If the deaths of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and several of his mercenary group’s top commanders in a fiery plane crash Thursday were indeed deliberate and directed by Vladimir Putin, it could be said the Russian president has restored his authority by the methods of the Godfather’s Michael Corleone.
In the months leading up to the Wagner mutiny, Putin’s failure to suppress the increasingly bitter public feud between Prigozhin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was beginning to weaken his image within Russia’s elite as a decisive leader. Today, few in Russia will be doubting Putin’s capacity for decisive ruthlessness, whatever they might say about his morals.
The Wagner affair marked a serious breakdown of Putin’s longstanding strategy of elite management. Far from being the Stalinist autocrat often portrayed in the West, Putin has generally operated more like the strong chairman of a squabbling board of directors, maintaining his own position by balancing one elite faction against another. He thereby prevented any individual or group from becoming too dominant, and also prevented their disputes from emerging in public and threatening the image and stability of his regime.
If in a given case Putin decided in favor of one side, the losers were not destroyed, but kept in reserve while being compensated with lesser positions — and after all, if you can’t be a director of Gazprom, a directorship of Rosneft is not a bad consolation prize. However, this was only the case so long as they remained publicly loyal and deferential to Putin and did not allow their discontent to become public.
As Putin showed in the case of former “oligarch” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, any elite figure who emerged as an independent potential rival to Putin himself would be taken out in one way or another. The exact course of events leading to Prigozhin’s death is not clear and probably never will be. No evidence has been presented that points to a deliberate act of killing by the Kremlin or the Russian security service. As of late Thursday, the cause of the crash is still unknown.
We can only speculate why Putin might want to take this course. Perhaps he saw the deal by which Prigozhin was pardoned as a humiliation that weakened his own image. Perhaps Prigozhin broke the terms of the deal by returning to Russia instead of staying quietly in Belarus.
This combination of authority and flexibility on the part of Putin has been generally welcome to the Russian elites. A key feature of Russian politics over the past generation has been the elites’ profound distrust of their own ability to manage and limit their differences without Putin or a figure like him to keep them in order.
They fear that if he is replaced or severely weakened, their rivalries will break out into the open and destroy the entire state order on which their own positions and fortunes depend. Doubtless, many in the elite will regret that things were ever allowed to come to a point where Prigozhin would have to be killed, and shocked by the blatant nature of the act, if confirmed. Few however are likely to regret the consequent strengthening of government power.
As to the future of Wagner (or whatever new name it is given by the Kremlin), Putin’s intention is clearly that it will continue to act as Russia’s proxy in Africa, Syria, and possibly (though this is less certain) in Belarus. Only two days ago, Russia’s deputy defense minister met in Libya with rebel warlord Khalifa Haftar, a sign that the Kremlin was already seeking to assure Wagner clients in Africa that Russian support will not diminish. But Wagner henceforth will almost certainly be subject to much tighter Russian state control, probably exercised through installing a Putin loyalist at its helm and closely monitoring its operations.
Similarly, the violent end of Wagner’s top leaders is unlikely to have much impact on the war in Ukraine. Most of the mercenary group’s rank-and-file fighters have now signed contracts with the regular Russian military.
Although Russia was highly dependent on Wagner’s manpower and fighting prowess in 2022, once Moscow completed its partial military mobilization from late last year and brought tens of thousands of fresh forces to Ukraine, Wagner became much less important to Russia’s war effort. Putin was content to exploit Wagner’s fighters and their expertise in urban combat during the bloody battle for Bakhmut, but the Russian military is now well positioned to prosecute its attrition strategy in Ukraine without the need for Wagner’s support.
Prigozhin’s demise dashes hopes that Putin’s rule — and by extension, Russia’s war effort in Ukraine — might soon be undermined by internal turmoil. For the time being, any assumption that Putin had Prigozhin killed will discourage would-be political challengers to the Kremlin. Coupled with the recent removal of General Surovikin (regarded as a Prigozhin sympathizer) as head of Russia’s Aerospace Forces, and the arrest of hardline nationalist critic Igor Strelkov, the Kremlin has sent strong signals to Russia’s restive political rightwing that opposition to the state will not be tolerated.
The final chapter in this story remains to be written, however. Although Putin has overcome the abortive Wagner challenge, his political fate over the longer term remains far from assured. And one factor looms larger than all others in determining that future: the still very much uncertain course of the war in Ukraine.