Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 24 August 2023. © Richard Kemp
If the reports are true, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s fate was sealed from the moment he attempted his mutinous march on Moscow in June. He had long been treading a fine line with public attacks against defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of staff Valery Gerasimov, openly criticising the Russian armed forces and blaming the military leadership for failings on the battlefield. At no point, however, did he directly attack Putin, and his outspoken criticism was tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, in line with Putin’s policy of divide and rule – and also because he and his mercenary army were of continuing importance to the war. But his insurrection crossed the line, humiliating Putin and directly challenging his authority.
Moscow might well seek to blame Ukraine for the plane crash, but yesterday’s events are very much in line with Putin’s familiar methods of revenge. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London using Polonium and attempted murder of Sergei Skripol in Salisbury using Novichok were much more than discrete attempts on people’s lives. They employed novel methods intended to send out an unmistakable message to deter others who might think of following in what Putin saw as their treacherous footsteps. In this plane crash we have seen a similar type of symbolic messaging.
According to some reports, Prigozhin’s plane was shot down by Russian air defences, something that could not be mistaken for an accident. Furthermore it occurred two months since Wagner began its uprising in June, and on the week Prigozhin’s ally General Sergei Surovikin was relieved of command of Russian aerospace forces.
Inside Russia, Putin has been heavily criticised for his apparent weakness in handling the coup attempt, with Prigozhin and his henchmen seeming to get off pretty much Scot free. If Prigozhin has now been killed, his authority will have been restored. It will not though be the end of the Wagner group, which is far too valuable to the Kremlin in ruthlessly implementing its foreign policy in Africa and elsewhere while accumulating huge financial resources for Moscow. In one form or another, Prigozhin’s mercenaries will continue his bloody legacy.