The rise and fall of a Russian warlord

The death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin will have little impact on Russian domestic politics or on Vladimir Putin’s influence

September 04, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 02:12 pm IST

At a memorial, in Moscow

At a memorial, in Moscow | Photo Credit: AFP

On June 24 this year, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, marched his troops to within 200 kilometres of Moscow, protesting against the Russian Defence Ministry. This was the most noteworthy challenge to the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin ever since he took over power in 1999. The mutiny ended within a day with the intervention of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The Wagner Group was exiled to Belarus in exchange for criminal immunity.

Speculation, reactions, Putin’s response

Two months later, Russian officials confirmed that Prigozhin had died in a plane crash near Moscow along with other top officials of Wagner, that included Dmitry Utkin, the co-founder of the group and a former military intelligence officer who was in charge of Wagner’s operations, and Valery Chekalov, its security chief. Speculation is rife within Russia and abroad about who is responsible for the death of the popular leader (Prigozhin was often photographed with soldiers on the battlefield in sharp contrast to top officials in the Russian Defence Ministry). While the West has put the blame on Mr. Putin, the Kremlin has denied any responsibility and has launched an investigation.

Regardless of the results, Prigozhin’s death would be welcomed by some and cause uneasiness in others in Russia. It strengthens Mr. Putin’s hands, bolstering his image as a strong leader; his compromise with Prigozhin, whom he had described as a “traitor” after the mutiny had led to perceptions of him being weak and not in control. However, deeply aware of Prigozhin’s popularity, Mr. Putin chose his words of condolence carefully: he hailed Prigozhin as a “talented businessman” who had “made some serious mistakes in his life”. Mr. Putin is facing an election in March 2024 and he would be wary of hurting the sentiments of his electorate. In fact, there was speculation that Prigozhin himself had political ambitions.

His death would have come as a relief to the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and First Deputy Minister of Defence, both of whom were criticised by Prigozhin for their conduct of the war and their poor leadership skills. Again, just before the plane crash, their rival, General Sergei Surovikin — he was a friend of Prigozhin’s and was being investigated for having advance information about the Wagner mutiny — was removed from his post as the head of Russian aerospace force. Gen. Surokovin, or General Armageddon as he was known, was briefly in charge of Russian military operations in Ukraine, between October 2022 and January 2023. Therefore, Prigozhin’s passing along with Surokovin’s demotion is a shot in the arm for the the two men, who are valued by Mr. Putin for their loyalty.

A patriot for the man on the street

Many ordinary Russian citizens saw Prigozhin as a patriot for his exploits in Ukraine, particularly because of Wagner’s role in capturing Bakhmut; several makeshift memorials came up quickly across the country for them to mourn. The nationalists, who support the invasion of Ukraine but feel the war is not going as well as expected and want the war to be waged more aggressively, had cheered Prigozhin as a national hero for criticising the military, and will understandably grieve for him. The elites and the oligarchs, some of whom had sympathy for Prigozhin’s march and are feeling the adverse impact of western sanctions, will see his death as another reminder of the regime’s iron-clad hold on the state. For the liberals, many of whom are in prison, the death only reinforces their perceptions about the regime’s habit of punishing those who oppose it.

An instrument of Russian influence

Prigozin’s death will have little impact on the war in Ukraine because the Wagner group had pulled out of Ukraine a few weeks ago. Moreover, many members of the group have signed contracts with the Russian Defence Ministry. However, his death could affect the group itself because its top leadership has been wiped out now and the group does not have a clear leadership structure like traditional militaries do. So, it is uncertain who will take over.

However, it is possible that Mr. Putin will get someone more subservient to him to lead the group and strengthen his hold on it or even bring the group under the Defence Ministry or an intelligence agency. But this might not go down well with the Wagner mercenaries, many of whom are deeply loyal to Prigozhin. The Wagner Group will probably continue as a Russian proxy force in West Asia and Africa as it is an instrument of Russian influence abroad and has billions of dollars in assets in Africa. But in Africa, as the Wagner Group recoups from Prigozhin’s death, there will be some respite for the French and the Americans, who have been fighting Russia’s renewed influence in the region because of Wagner. The message to the rest of the world is that the regime in Russia remains stable despite the mutiny, despite Prigozhin’s death and despite the sanctions.

Explained |Understanding the Wagner mutiny

Overall, therefore, Prigozhin’s death will have little impact on Russian domestic politics or on Mr. Putin’s influence. In fact, his death might enable Mr. Putin to exert greater control over the activities of the Wagner group. Otherwise, life will go on as usual in Russia. As will the protracted war in Ukraine.

Uma Purushothaman is Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Central University of Kerala, Periye, Kasargod, Kerala

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