Wagner plane crash seems intended to send a clear message to potential Kremlin foes
Aug 24, 2023, 6:00 PM | Updated: Aug 25, 2023, 11:55 am
(Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
When Yevgeny Prigozhin launched his armed rebellion that challenged the Kremlin, Western officials predicted Russian President Vladimir Putin would seek vengeance against the mercenary leader.
Two months to the day after the action that Putin labeled a “stab in the back” and “treason,” those forecasts seem to have come true, in ruthless and menacing fashion.
Although authorities have not yet confirmed the deaths of Prigozhin and his top lieutenants from the Wagner private military contractor in Wednesday’s plane crash northwest of Moscow, it sent an immediate chill through Russian official circles.
Even amid the uncertainty, the message was clear: Anyone who dares to cross the Kremlin will perish.
But even as the crash worked to restore an image of Kremlin authority that was badly crippled by the Prigozhin mutiny, it also sowed confusion and anger among Russian hard-liners, heralding perhaps other challenges to Putin as the war in Ukraine marked its 18th month.
Many see the events as a sign of an intensifying government meltdown.
“It’s not a state, it’s not Russia. It’s just one sprawling mafia, one tentacle of which is colliding with others,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a professor at Free University in Riga, Latvia.
While authorities are unlikely to announce the cause of the crash anytime soon, Prigozhin’s plane was seen plummeting from a large cloud of smoke, twisting wildly and missing a wing. One witness said the jet “exploded in the sky” and “something sort of was torn from it in the air.”
Some Russian media speculated it was brought down by a bomb. Prigozhin’s supporters claimed on their messaging app channels that it was shot down by an air defense system, bluntly accusing authorities of assassinating him. None of the allegations cited any evidence.
Oreshkin said the downing a private jet seemed to be a strong message to scare Russian elites into submission.
“This is a demonstrative action,” he said. “Prigozhin could have been quietly poisoned and he would have died of a heart attack, like many previous opponents of Putin or his generals. But apparently it was intended to serve as a show of uncompromising control over the situation.”
Other Kremlin critics have died from poisoning in what the Russian opposition and the West described as targeted killings that had Putin’s blessing, but none has been known to have perished in an air accident.
Former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov said the failure to punish Prigozhin initially had eroded Putin’s authority, sending “an open invitation to any potential rebels and mutineers.”
He said it could have taken two months to act because Prigozhin was well-protected by his security and Russian spy agencies were waiting for the right opportunity. “They could have worked on it for a long time and had the opportunity only now,” Gallyamov said.
While acknowledging that all the facts are still unclear, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said “the whole world immediately looks at the Kremlin when a disgraced ex-confidant of Putin suddenly falls from the sky, two months after he attempted an uprising.”
Western officials had believed Prigozhin’s days were numbered ever since the mutiny, noting that Putin would never forgive the humiliation.
For Putin “revenge is a dish best served cold,” CIA Director William Burns said in July, describing the Russian leader as “the ultimate apostle of payback.”
Prigozhin’s jet was tracked flying among the cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Belarus in the weeks following the mutiny, and Wagner had raised its profile in Africa, hectic activity that led to speculation Putin considered the 62-year-old mercenary leader who over the years had won lucrative Kremlin contracts too valuable to discard quickly.
Earlier this week, Prigozhin released a video purportedly from an unknown desert location, claiming Wagner was “making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free.” His mercenaries have been especially active in several African countries in recent years, extending Russia’s influence and enriching it with mineral wealth.
Some Russian media claimed Prigozhin could have hoped to persuade Putin to entrust him with expanding those projects, even though the Defense Ministry apparently sought to take them over. Others pointed out that he might have violated the deal with the Kremlin by trying to continue his business activities in Russia and boasting about his exploits in Africa in the latest video.
Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Endowment said it’s a signature tactic of dictatorial regimes to “bring an enemy or a traitor closer before destruction,” as criminal clans do.
Oreshkin said authorities might have opted for using the plane crash to decapitate Wagner to prevent any threat his lieutenants might pose.
“It is clear that just removing one person is not enough, you need to remove his key people, because they probably had a Plan B in case of losing their boss,” he said. “Therefore, the ideal option is to eliminate them all together, which, in fact, happened.”
Those on the flight manifest included Dmitry Utkin, a former military intelligence officer who directed Wagner’s operations, and Valery Chekalov, its security chief.
Alexei Mukhin, a pro-Kremlin political expert, said the crash gave Putin a “demonic aura that his opponents won’t be able to ignore,” noting that Kremlin foes abroad will feel increasingly unsafe.
Reports this week said Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who had links with Prigozhin, was dismissed as air force chief following what Russian media described as a two-month investigation into his possible connection to the mutiny — a signal authorities were methodically trying to uproot any dissent in the ranks.
While the jet crash certainly sent a message of toughness, Oreshkin warned it could have mixed results, creating confusion among hard-liners who admired Wagner’s role in Ukraine and lauded Prigozhin’s criticism of the military brass.
Roman Saponkov, a military blogger who had supported Prigozhin, predicted it will have “catastrophic consequences.”
“People who issued that order don’t understand the sentiments in the military,” he said.
Some Kremlin supporters sought to shift blame for the crash to Ukraine, without offering evidence.
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, alleged Kyiv authorities were behind it to rally support on the country’s Independence Day, celebrated Thursday.
“It was Ukraine that killed Prigozhin,” Markov said. “Prigozhin wasn’t a problem for Putin.”
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country had “nothing to do with this. Everyone understands who does.”
Wagner was one of the most capable elements of Russia’s forces but it has stopped playing any role in Ukraine after capturing the eastern stronghold of Bakhmut in May. Its remnants probably will be incorporated into the Russian military and lose much of their capability.
“It was the most capable Russian military unit that fought in Ukraine,” Gallyamov said. “It’s quite obvious that now after it’s put under control of the incompetent top military brass, Wagner won’t stand out from others.”
Even if confirmed, Prigozhin’s death probably wouldn’t have an immediate impact on the battlefield, but it reflects escalating Russian infighting that could result in growing public dismay and eventually weaken Moscow’s hand in the conflict.
Early expectations of victory in Ukraine gave way to increasing public fatigue in Russia, and “now the phase of disappointment begins, which will last a few months and appears irreversible,” Oreshkin said.