Prigozhin’s disappearance raises uncertainty about Putin and the war in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin during the ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk during World War II. A scene to show that he maintains all the power. (Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Kremlin via REUTERS) (SPUTNIK/)

Yevgeny Prigozhin, lover of theatrical scenes and a master of Houdini-style trickery and deception, offers innumerable reasons to suspect a grand finale acted out. After all, ever since he stepped out of the shadows of the Kremlin, his public appearances became increasingly dramatic, erratic, and surreal. And, of course, with his disappearance on Wednesday in a plane “crash” while traveling from St. Petersburg to Moscow, he fueled all possible conspiracy theories that cast doubt on what happened.

When he hurled insults at the top Russian military commanders on his account Telegram, many wondered if it was not simply a lightning rod for Putin to defuse those disappointed by Moscow’s military achievements. And when he uploaded a video of what appeared to be an extrajudicial execution of a Wagner mercenary who had committed a “misdemeanor,” we all wondered if he hadn’t been barely a staging to keep the other mercenaries at bay.

The details of the mutiny that he led in June against the commanders of the Armed Forces and its consequences were equally murky. He led his men out of the Ukraine and into Russia without any opposition and settled comfortably in the Rostov-on-Don army headquarters until Putin called him a traitor on state TV, then offered Belarus a way out. And despite everything, a few days later he returned to Moscow and, according to the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskoveven had an audience with Putin.

The last image of Prigozhin published on Telegram where he is seen during a Wagner operation in the Mali desert.  (Razgruzka_Vagnera Telegram channel via AP)
The last image of Prigozhin published on Telegram where he is seen during a Wagner operation in the Mali desert. (Razgruzka_Vagnera Telegram channel via AP) (Uncredited/)

Immediately after the riot, the St. Petersburg police raided Prigozhin’s residence and found a real arsenal of simulation. Wigs, uniforms, false beards, dyes and suits to change the physiognomy according to the occasion. They even discovered a series of photos in which Prigozhin played to be someone else with their corresponding false passports.

Even the idea of ​​dying in a plane crash is not new. In October 2019, it was officially reported that the Wagner leader had died when the plane he was traveling in crashed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Prigozhin let the version run for several days. It was the official agency RIA Novosti that he first confirmed his death and then resuscitated him in an interview in which Prigozhin was “very surprised, to be considered dead.”

All of this fueled speculation ever since the Embraer plane was seen crashing over the countryside, not far from Moscow. The same Russian state news agency doubted at first whether Prigozhin had boarded that plane. To fuel the conspiracy theory even more, there had been two planes loaded with Wagner leaders that left St. Petersburg and one of them had arrived safely at the Moscow airport where its passengers found out that the other plane had crashed. Couldn’t there have been some change in protocol and Prigozhin could have been on the plane that landed safely?

The makeshift altar in front of Wagner's St. Petersburg offices where hundreds of people place their affection for Prigozhin.  (REUTERS/Anton Vaganov).
The makeshift altar in front of Wagner’s St. Petersburg offices where hundreds of people place their affection for Prigozhin. (REUTERS/Anton Vaganov). (ANTON VAGANOV/)

“Disappearing, it fits his style”, was the reaction of Christo Grozevinvestigative website journalist bellingcat, the news was barely known. And he wasn’t the only one who raised doubts about him. “I understand that Russia claims that Prigozhin is dead,” Krišjānis Kariņš, Latvia’s outgoing prime minister, told the site. Political. “I’ll let the facts establish themselves…. Either they killed him or they didn’t.” Social networks were fed three days with theories of how he could have simulated his death.

Although there is no concrete evidence that has been presented that Prigozhin’s body was found among the remains of the plane – they say they are waiting to do the DNA- there is a consensus in the western intelligence services that the leader of the Wagners is indeed dead. The satellites detected the sound of two explosions in the airspace where the plane was flying and there are witnesses who say they heard them seconds before seeing the plane fall. The cause of those explosions will probably never be known.

And this is when All eyes are on Vladimir Putin, a man who has been in power for 20 years, ridding himself of enemies in the most brutal ways possible. There is dozens of poisoned dissidentsfrom former agent Alexander Litvinenkowho died in a London hospital in November 2006 from polonium 2010 poisoning, a highly radioactive substance to another former agent, Sergei Skripal and her daughter Julia. Also to Alexei Navalni that he was treated in Berlin before he returned to Russia and ended up in the gulag. and the journalists Elena Kostyuchenko, Natalia Arno and Irina Babloyan who were poisoned by Kremlin agents while reporting from different parts of Europe.

