Moscow announced yesterday (Sunday) that DNA tests have confirmed the death of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in last week’s downing of his private jet. Here are five quick takeaways on what this all means:
1) Wartime decisions have long tails: you can trace Prigozhin’s death back to Ukraine’s decision to defend its town of Bakhmut. It lost the town, but inflicted heavy losses on Wagner and inflamed the group’s rift with Moscow, leading ultimately (if unexpectedly) to Prigozhin’s mutiny and death.
2) Russia still sees value in mercenaries, it just doesn’t like losing control. After decapitating Wagner, Moscow’s challenge is now to co-opt it. But the group has its own loyalties and resources, so next steps will depend in part on individual calculations within Wagner ranks: fewer will trust Moscow now.
3) Wagner has seemingly been side-lined in Syria, and there are rumours Moscow wants the same in Africa. But Wagner provides security to multiple presidents there, and those ties will be tough to unwind. Plus, those regimes won’t want to leave a vacuum for insurgencies or regional intervention.
4) Prigozhin leaves behind a more paranoid and dysfunctional Russia, with elite infighting and instability now exploding into public view. Sheer self-preservation might offer a veneer of stability in the short term, but Russia’s elites will only get more jittery over the longer term.
5) As for Putin, his brand was always about restoring Russian order and greatness. But his invasion of Ukraine has seen Russia become a pariah abroad, while triggering instability at home. Prighozin’s defiance shattered Putin’s myth, and Prighozin’s death – no matter how spectacular – can’t glue it back together again.
Intrigue’s take: Whenever Putin’s own end arrives, our sense is it’ll be swift: Prigozhin’s fate indicates there’s little value in negotiating first.
Also worth noting:
- Moscow has said western claims that Putin was behind Prighozin’s presumed assassination are “an absolute lie”.
- On the day of Prighozin’s death, Moscow reportedly dismissed the Wagner-linked head of Russia’s aerospace forces. The next day, it ordered Wagner and others to sign an oath of allegiance.
- Initial US intel reportedly suggests an on-board bomb or sabotage were most likely responsible for the downing of Prighozin’s jet.