Breaking News
Putin, center, with top military commanders Gerasimov and Shoigu. Photo by TASS

Putin, Prigozhin, and a Fiery Plane Crash: What to Watch Next as the Wagner Group Saga Unfolds

Share this article

by Mike Eckel

Three days after an Embraer 600 passenger jet linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin broke up and slammed into the ground north of Moscow, there is still no final clarity on the fate of the Wagner Group founder.

President Vladimir Putin suggested Prigozhin was dead in comments on August 24, speaking about him in the past tense, recalling their earliest acquaintance in early 1990s St. Petersburg and complimenting him on his business acumen — but saying he made “serious mistakes in life.”

READ MORE about the presumed death of Yevgeny Prigozhin.

While most observers assume Prigozhin is dead, more jaded Kremlin watchers are waiting for some sort of definitive forensic proof of his demise.

Nor is there much clarity on the consequences for Russia and for Putin — or, for that matter, for Moscow’s military commanders and the war on Ukraine, or for Wagner and the bellicose hawks calling for an even more aggressive invasion.

Here are five things to watch for in the coming days and weeks.

Putin: Stronger Or Weaker? 

The mutiny that Prigozhin launched exactly two months prior to the crash of his business jet was the greatest challenge that Putin has faced as Russia’s preeminent political figure — “the most direct assault on the Russian state in Vladimir Putin’s 23 years in power,” as the director of the CIA put it.

Yet, even after branding the mutineers traitors and calling the rebellion a “stab in the back,” Putin did little or nothing — publicly anyway — to exact retribution or mete out punishment. Days after, he met with Prigozhin and some of the insurrectionists at the Kremlin. And Prigozhin remained free, coming and going from Russia and Belarus and showing up in Africa, where he has had a growing business empire.

Vladimir Putin (left) and Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2010.
Vladimir Putin (left) and Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2010.

Add to that the open mockery that Prigozhin had made of Putin’s war commanders for months. To many longtime Kremlin watchers, the Russian president — who in the past has shown no mercy for people he deemed to be traitors, Aleksandr Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, among others — appeared weak.

“The absence of clear signs of the punishment of Prigozhin…[was] increasingly interpreted as a sign of the helplessness and flabbiness of the system,” Aleksandr Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an analysis on August 24

Now, Prigozhin is probably dead — taken out not with a powerful poison, a drone strike, a bullet, or a car bomb, but in a spectacular mid-air destruction of a business jet. Though the Kremlin has denied involvement, the crash — which authorities say killed all 10 people on board — is being likened to something from a mafia movie.

“Like in the mafia movies: Warring factions and their bosses get together so that they can then shoot the others from out of a cake, or, like in The Godfather, make up before destroying them,” Baunov wrote.

Threats remain for Putin. Among Russia’s elites, there are growing doubts about his decision to invade Ukraine and the way he is waging the war. Russia’s economy, now buoyed by war spending, is showing signs of strain. Putin is expected to win a new six-year term in an election in March, but setbacks in the war and uncertainty about the future could make the campaign trickier than he had hoped.

Still, the untimely death of the man who openly challenged Putin is an unmistakable signal to those who might consider crossing him, a form of “coup-proofing” of his rule, at least for now. But that may come at a substantial cost for him in the long run.

“In killing Prigozhin, Putin achieved a short-term victory of consolidating his power at home,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote. “In the long term, however, the negative consequences for Putin’s ability to achieve his foreign policy objectives abroad, especially in Ukraine, may outweigh the short-term gains. Watch this space.”

“From the point of view of Putin, and also of many in the security services and the military, Prigozhin’s death should be a lesson to any potential followers,” Tatyana Stanovaya, a longtime expert on Russian politics, said in a post to Telegram.

“Prigozhin’s death is a direct threat to everyone who stayed with him to the end or openly supported him. This is more likely to frighten them than to inspire them to protest,” she wrote. “Therefore, nothing special in terms of a reaction should be expected. There will be resentment and discontent, but no political consequences.”

