Wagner group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin death wouldn’t be first time someone who crossed Putin met a suspicious demise

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Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, reportedly died when a private jet he was said to be on crashed on Aug. 23, 2023, killing all 10 people on board.

The Russian Federal Air Transport Agency confirmed that Prigozhin, who had led a brief rebellion again the Russian military two months earlier, was among the dead.

However, Prigozhin was believed to have numerous passports, and he would compel others to travel under his name to protect him from possible attacks.The Conversation U.S. asked national security scholar Gregory F. Treverton, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the Obama administration, to explain what Prigozhin’s death would signify.

Who was – or is – Prigozhin?

Prigozhin came from humble beginnings. He was a petty criminal who, after serving nine years in a Soviet prison, became a hot dog vendor and eventually owned elegant restaurants and a catering service. He was best known as the rich and connected leader of the Wagner group, a private military force with links to the Russian government.

Wagner troops fought on the Russian side in Ukraine, but Prigozhin went public in the spring of 2023 with criticism of the conflict’s cost in terms of Wagner troops and complaints about the way the war was being fought by the Russian government. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu was a particular target of Prigozhin’s complaints regarding military strategy.

In June, Prigozhin orchestrated what was effectively a revolt against Russia’s government. He dispatched Wagner troops on a march unimpeded toward Moscow. Prigozhin was 62 years old at the time of the crash.

What was his relationship with President Vladimir Putin?

It was complicated, to say the least. An oligarch, Prigozhin was thought to be close to the Russian leader. He was called “Putin’s chef” due to the services he provided the Kremlin and the personal touches he employed when Putin dined in his restaurants. In June, when he launched his mutiny against Moscow, Prigozhin must have realized he had gone too far with his public rebukes.

The only general he admired, Sergey Surovikin, released a video message telling him to stand down and to “obey” Putin. Prigozhin soon disbanded the march, saying he wanted to spare “Russian blood.” Afterward, the mercenary leader said he met with Putin before leaving for what was expected to be his exile in Belarus. At the time, I was looking for cracks in Russia’s will to fight, particularly in its military.

At some level, it has to hate hemorrhaging men and materiel in a conflict that many conscripts don’t even understand or support. In that sense, I saw Prigozhin’s criticisms of Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine as a positive sign, especially as his take seemed to resonate with the Russian people and even its armed forces.

Yet when it looked like Prigozhin might prevail, American officials were worried. As the saying goes: When the gods wish to punish us, they grant us our wishes. Would putting an end to Putin’s rule lead to chaos in Russia, and how dangerous would that be with all of those nuclear weapons it harbors?

Why do you think Putin’s opponents, many of whom are dead or imprisoned, have met so much misfortune?

It was painfully plain that after his failed rebellion, Prigozhin was a dead man flying. Indeed, the surprise was that Putin dropped charges and let him go, albeit to Russia’s vassal ally, Belarus. But many believe, including me, that Prigozhin was destined to eventually meet the fate of others who have crossed Putin.

That growing list includes Boris Nemtsov, the Russian physicist, politician and critic of Putin who was assassinated in 2015, and Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who remains in prison after Putin allegedly orchestrated his poisoning in 2020.

Would Prigozhin’s death change anything for US policy toward Putin and Russia?

In the end, unless Prigozhin’s rebellion does turn out to have planted the seeds of real resistance, I don’t believe his death is likely to change the course of the Ukraine war or U.S. policy toward Putin and Russia. However, it’s likely to take Wagner troops, which had been among Russia’s most effective, out of the conflict in Ukraine.

And it may wind up diminishing Wagner’s operations in Africa, which until now have furthered Russian interests. Yet the Ukraine war has become America’s war, and the U.S. government doesn’t want to see Ukraine lose it – even if it doesn’t win dramatically. The United States will still have to deal with Putin as it continues to sanction him and his associates, and ultimately seeks to see him tried as a war criminal.

By Gregory F. Treverton Professor of Practice in International Relations, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences  

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