Yevgeny Prigozhin's plane crash
The wreckage of the plane where Prigozhin was supposedly traveling burning in the countryside outside Moscow. (X via Reuters)

there are also the numerous oligarchs who fell out of windows and many more who had to go into exile. This is the case of pavel antovdeputy from the ruling United Russia party and meat businessman, who fell from the window of a hotel in India after criticizing in a message on x, ex Twitter, Russian attacks on family homes in Ukraine. In similar circumstances and after expressing their dissent they died Anatoly Gerashchenkoformer head of the Moscow Aviation Institute, and Marina Yankeehead of the Financial Support Department of the Western Military District.

Against this background, someone like Prigozhin accused of treason on national television by Putin himself, what is really incredible is that it has survived for two months. The director of the CIA, Bill Burnshe had expressed it this way when he was asked about the matter a few hours after the riot: “Putin often thinks that revenge is a dish that is served cold,” said. “In my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of revenge, so I would be surprised if Prigozhin was spared further reprisals.”

Here are two other hypotheses handled by analysts in Russia: the simple and most forceful that everything was the work of specialized agents of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, that they do not move a finger without the consent of the highest authorities of the Kremlin, or that It could be the work of Putin’s and Prigozhin’s enemies who did it to discredit the leader and increase dissent in his inner circle. This second possibility is extremely dangerous. If it were discovered that Prigozhin was killed against Putin’s wish, it would be devastating to his imperial ambitions for power. It would leave him very weak and it won’t be long before the oligarchs find him a replacement.

Yevgeny Prigozhin shows Putin his food factory, on September 20, 2010, outside St. Petersburg, Russia.  They had met in that city at the end of the last century. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, via AP)
Yevgeny Prigozhin shows Putin his food factory, on September 20, 2010, outside St. Petersburg, Russia. They had met in that city at the end of the last century. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, via AP) (Alexei Druzhinin /)

What was seen on stage was the complete opposite. In a carefully choreographed appearance at the ceremony by the anniversary of the battle of Kursk, during the Second World War and scene of the biggest tank battle in history, Vladimir Putin appeared on a stage in red and black with the image of a Soviet operatic hero and live music from the original Wagner. It was the first time he had been seen live after Prigozhin’s disappearance and immediately after sending his condolences to the family during a virtual conference for the BRICS meeting in South Africa (which he was unable to attend due to sanctions weighing on him). international for war crimes). This he wanted to show, as theatrically as his former friend Prigozhin could do, that retain all the power and glory. An image of perfect domination, wrote the correspondent of the New York Times.

“Everyone is afraid” said Konstantin Remchukov, the editor of the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta and a great connoisseur of what happens in the corridors of power in the Kremlin. “They see that anything is possible.” The conclusion of the oligarchs friends of the regime is that if they could with Prigozhin they can with any of them who they are infinitely less powerful. It must be remembered that Prigozhin was the head of a mercenary army that not only consolidated the Bakhmut front in the Ukraine when it looked like it was about to collapse, but helped expand Russian imperial ambitions in Africa and ran a troll farm that interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. He had extraordinary power.

Nor is he the only critical voice to fall out of favor. The purge after the Wagner mutiny has already taken 12 high-ranking officers of the Armed Forcesincluding general Sergei Surovikinwho was in charge of all operations in Ukraine and is known by the grim nickname of “General Armageddon” for its cruel effectiveness. According RIA Novosti, Surovikin was removed from his position as commander of the Air-Space Forces, confirming that he had fallen out of favor after the June uprising. The general had been missing from the scene since the night of the Prigozhin mutiny and it is believed that he knew what was to come. In Moscow they say that he is in jail Lefortovowhere Stalin’s victims ended up and which are handled by the Kremlin’s secret services. Surovikin was friendly with Prigozhin and was also at odds with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

Prigozhin and his mercenaries after the battle for the conquest of the city of Bahmut on May 20, 2023. (Wagner Group via AP)
Prigozhin and his mercenaries after the battle for the conquest of the city of Bahmut on May 20, 2023. (Wagner Group via AP) (Uncredited /)

All of this casts doubt on the effectiveness of the Russian forces invading western and southern Ukraine, where although up to now they have maintained the strong line of defense that they erected in the Donbas region and in Zaporizhzhia, they are losing ground before a slow but effective Ukrainian counteroffensive. And we all know that if Putin loses the war or is forced to go into a bargain on disadvantageous terms, lose power.

A power that for now remains Putin’s and is indisputable. But it seems to have short legs. The disappearance of Prigozhin is one more episode towards the rancid authoritarianism that characterizes it and that will make many more want to show their loyalty. And when this happens, history shows us that the adulated leader tends to withdraw and weaken at the same time. She ends up living in a very flimsy glass box. There is more fear and at the same time more vulnerability. The death of Prigozhin, in this sense, gives a sign of less sustainability of the regime.

Keep reading:

Russian authorities recovered the black box from the crashed plane in which Yevgeny Prigozhin was traveling

The last days of Prigozhin: what he went to do in Africa and why he urgently returned to Russia

Zelensky called for speeding up the deployment of F-16 fighter jets to repel threats from “Russian terrorists”