Putin Bolsters Power Base After Prigozhin Dies in Jet Crash

The plane crash that killed Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin restored Vladimir Putin’s reputation as Russia’s unchallengeable leader for many of the country’s elite, even as the cause of the disaster may never be fully established.

(Bloomberg) — The plane crash that killed Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin restored Vladimir Putin’s reputation as Russia’s unchallengeable leader for many of the country’s elite, even as the cause of the disaster may never be fully established.

The mercenary leader’s demise removes a man who had courted impunity after leading the mutiny that threatened the Russian president’s grip on power. His elimination is a strong stabilizing factor for Putin’s regime because it shows that anyone challenging him comes to a bad end, according to four people close to the authorities, who asked not to be identified because the matter was sensitive.

Early assessments by the US indicate that Prigozhin’s killing was an assassination that probably had Putin’s approval, according to an American official who discussed the preliminary appraisal on condition of anonymity. The official said the plane may have been destroyed by a bomb on board, not a surface-to-air missile.

In Putin’s first comments on the crash, the Russian president said on state TV that “preliminary information says that some Wagner employees were there.”

Expressing condolences and referring to Prigozhin in the past tense, he described a “talented businessman” and “a man with a complicated fate” who “made serious mistakes in life.”

Many in the Russian elite had been shocked that Putin failed to immediately punish Prigozhin after the June rebellion that he’d denounced as treason. The crash that killed all 10 people on board the private jet traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg on Wednesday took place exactly two months after the uprising the president said had brought Russia to the brink of “civil war.”

“A lively, energetic, and idea-filled Prigozhin was undoubtedly a walking issue for the regime, embodying Putin’s political humiliation,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R.Politik. “For a significant portion of the politicized, conservative public, Prigozhin’s death is a well-deserved outcome.”

The UK is working on the assumption the plane was brought down deliberately, although the exact cause of the crash is still not clear, an official said. The Russian investigation appears to be examining the theory of a bomb on the plane, they said. 

Russian authorities are believed to have sent genetic material for testing in Moscow, and no formal identification has been made yet, the official added. Investigators are seeking to question anyone who had access to the plane while it was in an airport hanger in the days before the flight.

Wagner’s Empire in Africa Will Live On After Prigozhin

Putin president is already making preparations for his bid to secure a fifth term in March 2024 elections. He’s doing so now with many in the elite convinced that he has regained his authority and demonstrated his strength after months of confusion about the political fallout from Wagner’s rebellion. 

To be sure, not everyone in the Russian elite is sanguine about Prigozhin’s downfall. His disappearance deepens a sense of fear by showing nobody is safe in Russia now, according to two people with links to the authorities.

Prigozhin’s earthy language made him popular with many ordinary Russians and his willingness to visit and talk with relatives of deceased Wagner fighters contrasted strongly with the remoteness of Putin and other top officials. People brought flowers Thursday to makeshift memorials in St. Petersburg and the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, where he’d been cheered in the streets by onlookers at the end of his mutiny.

As Russian investigators probe the circumstances of the crash, many questions remain. Some among the elite even questioned whether Prigozhin had faked his death and said they wanted to wait for DNA tests to be sure that the Wagner leader was on board the plane.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, Who Led Wagner Mutiny, Is Presumed Dead

It’s unclear who’ll take charge of the thousands of Wagner fighters after both Prigozhin and his No. 2 in the organization, Dmitry Utkin, were listed among the passengers on the plane. 

That also raises questions about the future of Wagner’s extensive operations in Africa, as well as the huge sums of money earned by the group. A third figure listed by Russian aviation authorities as on the plane, Valeriy Chekalov, was responsible for Wagner’s operational finances.

Many Wagner fighters moved to Belarus under a deal struck by Prigozhin to end the rebellion as his forces came to within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of Moscow. Their presence has stoked tensions with the Baltic states and Poland, which sent troops to the border with Belarus amid mounting security concerns.

Prigozhin’s apparent death may weaken or even dismantle the group’s presence in Belarus, the country’s exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Thursday.

What Happens to Prigozhin’s Wagner Group After Founder in Crash?

Putin had been seeking to restore his shaken authority at home since the rebellion, amid rising nationalist anger over the Russian leader’s stalled invasion of Ukraine, now in its 18th month. Prigozhin had won a wide following with his brazen and profane attacks on the military brass on social media, accusing them of sabotaging the war effort. 

Prigozhin was also popular with some in the military, who agreed with his criticisms of the conduct of the war in Ukraine. The plane crash took place a day after it emerged that Sergei Surovikin, a top general praised by Prigozhin, had been removed from his post as deputy commander of operations in Ukraine after being quizzed by security officials over his links with Wagner.

Russian General Missing Since Wagner Mutiny Is Removed From Post

The Wagner leader had demanded the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a close Putin ally, and Chief of the Defense Staff Valery Gerasimov. But Putin has stood by the two men, underlining for the elite that loyalty to him is paramount, even amid criticism of the military’s performance in Ukraine.

“Putin is signaling what happens to anyone who dares to challenge the regime or disobey,” said Maria Snegovaya, senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s a powerful signal, and deliberately done at such scale – the explosion serves a demonstration effect.”

Putin’s Hunting Pal Is at the Center of Kremlin Caterer’s Mutiny

Politically, Putin removed all critics of Russia’s performance in the war “and has shown everyone that he is in total control of the situation,” said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian secret services. “If Prigozhin was indeed killed in that crash, this means that Putin is a very cold-blooded player.” 

Abroad, too, officials in the US and Europe expressed little shock that Prigozhin may have been the target of an assassination. 

“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” President Joe Biden told reporters.  

“The current Russian system, Putin’s Russia, is built on death and suffering,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Thursday in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio. “We must fear that Russia, with or without Wagner, will continue with its cynical game, not only in Ukraine but also in Africa.”

–With assistance from Iain Rogers and Alex Wickham.

(Updates with US official in third paragraph)

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