Ever since late June, when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, carried out a mutiny against Russia’s military leadership, he was thought to be a man on borrowed time. Even if Prigozhin hadn’t intended it as such, Wagner’s rebellion was an affront not merely to Russian generals but to Putin himself, who called the uprising “treason,” “a subversion from within,” and “a stab in the back.” In the aftermath, Prigozhin was allowed to depart for Belarus but soon appeared in St. Petersburg, at a forum for African leaders. On Monday, he released a video from somewhere in Africa, he claimed, dressed in camouflage and holding an assault rifle. His posturing made Putin look weak, humiliated, and betrayed—and, for Putin, traitors are worse than foreign enemies, and should be dealt with demonstrably and mercilessly. Something would have to give: Putin would either try to reassert his authority or see it erode further. Earlier this month, Christo Grozev, the lead Russia investigator at Bellingcat, made a pithy wager in an interview with the Financial Times. “In six months,” he said, “Prigozhin will either be dead or there will be a second coup.”
It didn’t take that long. On August 23rd, an explosion brought down Prigozhin’s private jet as it was flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Speculation and conspiracy theories immediately circulated about whether Prigozhin was in fact on board, but, a day later, it appears that he and nine others, including Dmitry Utkin, Wagner’s top military commander, were indeed killed. Exactly two months had passed since Prigozhin launched his “march for justice,” as he dubbed the mutiny in which Wagner units captured an important military headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and set off in an armored convoy toward Moscow. Now he was apparently dead, and the question of how Putin would treat his fit of impudence was answered. Even all of Prigozhin’s service to the Kremlin and to Putin personally—in Syria, Africa, and most notably, Ukraine—was not enough to save him from the fate of those who challenge the primacy of Putin’s authority.
Prigozhin’s arc was the stuff of legend even before his death. He turned a criminal past and a venture as a St. Petersburg caterer and restaurateur into huge state contracts. He was a hustler, crude and ambitious. When the Kremlin needed online trolls, he created the Internet Research Agency, which hired young people to spread disinformation and make mischief across social-media sites, including in the run-up to the 2src16 Presidential election in the U.S. And, when the Russian state needed a deniable shadow force of mercenaries, Wagner was born. Prigozhin’s rise and fall contains a certain gangland banality: a killer on the make, hired by other, more powerful killers to commit more of the same, at larger scale, is ultimately offed by those same killers. This is a story in which all the parts are played by bad guys.
Wagner proved to have a certain effectiveness: it helped to expel ISIS from the Syrian city of Palmyra in 2src16, for example, and captured Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, in late May—after having effectively levelled the city and lost as many as twenty thousand of its own fighters, many of whom were recruited from Russian prisons. Prigozhin referred to the campaign as the Bakhmut “meat grinder.” “Our task is not Bakhmut itself,” he said, “but the destruction of the Ukrainian Army and the reduction of its combat potential.”
Over the past year, I spent considerable time reporting on Prigozhin and Wagner for a piece published in the magazine earlier this month. I described how Wagner, relying on expendable cannon fodder and tactics such as obnuleniye, or “zeroing out,” slang for execution as punishment for desertion or retreat, managed to push forward at a time when the regular Russian Army had largely stalled. At the same time, Prigozhin deepened his rivalry with Russian military leaders, whom he accused of undermining Wagner in the field, and became more outspoken, challenging the unwritten rules of Putin-era politics in ways that often felt shocking and unprecedented.
Prigozhin may have believed his own hype when he decided to launch his rebellion. He presumed that he could shock Putin into taking his complaints and arguments seriously, and would emerge with the upper hand in his power struggle with the Russian military. Instead he turned himself from a useful loose cannon into a direct threat that, it now appears, could not be tolerated. In the wake of the Wagner uprising, a former Russian military official told me Prigozhin’s actions were “an act of desperation” and “pure fantasy.”