War Is Hell. What About The Special Military Operation? 

Prigozhin’s Wagner troops played a highly visible, and pivotal battlefield role in several locations in Ukraine over the past 18 months. Wagner forces were involved in the siege of the Donbas port city of Mariupol in the spring of 2022, and were at the vanguard of the 10-month assault on Bakhmut, which fell to Russian forces in May.

Prigozhin made sure Russians knew of their presence and sacrifices — not only of his battletested soldiers but also the thousands of prison convicts he recruited and threw into the fight as well.

But Wagner forces were just a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Russian deployed troops, who now face a slow but relentless Ukrainian counteroffensive that Kyiv hopes will decisively turn the tide of the war. ​

On the battlefield, Russia’s performance is unlikely to be significantly affected by the uncertainty within Wagner, analysts say. The Kremlin was already moving to try and bring its troops under more formal commandof the Defense Ministry, and that process is likely to quicken.

“After all, the Russian leader has been able to fight that war for 18 months and to stall the Ukrainian effort to liberate more of its territory — not because of Wagner’s much-vaunted performance on the battlefield,” Aleksandr Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, wrote in the Financial Times, “but because of the sheer volume of resources the government can mobilize, the skill of people helping to keep the embattled Russian economy afloat, and Putin’s unchallenged position at home.”

Valery Gerasimov (left), Sergei Shoigu (right), and Vladimir Putin in 2019.
Valery Gerasimov (left), Sergei Shoigu (right), and Vladimir Putin in 2019.

At the top levels of command, meanwhile, Prigozhin’s removal will strengthen the grip of his two bugbears: Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff.

One thing that could come back to haunt Putin and the top brass: The criticism with which Prigozhin and his allies frequently shellacked Shoigu and Gerasimov was over their command, conduct, and war-fighting decisions in Ukraine — and outside observers said it was objectively justified.

Will It Bring The Hawks And Nationalists To Heel?

Experts have speculated that one of the several reasons for Prigozhin’s staying power was his criticism of Shoigu and Gerasimov; the mercenary boss gave voice to genuine complaints of rank-and-file troops who suffered because of institutional problems in Russian military structures.

Prigozhin’s diatribes were all the more notable given how the Kremlin has otherwise criminalized all public criticism of the Ukraine war effort, under the rubric of “discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation.” Dozens of Russians who have criticized or even opposed the war have been jailed — but not Prigozhin.

Removing the Wagner Group leader eliminates the loudest public criticism, but underlying doubts about Shoigu and Gerasimov will remain — doubts that will be amplified if Ukraine achieves a major breakthrough in its counteroffensive.

Russian nationalist Kremlin critic and former military commander Igor Girkin, aka Igor Strelkov, attends a court hearing in Moscow last month.
Russian nationalist Kremlin critic and former military commander Igor Girkin, aka Igor Strelkov, attends a court hearing in Moscow last month.

Prigozhin wasn’t the only one complaining. Igor Girkin, a former intelligence officer who was convicted by a Dutch court for his role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, was also known for his blunt public criticism. Like Prigozhin, Girkin wanted commanders, and ultimately Putin, to declare a general mobilization and use even more force against Ukraine, seeking to raze it to rubble. In July, Girkin called Putin a “useless coward.”

Like Prigozhin, however, Girkin has been all but silenced. He was arrested on extremism charges in July — a few days after making that remark — and remains in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison awaiting further investigation and trial.​

It’s unclear if he’s been fully muzzled though. A cryptic message appeared on his Telegram channel on August 24, in which he called Prigozhin “an enemy of Russia” and warned of political turmoil.

“I cannot say that I am upset, since Prigozhin was not only my enemy personally, but also, by and large, an enemy of Russia,” the post read. “At the same time, what happened cannot prompt a positive reaction from me, as it is yet more evidence of further deepening of unrest in Russia.”

Whither Wagner – Wither Wagner?

