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The Prigozhin Puzzle
August 28, 2023
News of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash generates more questions than answers. Is he really dead? Was it an accident or an execution? Was the plane shot down or loaded with a bomb? Who ordered his death? What happens to the Wagner Group mercenaries and what impact will this have on the war and on Russia going forward? Was he a martyr, a hero, or an enemy of the state? And is Putin weaker or stronger now that his critic, Prigozhin, has been silenced? None of these questions will be definitively answered, certainly not by the “investigation” that President Putin announced would be conducted into the crash, including “confirmation” Prigozhin’s DNA was found in the wreckage. But the saga underscores that Putin’s Russia is not a nation, but a mafia state that cannot endure, be trusted, make peace, or be allowed to continue. “Putin was not able to control the factions from infighting,” concluded political activist and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. “This cannot distract from the goal of Ukrainian victory. Time to accelerate, not hesitate.”
It is not coincidental that one day after Russia’s latest Medieval madness unfolded, the White House agreed to train Ukrainian pilots to man the F16s that European allies are now sending to Ukraine. A bigger airforce could turn the tide against the Russian scourge, and the decision represents a dramatic shift from Biden’s original position of not providing F16s or even training. In May, he finally allowed allies supply their F16s to Ukraine and now America will provide training to bolster Ukraine’s counter-offensive. Biden’s salami-slice approach since 2022 has been out of concern about its impact on Russia, and this surely must be discarded. “Hopefully, the killing of Prigozhin will once and for all end the debate: What happens if Putin falls and someone worse takes over? How could one be worse than Putin? Wondering about someone worse seems a distraction. It also looks like a simple excuse not to aid Ukraine in the way Ukraine needs,” wrote Phillips P. Obrien, a professor in strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews Scotland.
Now is the time to strike harder. Prigozhin weakened Putin and divided his ruling elite. The erratic oligarch also left behind many followers who appreciated his courageous and populist remarks about the foolishness of the war and the tragedy of thousands dying due to military incompetence. He has also left behind many violent comrades, capable of revenge or of launching an insurgency. Threats have already begun. A Russian paramilitary group, opposed to the nation's leadership, has called for the elimination of President Vladimir Putin. And the pro-Prigozhin Telegram channel “Grey Zone” warned: “The murder of Prigozhin will have catastrophic consequences. Those who gave the order do not understand the mood in the army and morale at all.”
Strategically speaking, this oligarch bloodletting – regardless of who pulled the “trigger” – underscores the sheer recklessness and stupidity of the Putin mob. The elimination of Prigozhin provides no advantage for Russia and removes Prigozhin’s mercenaries who were the most effective forces fighting in Ukraine. It will speed up the country’s economic collapse. By stilling his only critic, Putin’s un-winnable and unaffordable war will continue to grind on, ravaging Russia’s currency, shredding its economic future, and sending home caskets. And Putin’s General Sergei Shoigu remains in charge, Prigozhin’s arch enemy, even though his military hasn’t conquered Ukraine, as promised, nor has it gained new territory despite conscripting 300,000 more Russians as cannon fodder in recent months. Russia now loses ground along with morale and frightening numbers of soldiers.
Determining who ordered the “hit” would help determine what is going on and what may happen next. General Shoigu emerges as the most likely perpetrator by some accounts, not Putin who most believe demonstrated weakness by granting immunity to Prigozhin. The culprit will never be disclosed, but clues exist. If the plane was shot down by a missile, then Shoigu is the culprit. If a bomb was loaded onto the plane then blew up, it would have been the work of the Putin’s secret service.
Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian lawmaker now living in Ukraine, said Prigozhin’s demise is part of Shoigu’s military purge. “Shoigu is taking revenge for [Prigozhin’s March] mutiny, and Putin personally probably didn’t order this,” said Ponomarev. “Putin probably still had plans for Prigozhin. If Putin wanted to kill Prigozhin, he would have done this via the FSB special service, not the army, and most likely not inside Russia because, after all, he had provided Prigozhin with security guarantees.”
A former Wagner Group official, Marat Gabidullin, also believes Shoigu is the perpetrator because Prigozhin attacked Shoigu’s son-in-law –- a critic of the war in Ukraine –- and said he should be “raped” or “given the sledgehammer”. Then he slandered Shoigu’s conscription-age son for ducking military duty as hundreds of thousands die in the war. “This is a personal initiative of Shoigu,” said Gabidullin. “This was not Putin’s decision.”
If Putin didn’t order this, then he’s weaker than most people think and signals that the military is in control. On the other hand, if Putin executed the “hit”, breaking his guarantee of immunity to Prigozhin, then it indicates destabilization is underway and that he was worried Prigozhin would become a viable political rival. Alternatively, if both men conspired to eliminate him and decapitate Wagner, it would be about dividing the billions in spoils that he and his mercenary army had amassed over the years by plundering and stealing mines, oil fields, and other assets.
However, there are also those who believe that the scoundrel may still be alive and faked his own death. One tabloid pointed out that Prigozhin was a master of disguises and had been reported dead in a 2019 plane crash in Africa, but resurfaced. In support of that theory, Prigozhin certainly did not behave like a man who believed he was in peril, perhaps because he knew he wasn’t and is on a yacht or dacha somewhere.
But one conclusion can be drawn. If and when the West pulls out the stops to vanquish Russia, this mafia state will disintegrate quickly. New anti-corruption leaders will be released from gulags and organize political movements. The Federation’s ethnic minorities — in the Far East, Turkic republics, and the northeast — will form statelets and find partners. The Russian people will remain sheeplike. The military will disobey any attempt to seize the nukes as happened in 1991. And the rapacious elite and their mobsters will grab their foreign passports, board private jets, and disappear to wherever their ill-gotten gains have been stashed. This is what happened to Cuba after its revolution ousted a corrupt government run for decades by mobsters. This will be the destiny of Putin’s Russia.