Various social-media accounts linked to Wagner suggest that acts of revenge will follow the deaths of Prigozhin and Utkin and other Wagner members, but this seems unlikely. For all the distrust and even contempt of the way that the Russian military has prosecuted the war in Ukraine—a complaint that became Prigozhin’s signal issue and has now spread throughout the armed forces, security services, and even society at large—Prigozhin never managed to turn his profile and burgeoning popularity into a coherent movement. The public won’t mourn him, and the remaining Wagner commanders will likely understand the lesson of Prigozhin’s killing clearly enough. In any case, Wagner turned over much of its heavy weaponry to the defense ministry, and its fighters are now scattered across Belarus, Russia, and a handful of African countries. Its operations will be absorbed by Russian oligarchs eager to get into the mercenary business and by various arms of the Russian military and intelligence services. In short, a mutiny 2.src is unlikely, at least not yet, and not because of Prigozhin’s death alone.
I reached Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner commander who fought in a number of campaigns with the group in Syria and later wrote a book about his experiences. He left Wagner several years ago, before the Ukraine war, but retains connections with some of its fighters. “They are confused, at a loss,” he said of his conversations with his contacts in the wake of Prigozhin’s and Utkin’s apparent deaths. He didn’t expect major protests or discontent from within Wagner’s ranks. “They will serve the one who pays them,” he said. But, he added, the future of the company’s missions abroad may soon come under pressure. If Wagner has been largely absent from the Ukrainian front in recent months, in Africa, its mercenaries represent the largest and most influential Russian presence. “Without the tandem of Prigozhin and Utkin,” Gabidullin said, “how dedicated will everyone else remain?”
Even still, Putin has seemingly emerged with the upper hand. Prigozhin could have met his end in a murky assassination or a strange, never-to-be-solved accident on one of his Africa trips. Instead his plane exploded as it was flying over Russian territory, making the message unambiguous. On the very same day, Sergey Surovikin, a high-ranking Russian general who was seen as close to Prigozhin and may even have aided the mutiny, was removed from his post. Surovikin has disappeared from public view since the rebellion and, according to the Moscow rumor mill, is either detained, under investigation, or both. The rest of the Russian élite, whether in government, military, or business, can’t help but notice that it’s neither profitable nor safe to challenge the Putin system’s official hierarchy.
But Prigozhin’s fate is ultimately of limited significance to Putin’s political survival. It was a settling of scores that may work to keep people in line for a bit, but doesn’t address the deeper sources of stress to the system. For starters, demoting top generals and blowing mercenary leaders on whom you’ve long depended out of the sky, all in the middle of an ongoing war, are not the actions of a confident, efficient, stable autocracy. A longer-term rot has set in, which, over time, will need ever more dramatic, and risky, action to try to cover over. Once the spiral is set in motion, it can only intensify in one direction. That is not to say the Putin system awaits great weakness or catastrophe; these dynamics can play out over years, if not decades.
Most decisive will be the war itself. For the moment, Russian defenses have held up better than expected against the Ukrainian counter-offensive. If that continues, and this summer’s Ukrainian campaign fizzles without taking back considerable chunks of Russian-occupied territory, Putin’s authority and sway over the élite will likely remain. But if that changes, and Russian lines collapse or are considerably weakened anywhere along the front, especially in striking distance of Crimea, then suddenly Putin’s legitimacy would weaken in ways that could quickly surpass the challenge posed by Prigozhin.
The Prigozhin affair contains a further lesson. He made two miscalculations, you might say: one was launching the rebellion in the first place, but, having done so, the real error was ending it prematurely. Putin may have frightened the élite into obedience, but now they all know, once and for all, that any supposed claims of a pardon or forgiveness can’t be trusted. That leaves only the most extreme option. On the night of Prigozhin’s death, a Telegram channel run by a far-right unit linked to Wagner published a post that was quickly shared widely: “Let this be a lesson to all,” it read. “Always go all the way.” ♦