Private military companies are officially illegal under Russia law. That hasn’t stopped enterprising entrepreneurs from setting them up— with the backing, funding, or oversight of various intelligence agencies or state-controlled corporations.

Wagner was the most famous and most notorious, with its fighters planting their flags and leaving trails of mayhem behind in places like Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, and Syria — not to mention Ukraine, in the years after Moscow fomented and helped fight the war that began in the Donbas in 2014.

Its growth was largely seen as a function of its unique structure. It generated lucrative revenues from business ventures such as mining and trafficking gold in the Central African Republic. And it generated revenues from providing security for sympathetic allies, such as protecting regime-owned oil and gas facilities in Syria.

An undated photograph handed out by the French military shows three Wagner mercenaries (right) in northern Mali.
An undated photograph handed out by the French military shows three Wagner mercenaries (right) in northern Mali.

And this latter function served as an extension of Russian foreign policy, influencing domestic politics in and expanding Moscow’s reach, particularly in places where it could be in competition with the United States or France. Consider it a form of hard-soft power that provided a veneer of deniability for Moscow.

For that reason, few experts believe that Wagner will be going away entirely; its fighters have gained a reputation for ruthlessness and battlefield skill.

Just as its outright military structures in Ukraine may come under direct control of the Defense Ministry, its business ventures will probably also take on new oversight — possibly by Russian intelligence agencies or other state-controlled entities.

Still, Wagner may be a less potent force without Prigozhin. That may also give an opening for other ostensibly private military companies that have been set up in recent years — and in some cases are closely tied to the state.

What About ‘General Armageddon’? 

Russian General Sergei Surovikin (file photo)
Russian General Sergei Surovikin (file photo)

One other leading figure in this Shakespearean drama is the Russian commander who was briefly put in charge of the Ukraine war for a couple months last year: General Sergei Surovikin. ​

As his nickname suggests, Surovikin, who was also in charge of the Aerospace Forces, was seen as a more ruthless commander, which is one of the reasons his leadership was championed by Prigozhin, Girkin, and others.

Shortly after taking command of the Ukraine operation in October, he ordered Russian forces to start bombarding Ukraine’s electricity grid and other civilian infrastructure in a bid to terrorize the population and cow the Kyiv government into submission.

Prigozhin is believed to have gotten close to Surovikin in the mid-2010s, when Surovikin served as the top commander of Russian forces in Syria. Wagner soldiers were in Syria at the time, guarding Syrian oil and gas facilities.

Surovikin only lasted around two months though, and he was shuffled out of his command by Putin, replaced by the man Prigozhin mocked: Gerasimov.

Surovikin had allies in the Russian defense structures whom Prigozhin relied on to make sure his troops fighting near Bakhmut were supplied properly. But Prigozhin also complained in the spring that he wasn’t getting adequate ammunition.

When Prigozhin launched his mutiny on June 23, Surovikin appeared in an unusual video appealing for Wagner troops to stand down and not go through with the rebellion. Some observers questioned the authenticity of his appeal, saying it appeared coerced. Anonymous U.S. officials said Surovikin may have known of the mutiny in advance.

After the mutiny ended, Surovikin dropped out of sight, and rumors abounded that he had been detained, and was under house arrest or in prison, or worse.

Suspicions also abound that there may be others within the military brass or intelligence structures who knew of, or were sympathetic to, Prigozhin’s mutiny.

On August 22, Russian news media reported that Surovikin had been relieved of command of the Aerospace Forces, but left “at the disposal” of the Defense Ministry — possibly shuffled to some other post within the military.

But notably the reports, which have yet to be confirmed, did not indicate that he had been arrested, discharged from the military, or even demoted in rank.

A day after the reports of Surovikin’s new responsibilities, Prigozhin’s plane crashed.

Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL, reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He’s reported on the ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Follow him on X, [email protected]

About Soldier of Fortune Magazine

Check Also

The Gruesome Fate of Surgeons Who Built New Face For Mexican Drug Lord

Share this article by “Sol Prendido” One of the most influential capos in Mexico’s history …