Everyone knew Putin would seek revenge over the dramatic events of June 23rd, 2023, orchestrated by Yevgeny Prigozhin, and that Prigozhin was a dead man walking. That is, everyone except Prigozhin himself it seemed. On Wednesday, August 23rd, a private jet with Prigozhin’s name listed on the passenger manifest fell from the Russian sky in flames. Soon the Russian government confirmed that Prigozhin was a passenger on the plane and there were no survivors. The “Apostle of Payback,” as CIA Director William Burns once described Putin, had seemingly lived up to that moniker.
Exactly two months before his death, on June 23rd, Prigozhin led his group of mercenaries, known to the world as the Wagner group, in a rebellion against Russia’s military. The whole world watched in disbelief as tanks and armored vehicles drove on a Russian highway headed towards Moscow for a direct showdown with Russia’s military leadership. To outsiders, Putin’s grip on power had been absolute, but then overnight it seemed to be crumbling right before the world’s eyes. Suddenly the stability of a major nuclear power was in question. It also called into question the future of the war in Ukraine. The rebellion had garnered the support of sympathetic regular military units wary of the fighting in Ukraine, though it remained unclear at the time as to how many.
Prigozhin’s march on Moscow originated from his discontent with the disastrous Ukraine war. Increasingly he had become an outspoken critic of the war and its handling. In a series of audio and video recordings posted on social media, Prigozhin raged about how badly the war was going for the Russians, and the false pretenses that the invasion of Ukraine was based on. He exclaimed, “The Russian army is retreating in all directions and shedding a lot of blood… What they tell us is the deepest deception.” When discussing the origins of the war he stated angerly, “There was nothing extraordinary happening on the eve of February 24. The ministry of defense is trying to deceive the public and the president and spin the story that there was insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they were going to attack us together with the whole NATO block.”
He continued, with a jab at Vladimir Putin himself by saying, “When Zelenskyy became president, he was ready for agreements. All that needed to be done was to get off Mount Olympus and negotiate with him.”
Putin wasted no time in addressing the Russian public after the rebellion began. In a video address Putin looked visibly shaken and angry. “This is a stab in the back of our troops and the people of Russia,” he declared, promising to “neutralize” the “armed mutiny.” “It’s an attempt to subvert us from inside. This is treason in the face of those who are fighting on the front.”
Putin mobilized what armed forces he could to protect Moscow from Prigozhin, but then as suddenly as the rebellion had started, it ended. The rebellion was a mere 24-hours old with Prigozhin gaining control of the port city of Rostov-on-Don, when Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko announced he had brokered an agreement that halted Prigozhin’s advance and turned his forces around. Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov announced that Prigozhin would flee to Belarus in exile and the war in Ukraine would continue as before.
Over the next eight weeks it was unclear of Prigozhin’s whereabouts. Lukashenko announced a few days after the rebellion that Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus, only to follow a few more days later saying that he was no longer in the country. Unverified photos had placed Prigozhin in St. Petersburg, and then on August 21st, he appeared in a Wagner recruiting video from Africa. When his plane fell from the sky on August 23rd, it was a mystery of why he was back in Russian territory, even more, why he would trust Putin enough to even make such trip. He had to have known what Putin does to those who fall from his graces? Perhaps he felt his past friendship with Putin gave him immunity. It is unlikely that the exact circumstances of his return to Russia and why his plane fell from the sky on fire with one wing missing will ever be known outside Putin’s inner-circle.
The relationship between Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin went back decades to Putin’s time in St. Petersburg. It is there he met Prigozhin who owned a series of high-end restaurants. The two struck up a relationship that would take Prigozhin and his business all the way to the Kremlin where he catered to officials and for events. This is how Prigozhin earned the nickname of “Putin’s Chef.”
It was after the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region that there seemed to be more than just expensive food on Prigozhin’s menus. The invasion introduced the world to the “green men” that were fighting Ukrainians but did not carry the insignia of any country. Putin denied the soldiers were Russian. This “private” army seemed to somehow be connected to Prigozhin. The group called itself “Wagner” after a callsign German Nazi’s had used in World War II. It would later become apparent that Prigozhin was the group’s head.
Wagner operated in places like Africa and the Middle East. The group would secure natural resources and run mining operations for various governments in exchange for steep commissions. Those commissions would fund the group and allow it to buy military weapons and supplies in a way that kept it off Moscow’s official books. Prigozhin was so successful with Wagner that Putin trusted him with other activities he wanted plausible deniability.
During the Mueller investigation of Russian collusion during the 2016 presidential campaign with Donald Trump, it became apparent Prigozhin was behind the Russian troll farms that spammed the internet with targeted misinformation to sow political and social discord in America. As a result of the Mueller Investigation, Prigozhin along with the business fronts that operated the troll farms, were sanctioned.
The apparent assassination of Yevgeny Prigozhin not only comes two months to the day after his rebellion—it also comes at the exact nadir of Putin’s power. Putin was greatly weakened by the mutiny. For the first time he looked incredibly weak inside Russia. On the international stage Putin looked even weaker. Not only is his war in Ukraine a historic fiasco, it is also isolating him to a great degree. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Putin over Russian war crimes in Ukraine. This has vastly limited Putin’s ability to travel abroad because of the obligations to arrest him by the 123 countries who are ICC members. This was very apparent at the time of Prigozhin’s assassination. Because of the arrest warrant, Putin has had to cancel attending this year’s BRICS summit in South Africa (August 22nd-24th) and appeared only by video.
However, the assassination of Prigozhin in such a public and blatantly obvious way sends a powerful signal to Putin’s detractors—that he is still in power and woe be to those who challenge him. The message is intended both for domestic and international audiences.
For some, Putin appears more powerful than ever. He has eliminated his greatest internal threat and continues to purge enemies. Wagner is now coming under his firm control. But there is one threat that still remains—the profuse bleeding of his botched invasion of Ukraine. As long as the international community remains steadfast in its support for Ukraine and Ukraine continues its will to fight Russia, Putin cannot control what he feels is his destiny. And that must be deeply unsettling for him.