The reported death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is only the ‘second act’ in a story that may end with Vladimir Putin’s downfall, a dissident Russian writer has said.
Dr Yuri Felshtinsky believes that the Russian president has been irrevocably weakened by the mercenary group’s aborted advance on Moscow, which came within 120 miles of the city.
Prigozhin and eight others, including Wagner co-founder Dmitry Utkin, are believed to have perished in a plane crash around 100 miles north-east of the capital on Wednesday night.
The Wagnerites are widely believed to have paid with their lives after posing the biggest challenge to Putin’s 20-year rule with the insurrection, staged exactly two months before the private jet came down.
Dr Felshtinsky told Metro.co.uk that the suspected elimination of the warlord by no means shores up Putin’s power base ahead of the Russian presidential elections next year. The Russian historian can draw on insights into the Kremlin’s dark arts which included co-writing ‘Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within’ alongside Alexander Litvinenko.
‘Prigozhin’s death is no surprise,’ Dr Felshtinsky said.
‘Russia is a country where, if the president calls you a traitor, you can usually expect to be dead very soon. Prigozhin was not working independently, he was a government agent, specifically an FSB [Federal Security Service] agent.
‘As Putin mentioned, somewhat sarcastically, he was a useful person but he made many mistakes, and when you make mistakes, especially when you work for the Russian special services, you usually pay with your life.’
Prigozhin, 62, had aimed a barrage of angry remarks at top Russian generals in the weeks before Wagner fighters seized key points in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on June 23.
The following day, the group mounted what their leader termed a ‘march for justice’ before the drive on Moscow was stood down.
At the time, Putin reacted by describing the subordination as ‘treason’ and a ‘stab in the back’. A crackdown on the murderous private army and its supporters has since taken place — but Dr Felshtinsky believes the damage has already been done to the leader’s strongman image.
‘The damage that Prigozhin did to Putin has not been corrected by his death,’ he said. ‘The events of June 24 demonstrated that there is no real support for Putin as president, no one was trying to defend him, there was complete silence, and he disappeared from view.
‘I don’t think this is over yet. We have seen act number one, which was June 24, act number two, which was the murder of Prigozhin, and I think we will see act number three and act number four.’
Dr Felshtinsky, based in Boston, raised the prospect of Putin being brought down by the hugely powerful FSB —the spy agency which some commentators on modern Russia say put him in power.
‘Before June 24, if you asked anyone who would be the next president of Russia, the answer would be Putin,’ Dr Felshtinsky said.
‘After June 24, I am not so sure. I am not sure he will survive December this year. December is a month when presidents of Russia unexpectedly resign.
‘There was Gorbachev in December 1991 and Yeltsin in 1999.
‘So we will see what will happen in December 2023. I am not sure that Putin will go to the elections in 2024.’
Dr Felshtinsky told Metro.co.uk that while it is impossible to predict who might replace Putin, there is no doubt who the powerbrokers are.
‘It’s difficult to name a successor to Putin but by law in Russia, the computers which count votes are controlled by the FSB,’ he said.
‘Some time ago, they passed another law allowing electronic voting. It’s almost a joke, and I think it’s fair to say that the next president will be chosen by the FSB. Real elections haven’t happened in Russia at least since 1999, which was manipulated as well, so much of this is untested territory.
‘But what is clear is that the FSB will not give power away.’
Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who had fled to London, made a series of prescient comments about Putin and Ukraine before he was fatally poisoned by two Kremlin agents in November 2006.
He had warned Putin that he had ‘climbed the back of a tiger called KGB [the FSB’s predecessor]’ and ‘will never be able to get down from there’.
His co-author now believes the pervasive security service is the only structure in Russia that has the power to mastermind the president’s downfall, and may act to reassert its power by removing its former director.
‘Putin himself is from the FSB and became president in 2000 on behalf of the FSB, but after 20-plus years he has become first among equals and I think that’s when the conflict was born,’ Dr Felshtinsky said.
‘The FSB as a structure doesn’t want him to rule independently, the FSB as a structure wants him to rule as a collective leader.’
Dr Felshtinsky was in London yesterday en-route to Switzerland as he promotes his new book, Blowing up Ukraine: The Return of Russian Terror and the Threat of World War III, written with Michael Stanchev.
The names of Prigozhin, Utkin and the eight others on the plane were included in a list of those confirmed dead by the Investigative Committee of Russia yesterday. Putin has been widely suspected of having ordered the downing of the business jet, which had been flying at 28,000ft before crashing near the city of Tver en-route from Moscow to St Petersburg.
In televised remarks before Russian authorities confirmed Prigozhin’s death, the president spoke about his former military fixer in the past tense.
‘This was a person with a complicated fate,’ he said. ‘He made some serious mistakes in life, but he also achieved necessary results.’
On Friday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov described allegations that the Kremlin had ordered Prigozhin’s death as an ‘absolute lie’.
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