The probable death of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the circumstances surrounding it mysterious plane “accident” The crash of his plane still generates shock and several questions in Russia and the world. The businessman, head of the Wagner mercenary group and greatest critic of the Russian military leadership had become the face of the nationalist reaction in the invasion of Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s stunning rise and dramatic fall clearly reveals the mounting pressure within President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, but also the future of the regime. Just two months before his death, the head of the Wagner mercenary group led an attempted failed coup, marching with his military forces towards Moscow and threatening to overthrow the commanders that coordinated the war plan in the Ukrainian war. Putin denounced this act as a very serious “military mutiny,” although it took him several weeks to respond. When revenge came, it seemed that it was lethal and irreversible.
This incident was not an isolated event, it is part of a pattern that has characterized Putin’s Russia. Previously, the Kremlin’s violence was directed at liberal opposition figures, as occurred when the pattern of assassinations began with Boris Nemtsov in 2015. Thus, all oligarchs who dared to confront Putin or finance the opposition were attacked in the same way. These actions have always had the objective of eliminating dissent and firmly strengthening the power of the Russian president.
At present, the situation escalated, actions began to spread against nationalist generals and politicians, even members of his team revealed a new level of paranoia that led to the growth of internal violence, the arrest of high-ranking military figures and the Prigozhin’s likely elimination show that Putin now sees threats within his own ranks. However, with the neutralization of the leaders of the Wagner Group rebellion, Putin sent a chilling and unprecedented message: The Kremlin is ready to mercilessly purge all dissidents and rivals in the power struggle, no matter how influential they are.
After problems arose with Prigozhin (his ambitious mercenary boss), Putin is focused on measures to reshape his security services and military leadership. Generals considered incompetent or disloyal were dismissed and in new appointments the Russian president prioritizes “loyalty” over military leadership capacity.
The plane “accident” makes it clear that Putin sees imminent threats not only from the liberal opposition but also from ultra-nationalists and figures like Prigozhin who have bases of support within Russian society. Today, within the Kremlin, adulation – seen as loyalty – is the price to pay for survival.
This situation can set the harmful starting point towards an inauspicious future for Putin’s government and for all of Russia. The latest movements show that there will be no room for dissent in a model that seems to be openly marching towards neo-statalism, where the only thing that will be valued is loyalty. Tactical military decisions and strategy appear to show increasing focus on Putin’s wishes. The generals serve at will and are prohibited from questioning any decision of the presidential leadership, Putin eliminated the last potential control over strategies (which in many cases have not gone well) on the battlefield. The reorganization of the battered Russian army will be carried out by commanders chosen for their loyalty rather than for their merits and professional abilities. Thus, thousands of soldiers and new recruits will be sent to the Ukrainian slaughterhouse to obey Putin’s orders and desire for conquest.
At the same time – internally – the probable elimination of Prigozhin exacerbates nationalist passions, but neutralizes any outlet for those passions. Consequently, several Western military analysts expect more conditioning and repression of both military commanders and Russian citizens. For this reason, NATO believes that the situation inside Ukraine will worsen due to the Kremlin’s attempts to contain nationalist anger over the failed Ukrainian adventure. However, it is clear that any opposition rival or critic who remains or may emerge among the elite will be pressured and have their movements curtailed by Putin, resulting in a situation similar to the era of the former Soviet Union.
For many followers of Prigozhin, the plane “accident” was the starting point towards a transformation of Russia into a “hermit and encapsulated state” that has just reestablished relations with a similar model such as the North Korean regime. Fear and persecution amplified paranoia within the Kremlin, which will influence future tactical decisions in the military that will be influenced by a siege mentality as the regime continues to close down and march towards isolation. The handful of advisers still allowed into Putin’s inner circle will have to contend with old-style Soviet displays of loyalty and will be unable to articulate hard truths so as not to annoy the leader. In such a scenario, critical perspectives will inevitably disappear.
The flip side of the situation is that Putin’s use of coercion and purges on his commanders and political and military advisors will lead to the inexorable decline of Russia.
The probable neutralization of Prigozhin not only eliminated a trained commander on the battlefield but also adjusted the pieces for a worried population that perceives the risk of suffering a setback in political matters. However, a former member of the KGB does not know any other control model other than what is being observed in Moscow, where according to reports from British and American intelligence officials, the current post-Prigozhin “accident” scenario shows that Russia may have begun a race toward a downward spiral that turns it into what Putin fears most: a pariah in the international community, economically isolated and technologically stagnant. Prigozhin’s possible death only confirmed the very likely fall of Russia after the hope for change that took place after the former Soviet Union imploded. The only question that arises in this scenario is how destructive Russia’s hard landing can be for its neighbors and its partners in the international community.
Both Brussels and Washington, other Western governments and international organizations will have to assimilate and recognize the current pendulum dynamic within the Kremlin and thus adapt their strategies to successfully deal with the situation. Sanctions and diplomatic pressure may need to be recalculated to address new threats arising from Putin’s increasing grip on power. The world must also be prepared for unpredictable actions from a leader who sees enemies everywhere, even among his closest allies.
The murder of liberal opposition figures and the repression of dissident oligarchs have been the example and warnings from the Kremlin, but the recent actions against military figures and opposition leaders mark that a new and dangerous phase has begun.
The lessons of history clearly teach us that leaders trapped by their own paranoia and isolated from reality can make catastrophic decisions. Hence, the international community must be attentive, united and prepared to respond to Moscow’s future movements that are increasingly unpredictable and potentially more dangerous.