and descents for about 30 seconds, descending 8,000 feet from its cruising altitude of 28,000 feet before plummeting to the ground, according to flight tracker Flightradar24.

Western analysts said the cause of the crash may never be known, given the lack of transparency and the politicized nature of Russian criminal investigations.

Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov, a former adviser to Putin, said the president’s remarks were designed to stem speculation in Russia that he ordered the killings.

“He could see that some big part of the Russian society believes that Putin could kill Prigozhin, and this made him concerned and this forced him to come to the TV to say a few positive words about Prigozhin,” Markov said.

After Putin’s speech, the eulogies for the Wagner boss began to pour in.

Nationalist pro-war writer Zakhar Prilepin called him “the best of men, saying his passion for Russia’s expansion was “more precious than money and more precious than life.”

Prigozhin’s news service has been largely silent since his brief mutiny in June, in which his fighters occupied a military headquarters in southern Russia and marched toward Moscow before a negotiated settlement that was mediated by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Prigozhin continued to travel between Russia and Belarus – where his forces have established a base in exile – and even to Africa, stunning members of the Russian elite who had expected a swift and decisive punishment.

As some Kremlin propagandists attempted to shift the blame to Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday that Kyiv had nothing to do with the crash and hinted that Putin was responsible. “Everyone is aware who is involved,” he said.

Russia stepped up security Thursday, with police knocking on the doors of families of Wagner members and interrogating them about a possible new rebellion, according to Baza, a Telegram channel close to Russian law enforcement. In Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, the national guard and police were on alert, local media reported.

“Putin had a strong reason to desire Prigozhin’s death,” said Paris-based Russia analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, though she emphasized that it was still not clear what happened.

“Putin now looks like a person who eradicated his enemy,” she said. “I think the Kremlin is not going to make any efforts to try to dissuade the public of this.”

For many of Russia’s elites, the crash signaled the president’s reassertion of control and highlighted the ominous consequences of disloyalty in an increasingly authoritarian state with a long history of jailing, killing or poisoning its critics.

Many of them saw it as “logical” that Putin would take revenge and remove Prigozhin, Stanovaya said, as Russia’s hard-line security chiefs, known as the “siloviki,” or men of force, seek to crush those who have challenged the president and his war in Ukraine.

“The siloviki have learned their lesson and understood that they need to act more harshly,” Stanovaya said.

After weeks of hesitation in the wake of the mutiny, Putin has moved to restore his bruised authority. Several high-ranking Russian generals who were close to Prigozhin or who had spoken candidly about the military’s failures have been dismissed, including Gen. Sergei Surovikin, known as “General Armageddon” for his ruthless tactics in Syria and Ukraine.

Hard-line nationalists have also been targeted, including former intelligence officer and military blogger Igor Girkin, who was arrested last month after attacking Putin for his handling of the war.

Putin has stood by the unpopular leaders of the Russian Defense Ministry – Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov – who are both despised by pro-war factions.

Putin’s decision not to immediately punish Prigozhin over the rebellion shocked members of Russia’s elite, many of whom loathed the brash, foul-mouthed Wagner leader, whose battlefield brutality and international connections had long made him an asset to the Russian president.

Without Prigozhin, Utkin and other key leaders, Wagner could soon collapse, experts said, with its remaining operations in the Middle East and its security deals with African governments likely to be taken over in short order by Kremlin-friendly figures.

Family members of Wagner fighters were anxious about the group’s future, in particular whether their men would be paid, given Prigozhin’s personal control of the finances and the opaque nature of his commercial empire, which encompassed a web of secretive shell companies.

“Wagner was beheaded, what will happen to us now! God willing that the company will get a worthy leader,” one relative posted on a Telegram channel for relatives of Wagner fighters.

“Rest in peace, Yevgeniy Viktorovich,” another commented.

There were small shows of support for Prigozhin at Wagner facilities in his hometown of St. Petersburg and other locations, where people – some dressed in camouflage with their faces largely hidden – placed flowers in tribute.

But there were no signs Thursday of a new rebellion or protests in support of Prigozhin, nor was there an upswell of anger on Russian social media.

Stanovaya, the analyst, said the fact that Prigozhin traveled around Russia and even met with Putin in the Kremlin after the mutiny “was questioned by many, and of course it was seen as a weakness of Putin. It looked like dependence on Prigozhin. And many asked me whether Prigozhin had some kind of kompromat [compromising material] on Putin.”

She said the presumed deaths of Prigozhin and his commanders marked the effective end of the rebellion.

“This was an unpleasant situation for Putin, and in the eyes of the elite he looked humiliated.”

After the mutiny, Putin acknowledged for the first time that Wagner had been fully government-funded. It was unclear whether Prigozhin could continue to keep his outfit running without significant state support.

The news of Prigozhin’s presumed death was cheered by many in Ukraine, which celebrated the anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union on Thursday. Prigozhin’s fighters had been an effective assault force on the battlefield and killed many Ukrainian soldiers in the long battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut, which was taken by Wagner in May.

But officials in Kyiv were also heartened in recent months by Prigozhin’s emergence as a pest for Putin.

In his remarks Thursday, Putin said that Wagner had “made a significant contribution to the fight against Nazism in Ukraine,” repeating his false pretext for launching the war.

After Wagner’s mercenaries moved to camps in Belarus as part of the deal to end the rebellion, Ukrainian military officials saw no major threat from the group.

Vladimir Osechkin, from the Russian prisoners’ rights group, said members of the Wagner Group have confirmed to him that Prigozhin was killed in the crash.

“They are all in shock. The commanders don’t know what to do and what to tell their fighters. Everything was centered on Prigozhin and his connections,” Osechkin said.

Belton and Ebel reported from London. Isabelle Khurshudyan in Kyiv, Ukraine, Shane Harris in Worcester, Mass., and Ellen Nakashima and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.