Prigozhins difficult fate has complex implications for Putin

Wagner Group issue statement after death of Yevgeny Prigozhin

Vladimir Putin has said that Yevgeny Prigozhin was “a man with a difficult fate” after the Wagner Group leader is presumed to have died in plane crash. However, a former US Ambassador to Russia has said that while he believes it is “likely” Prigozhin was assassinated on the orders of Putin, the death could have “complex implications” for the Russian president.

A preliminary US intelligence assessment has found that the plane crash was intentionally caused by an explosion. The assessment said Prigozhin was “very likely” targeted – and that the explosion falls in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics”.

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Michael McFaul, US Ambassador to Russia between 2012-2014, says that the alleged assassination of Prigozhin is likely to have “complex implications” – but analysts like himself cannot “state with clarity the consequences” his death will have.

McFaul said: “Based on what I have read and what Russians and Russian experts have told me, I believe today that Putin ordered the assassination of his long-time associate. I reserve the right to change my assessment as more information becomes available.

“Prigozhin’s mutiny two months ago embarrassed Putin. When faced with the challenge of stopping the Wagner mercenaries by using military force or negotiating with Prigozhin, Putin went on television to tell his citizens that he was going to crush the traitors but then backed down.

“It was humiliating. Putin looked weak. It was a matter of time before he sought revenge

“That’s what most likely happened yesterday. Putin killed the man who betrayed him and embarrassed him.

“And yet there are still many unanswered questions. Most mysteriously, if Putin considered Prigozhin a traitor after his attempted mutiny last June, why did he treat him so well over the last two months?

“Prigozhin went out of his way to explain that his mutiny – he called it a ‘March of Justice’ – was never against Putin, but instead aimed to replace the top leadership of the Russian armed forces for their poor performance in prosecuting the war in Ukraine.

“After Putin negotiated a deal with Prigozhin two months ago, you could have been lulled into thinking that Putin and the mercenary were back on good terms. Prigozhin most certainly was. Prigozhin was not forced permanently into exile in Belarus, as we originally thought he might be, but was allowed to come back to Russia and travel to Africa.”

Putin even met with Prigozhin in July. Why? Most shockingly, on the sidelines of Putin’s summit with African leaders in St. Petersburg recently, Prigozhin was allowed to have his own sidebar meetings with several of these African officials. Why?

“Putin and his intelligence organizations most likely were using these two months to follow Prigozhin, including listening to phone calls and reading other forms of communication, to uncover Wagner supporters and sympathizers within the Russian regular armed forces, intelligence agencies, and other government bodies.

“That pro-Wagner General Sergey Surovikin was removed from his command the day before Prigozhin was assassinated was no coincidence. But the lengths that Putin went to create the appearance of normality regarding his relationship with Prigozhin for the two months before he killed him was odd, so odd that it has fueled some speculation that Putin maybe didn’t even order the assassination himself, but those within the armed forces who really hated Prigozhin took the action independently, knowing that Putin would have no choice but to defend their action.

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“The implications of this murder are even murkier. As I said with many others on television yesterday when put in the spot to react to the breaking news, Putin’s grip on power within his regime is stronger as a result of this assassination.

“Putin eliminated a threat – a charismatic leader who commanded thousands of trained soldiers. He also sent a strong signal of deterrence, as I wrote back in June, to future would-be coup plotters.

“At the same time, we should not overstate the upside of this assassination for Putin and his power over the long run, especially his ability to project power abroad. Most obviously, Putin has now weakened if not destroyed a key instrument for his power projection overseas.

“Wagner fighters in Africa, Syria, and Ukraine advanced Putin’s foreign policy objectives. A weakened or a dismantled Wagner takes that tool away from Putin.

“Ukrainians are rightly celebrating Prigozhin’s assassination. Wagner thugs are unlikely to ever kill Ukrainians again. That’s a good outcome for Ukraine and a bad outcome for Putin.

“Perhaps more importantly, though also much harder to assess, Prigozhin’s assassination could be demoralizing for parts of the Russian elite, society, and soldiers. Of course, measuring public opinion about anything in Russia today is extremely difficult.

“No one has an incentive to express what they really believe. But some early signals and some non-events give us hints about public sentiment. I have not seen one senior Russian official say, “good job” (molodets) to Putin’s action yesterday.

“I worked at the White House when President Obama took the decision to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011. That evening, people gathered near the White House to celebrate that action.

“You have not and will not see any pro-Putin demonstrations in Moscow or St Petersburg to celebrate the elimination of this traitor, because Putin himself won’t even call Prigozhin a traitor, just a long-time colleague who made mistakes.

“In fact, Russians are laying flowers at Wagner headquarters to honor Prigozhin, ‘the traitor’. Putin is navigating this delicate messaging because he knows that Prigozhin was a hero to many Russians, including some Russian soldiers, that is privates not generals.

“This is not a black-and-white story. And this story is not over. In killing Prigozhin, Putin achieved a short-term victory of consolidating his power at home. In the long term, however, the negative consequences for Putin’s ability to achieve his foreign policy objectives abroad, especially in Ukraine, may outweigh the short-term gains.”

Details of the US assessment of the fatal plane crash surfaced as Putin expressed his “condolences” to the families of those who were reported to be onboard the jet – and “noted” the “significant contribution to our common cause of combating the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine” made by the Wagner group. However, he also referred to “serious mistakes” by Prigozhin.

Speaking in a televised address, Putin said: “As for the aviation tragedy, first of all I want to express my most sincere condolences to the families of all the victims. It is always a tragedy.

“Indeed, if employees of the Wagner company were there, and the preliminary data indicate they were, I would like to note that these people made a significant contribution to our common cause of combating the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine, we remember this, we know it and we shall not forget.

“I had known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the start of the 90s. He was a man with a difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life. And he strove for the results he needed for himself, and when I asked him about it, for the common cause, as in these last months.

“He was a talented person, a talented businessman, he worked not only in our country, and worked with results, but also abroad, in Africa in particular. He was involved there with oil, gas, precious metals and stones.

“As far as I know, he just returned yesterday from Africa. He met some officials here.
“But what is quite definite – the head of the Investigative Committee reported to me this morning – is they have already begun a preliminary investigation into this event. And it will be carried out in full, and taken right to the end. There are no doubts about this.

“Let’s see what the investigators say in the near future. And now, expert examinations, technical examinations and genetic ones are being carried out. This takes some time.”

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