Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Putin Had Every Reason to Want Prigozhin Gone

Very few were taken aback by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s presumed death, even if the means — plunging from the sky in a plane crash — were undeniably dramatic. Such an eventuality had been widely discussed in both Russian and Western circles ever since the mercenary leader’s short-lived mutiny in June. No matter that Mr. Prigozhin subsequently met with the Kremlin and seemed to come and go where he pleased. To many, it was only a matter of time until he got his comeuppance.

Wednesday’s events remain shrouded in mystery. Was Mr. Prigozhin’s jet shot down, or was there an explosion onboard? To what extent were the Russian authorities and, more pointedly, President Vladimir Putin himself involved in the incident? If Mr. Prigozhin was assassinated, was it a snap decision or a well thought-out plan conceived after the rebellion? The Kremlin, for its part, denies any involvement in the crash. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that Mr. Putin had ample reason to wish for Mr. Prigozhin’s demise, and not just as a matter of rehabilitating his reputation.

Mr. Putin believes fervently in a powerful state. Western audiences often downplay this fundamental conviction, emphasizing instead Mr. Putin’s personal interests and individual priorities. It’s true, of course, that there’s a large dose of self-interest in the president’s conduct. But one of Mr. Putin’s gravest nightmares is the state becoming vulnerable, unable to address domestic challenges and on the brink of disintegration. That’s precisely what Mr. Prigozhin threatened. For that transgression, he may have paid with his life.

It’s a popular notion that Wagner’s ventures were all directed by the Kremlin, but in fact Mr. Prigozhin was consistently the driving force. He proactively identified areas where Russia was faltering or ineffective and offered his services as a stopgap, always in a way that could be construed as serving the national interest. Though Mr. Prigozhin collaborated closely with the Kremlin, he pursued his own private priorities. Yet while Mr. Putin undoubtedly sanctioned and funded these endeavors, for him the primacy of the state always took precedence. Nothing could be allowed to undermine it. Mr. Prigozhin would be permitted his ventures as long as he remained subservient to the state apparatus.

That bargain held for years. But the war in Ukraine unsettled the balance. Mr. Prigozhin, sensing an opportunity to advance his career, began to challenge the military leadership. When the conflict between the two became untenable, Mr. Putin’s preference was plain: He unambiguously sided with the army. In January, he emphasized that the war ought to be fought in line with the general staff’s strategy, a clear hint that Wagner should be subordinate. By June, all Wagner fighters who wished to remain in Ukraine were expected to formalize contracts with the defense ministry and accept the supervision of its generals. It proved to be the final straw. Rebellion soon followed.

It was a humiliating blow to Mr. Putin’s regime. The pain came less from the betrayal by Mr. Prigozhin, who’d always been erratic, than from Mr. Putin’s personal responsibility for the disaster. On the state’s dime, the president had nurtured an entity that he didn’t keep in check. The mutiny, following Mr. Putin’s inability to manage the escalating tensions between the defense ministry and Wagner, was a direct result of this fundamental failure.

The political toll was considerable. In the fallout, Mr. Putin found himself yielding to Mr. Prigozhin, compromising his own stature and enduring public indignity. He was now confronted with a thorny dilemma: how to dismantle a private army without provoking political backlash or violence. In the rebellion’s aftermath, the Kremlin’s primary concern was to neutralize Wagner, both politically and militarily, with the aim of restoring the stability of the state.

The first step was to play for time. Under the agreement that quelled the mutiny, Mr. Prigozhin secured his freedom and Wagner members were protected from being charged for their participation, astonishingly enabling them to travel freely as if nothing had happened. This approach, in hindsight, appears logical: Mr. Putin aimed to mollify Mr. Prigozhin, giving him the sense that he was irreplaceable and that he enjoyed the state’s protection.

This was critical in ensuring Mr. Prigozhin’s exit from Russia. That allowed the clamping down on some of his Russian assets and the stripping back of access to lucrative contracts (even though his business did not collapse entirely). More important, Mr. Prigozhin’s departure was a prelude to the disbanding of Wagner. The most dedicated Wagner troops, a contingent of around 5,000, were coerced to relocate to Belarus under a new leader, the loyal and compliant Andrei Troshev; the group’s heavy artillery was returned to the defense ministry; and the hesitant were forced either to enlist with the military or to return home. In Africa and Syria, Wagner forces have been put under close oversight with a plan to gradually absorb their projects into the security services and defense ministry.

Throughout this initial phase of drawing down Wagner, Mr. Prigozhin’s involvement was deemed necessary. His input ensured smooth access to key individuals, facilitated personnel assessments and aided decision-making. But once his fighters relocated from Russia, effectively disarmed and preoccupied with training Belarusian forces, things changed. He became only a living testament to the state’s frailty and an acute reminder of Mr. Putin’s flawed handling of the very behemoth he helped create. From the Kremlin’s perspective, there ceased to be a point to his existence.

Regardless of the actual cause of Mr. Prigozhin’s reported demise, the Russian public is sure to see it as an act of retribution and revenge. Few will doubt Mr. Putin’s involvement, a perception that aligns well with the image of a strongman president. Some analysts argue there are potential drawbacks. First, Mr. Putin showed his weakness in failing to respect the guarantees of safety he supposedly made to Mr. Prigozhin. Second, there could be backlash from patriotic circles, outraged over the blatant execution of someone they viewed as a war hero. Third, Wagner soldiers, surely appalled by the assassination, could stage another rebellion.

These concerns seem overblown. After all, there were no explicit, public guarantees of Mr. Prigozhin’s safety, only assurances — which were fulfilled — that he would leave Russia for Belarus safely and that the criminal charges against him would be dropped. What’s more, Mr. Prigozhin’s popularity plummeted after the mutiny as many former supporters denounced his behavior. As for Wagner, a widely circulated video that purported to depict its commanders vowing vengeance has been debunked, with official channels instead urging restraint.

While Mr. Prigozhin’s death would not entirely restore Mr. Putin’s standing as a decisive leader — a destroyed business jet is hardly the most persuasive symbol of strength — it could offer some solace to hard-liners concerned about the president becoming out of touch, hesitant or unable to manage his own circle. For Russia’s elites, the incident serves as a clear warning. Challenging the regime, whatever your achievements, inevitably leads to your downfall.

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Tatiana Stanovaya (@Stanovaya) is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and the founder of R.Politik, a political analysis firm.

Source photograph by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

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