The mad death of Yevgeny Prigozhin may not help Putin’s grip on power
What are we to make of the fiery demise of Wagner big-toe Yevgeny Prigozhin? Probably exactly what you are thinking. Then again, Russia is a mystery wrapped in a riddle that’s been deep-fried in an enigma. It bears asking a few questions, if not for world peace, at least for commodity prices.
Prigozhin has been confirmed as one of the ten passengers aboard his private Embraur Legacy jet that fell out of the sky between St. Petersburg and Moscow, on the same day that Putin sacked General Sergei Surovikin — a Prigohzen ally — as air force and space force chief. Although, you won’t get far in life fully trusting information Moscow puts out.
In the two months since the munity, the Kremlin has slashed funding and supplies to the Wagner network, and speculation has been that Putin was waiting until his wayward Lieutenant was weak enough to go full Corleone baptism and clean up all the loose business. Another theory, and good luck confirming any of it, is that Putin merely removed his protection from Prigozhin and let the jackals in the system do what came naturally. It does matter, but not for the first question:
How will this effect Wagner Group?
Honestly not much. Wagner group was responsible for Russia’s few gains in Ukraine this year, but Prigozhin wasn’t really a military leader, and his death along with outfit’s number two — Dimitry Utkin, who was also on the plane — likely won’t make much of an impact. These guys were terrorist crooks more than strategists, and those come a kopeck a bushel. Nor is there a Wagner, Inc. anywhere. It’s not a single entity but a network of companies with ties to the Moscow and each other. Putin will likely install new bosses and leave a profitable business model untouched.
Folding the network fully into the Russian military might also be risky: The Russia military is not in the inner circle of the coalition supporting Vladimir Putin — that core is made up of intelligence goons from the FSB (the maniacs formerly known as the KGB) as well as the oligarchs and organized crime. And because this is Russia, let’s just call the last two organized crime. Which is where Yevgeny Prighozin came in: he claimed to be a caterer, like John Gotti claimed to be a plumber. The FSB guys were in charge of planning the 2014 march of the little green men into the Donbas region, as well as the take-over of Crimea. What Prigozhin provided a private army structure on which Putin had a tighter grip than the tradition. It also provided plausible deniability, although plausible is questionable.
Prigozhin may have gotten his start selling Lucky Dogs in St. Petersburg, but he was also something of a polymath when it came to being psychotic bastard: He ran the wonderfully named Fancy Bear troll farms which ran amuck in the 2016 US presidential election.
When the world proved pretty mellow about all of that, the spooks went on to plan the 2022 invasion — again without much input the military, so that the force doing the actual invading of Ukraine didn’t know about it until go time. The larger historical lesson here is that while spooks are useful to have around to plan the odd coup or blow up a kleptocrat’s car, it’s best to leave the full-scale invasions to the military. Can anyone say Bay of Pigs?
How will this affect the African Sahel?
Here events just might play out on a global scale and do it badly. It largely depends on how useful Moscow finds Wagner’s presence in the region. Officials of the Central African Republic (CAR) have confirmed that their security contract is with the Russian Federation, with Wagner merely a subcontractor. Still, the outfit has taken over a gold mining operation in CAR that is reckoned to be worth upwards of a billion dollars. It’s hard to see anyone walking away from that. They will likely continue its mission of making the region into the “Afghanistan of Africa.” That’s not a good thing, because the Sahel is now the favorite to becomes the world’s hotbed of terrorism.
How will this effect Putin’s inner circle?
Putin’s grip on power has never really been iron-clad as it appeared, but maintained by acting as the arbiter balancing the interests of powerful factions that make up the larger coalition of corruption and power. Think Veto Corleone in the Five Families meeting in The Godfather (Yes, second reference. That alone tells you something.) Once Prigohzen started his social media campaign against the military and its incompetence, Putin struggled to keep the balance.
During an ill-advised mutiny in June, that the army that Putin didn’t fully trust stood by while a Wagner column marched on Moscow. Which is probably how Prigohzin managed to get to Belarus with his head still attached to his shoulders.
Grey Zone, a Wagner affiliated group on Telegram posted “The assassination… will have catastrophic consequences… the people who gave the order do not understand the mood in the army and morale at all.” There are rumors that Wagner troops in Belarus near the Polish border are marching towards Russia, but those are just rumors. A Russian civil war would be great news for Kyiv, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The Hero of Bakhmut may have fallen from grace (and the sky) but he was very useful and took care of a lot of unsavory tasks off the books. That leaves a large slot to fill. The big knock-on, and it is just getting started, is that we can assume that Putin has learned a very hard lesson in letting one of his Lieutenants get too powerful. Given the man’s galloping paranoia, it is entirely possible that Putin will not fill that slot at all. If that happens expect a Hitler-like control freak making future decisions alone and becoming increasingly violent, arbitrary and paranoid in the process.
What the inner circle will do then is anyone’s guess because it will happen in a black hole: Take the man out in a coup? Flee with what unfrozen cash you can carry, or keep your head down and hope for the best.
That last one is, historically, a low-percentage strategy in Russia.