U.S. and European officials assessing the fallout from the death of mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin say it’s likely to strengthen Vladimir Putin’s short-term grip on Russia but weaken his standing over time.
Outside governments are still trying to ascertain exactly what caused Prigozhin’s plane to crash in Russia on Wednesday, two months after he led a brief mutiny and clashed with Russian forces over grievances about the Kremlin’s approach to the war in Ukraine. Russia’s civil aviation agencysaid Wednesday that Prigozhin was one of 10 people killed when the flight crashed, and Putin spoke of him in the past tense Thursday.
Western officials reached Thursday argued that Prigozhin’s death could temporarily strengthen Putin’s hand, or at the very least leave his level of power unchanged.
“Putin has a pretty clear track record of at least operating within his own country with impunity,” a U.S. official familiar with Russia policy said. “I don’t get the sense there’s any mechanism under which he’ll be held accountable … Just because people hate you doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to be out of power.”
A second U.S. official familiar with Russia policy put it this way when asked about the implications for Putin: “Short-term stronger, long-term weaker.”
Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur wrote in a text message that, in taking out his opponents “one by one,” the Russian leader is forcing his top officials to “walk the line” he sets.
“The society of fear is growing rapidly in Russia, and people are more afraid than ever to come out for demonstrations or something similar,” he added. “So all in all, dictatorship in [the] mafia state is growing.”
There were competing reports as to what destroyed the aircraft. The Biden administration said there was no evidence a missile was involved, but it left open the possibility of a bomb on board the flight.
In any case, few doubt that Putin was behind what U.S. officials believe was an assassination attempt. “Our initial assessment is that it is likely Prigozhin was killed,” said one who, like others who spoke for this story, was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive and classified matter.
There was some speculation online that Prigozhin was not dead at all, and that the crash was staged as a way for him to disappear, but the Russian media apparatus rushed to quash those rumors.
The Biden administration waved away the implications of the mercenary chief’s demise in the hours after the plane crashed. U.S. officials had, after all, long said he was a dead man walking.
President Joe Biden suspects Putin was behind the aircraft’s destruction, while National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson noted Wednesday “the disastrous war in Ukraine led to a private army marching on Moscow, and now — it would seem — to this.”
One long-term unknown is how Prigozhin’s followers in the mercenary Wagner Group will respond to his death and whether they could over time pose a threat to Putin.
The Kremlin has spent the past two months trying to absorb many Wagner forces into its own military as well as seeking the reins of some of the organization’s operations in Africa and beyond.
“The disappearance of Prigozhin in the short run consolidates Putin’s stance inside the system. Let’s see if the remaining Wagnerites will buy in,” a senior European diplomat said.
“Wagner is the prize,” added a Western European diplomat.
Outside analysts said the Kremlin is likely to name a lesser-known figure to lead Wagner’s operations in Africa, ensuring the new mercenary chief won’t challenge Putin. Moscow prefers to have guns-for-hire in West Africa so officials can deny that they have anything to do with securing Russia’s regional interests.
Ever since Prigozhin’s June mutiny, U.S. officials have predicted that Putin would eliminate him as he is believed to have killed so many rivals over the years.
At the Aspen Security Forum in July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of Russia having an “open windows” policy — a reference to how many prominent Russians seem to die by falling from high places.
CIA Director William Burns said at the conference: “If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster,” a nod to the Kremlin’s alleged love of poisoning dissidents.
But both also stressed the mere fact that Prigozhin staged a mutiny showed that Putin’s regime is not inviolable.
That spells trouble for him in the long run, especially if the war in Ukraine continues with no end in sight and the questions that Prigozhin raised — about the judgments involving that war — keep arising in the minds of people around Putin.
“I think in many ways it exposed some of the significant weaknesses in a system that Putin has built,” Burns said in Aspen. The CIA chief in particular said the Russian elite appeared wary of Putin’s decisions.
Putin is in many ways increasingly isolated on the world stage. Western sanctions have badly damaged Russia’s economy, and his own travel has been limited in part because of an arrest warrant issued for him by the International Criminal Court.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter, argued that the Prigozhin killing “strengthens Putin’s position among the elites and weakens it in the eyes of the general public.”
In comments on Facebook, Gallyamov said that “the establishment is now convinced that it is not possible to oppose Putin without consequences.” But the manner in which Prigozhin was killed may bother ordinary Russians who saw him as a patriot who “dared to speak the truth.”
“Prigozhin challenged those in power in a public manner … but Putin did not accept the challenge on a clear field, but crept up like a thief in the night and stabbed him in the back,” Gallyamov wrote.
In comments on Prigozhin’s death Thursday, meanwhile, Putin called the former caterer-turned-mercenary boss “a talented man, a talented businessman,” but also, “a man of difficult fate.”
Eva Hartog contributed to this report.