Days after the crash of his private jet, many Russians still have doubts about the death of the dazzling mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Russian investigators have now officially declared the 62-year-old dead after a molecular-genetic analysis. But so far they have not answered the question of the cause of the crash of his private jet last Wednesday. Versions continue to circulate that an explosive device on board or possibly an accidentally detonated grenade could have caused the Embraer to crash. Or was it a targeted attack with an anti-aircraft missile?
The only thing that is clear is that Prigozhin had many enemies – and with his uprising against the Russian military leadership on 23/24. June Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin made the most powerful opponent. Even days after the plane crashed, the majority of political observers assume that Putin in particular had an interest in getting rid of the harsh critic of Russian warfare in Ukraine. Putin himself followed suit and accused his former confidante of “serious mistakes” even after his end.
Independent Russian media report ‘cold-blooded public execution’
The Kremlin denies having anything to do with the deaths of Prigozhin and the other six members of Wagner’s private army and the three crew members of the plane. However, comments by independent Russian media repeatedly refer to a “cold-blooded, public execution”. The fact that Prigozhin was on the same plane with Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin and other important representatives and did not travel separately is explained by some observers as saying that the businessman considered himself “untouchable” and thus overestimated his position. That made him careless.
The Russian secret service expert Andrei Soldierov, who lives abroad, sees the crash in a series with other major murders, such as opposition leader Boris Nemtsov shot near the Kremlin in 2015 or former secret service officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 with the radiation poison polonium-210. At the same time, he sees a “new level” of violence, because bystanders – such as the crew of the plane – have also become victims.
“It was remarkable that all our sources in Russia, including many in the security apparatus, immediately suspected that Prigozhin was killed on Putin’s orders,” Soldierov said. Many would have seen this as revenge for the pilots killed in the Wagner uprising in June. Prigozhin’s plane crashed not far from Putin’s residence two months after the failed revolt – it was on its way from Africa to St. Petersburg – after a stopover in Moscow.
Analyst sees “traits of a mafia state” and typical punishment pattern
The Russian political analyst Alexander Baunow sees a punishment pattern typical of dictatorships and even “traits of a mafia state” at the US think tank Carnegie. It had already been customary under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to “approach the enemy/traitor before annihilation” and to give the impression that everything was forgiven. After Prigozhin’s uprising, Putin met with him and Wagner commanders in the Kremlin.
“It’s like in movies about the mafia, the enemy groups and their bosses come together and then shoot at each other,” Baunow wrote. Putin has remained in power for 24 years because he has repeatedly eliminated every threat.
Official investigations are being carried out into aviation safety violations after the crash, but few believe it was an accident. The prominent journalist Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-critical radio station Echo Moskvy, which was closed by the authorities, said that Prigozhin had publicly opposed Putin – and thus sealed his “end” as a traitor. The Kremlin boss never forgives such an exposure.
As a “cold-blooded and calculating dictator,” Putin took two months to analyze Prigozhin’s dealings and structures, says the expert Soldierov. As so often, the tactician Putin turned the crisis into an opportunity. “He tried to turn the humiliation of the insurgency into his advantage, eliminating hardliners within the army and stifling the voice of dissent in military circles.” Also before the plane crash was the dismissal of the deputy commander of the troops in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, made famous.
After Prigozhin’s death, Putin has to look for a new man for the rough stuff
Soldierov sees a number of problems for Putin as a result of Prigozhin’s death. So the Kremlin chief must now look for a new man for the rough stuff and not least keep the generals on a leash in the midst of the difficulties in the war in Ukraine. According to the Russian media, fighters from the Wagner ranks themselves could also try to take revenge for Prigozhin’s death.
Overall, however, the Kremlin must bring the now leaderless Wagner army with thousands of fighters, for example in Africa or Belarus, under its control. Russia has always insisted that it will not give up its interests in Africa. However, the first Wagner mercenaries are already complaining publicly that they no longer get any money – and cannot even pay for their treatment in the hospital.
The celebrity’s funeral is also a widely discussed question: will Prigozhin, who bore the title Hero of Russia, be buried with military honors at the national memorial complex with Heroes’ Alley and monuments near Moscow? Or in his hometown of St. Petersburg? Or, as suggested by a Moscow deputy, in the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, which the Wagner army had captured? According to Prigozhin critics, the latter variant is suitable so that nobody can make a pilgrimage there.
Kremlin leaves open whether Putin will attend Prigozhin’s funeral
Many of the country’s cities already have memorials to the Wagner boss, who was valued by many ordinary Russians for his sharp criticism of the power apparatus. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was unclear whether the president would attend the funeral. His schedule is very full.
However, it should be clear that Prigozhin will not be seen off with an open coffin, as is customary in the Russian Orthodox Church. Investigators quickly explain that the bodies were burned and disfigured from hitting the ground. The fact that no one gets to see Prigozhin’s corpse is likely to fuel the myth of conspiracy theorists that everything is possibly just a staging – and the businessman lives somewhere else under a new identity.
The political scientist Sergei Markov, who is close to the Kremlin, was also able to gain something from this version, as stated in the propaganda program Solovyov Live. This would take away the “internal tension” from Prigozhin’s followers; and it also helps the Kremlin, because that eliminates the question of whether the power apparatus is to blame for the crash. “As long as people believe in myths, they don’t ask questions,” said Markov.