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As footage of flames consuming the remains of warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plane spread across the world, Vladimir Putin appeared at a macabre Soviet war memorial where he spoke of soldiers’ “devotion to the motherland”.
On a stage in Kursk, a city several hours south of Moscow, the Russian president was bathed in eerie red light and flanked by a symphony orchestra. He could barely suppress the flicker of a smile.
If the Wagner paramilitary leader is pronounced dead, it would all but confirm he has been a marked man since he led an aborted mutiny exactly two months ago to protest against the Russian defence ministry’s handling of the war in Ukraine.
The eight weeks that Prigozhin spent in semi-exile in Belarus and Africa — during which he returned to Russia on several occasions and even met Putin in the Kremlin — now seem to have been a mere prelude to an elaborate revenge carried out by the targets of the Wagner leader’s coup.
As Oleg Ignatov, senior Russia analyst at Crisis Group, put it, it was an ending straight out of The Godfather.
A former senior Kremlin official told the FT: “I thought they were definitely going to rub him out. And so they did. Things like that can’t be forgiven. Everyone understands that the response to treason will be irreversible and swift. It’s a signal for the whole elite.”
Supporters of Putin might detect a kind of poetic justice in the manner of Prigozhin’s death after his Wagner troops shot down several helicopters and a transport plane during their march on Moscow, an attack that killed at least 13 Russian servicemen.
“Obviously this was ordered,” a person close to the Russian defence ministry said. “It was his people who killed the airmen, after all. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. It was totally unclear for two months why he was travelling the world . . . now they’ve liquidated him and it all makes sense.”
Prigozhin’s death would be a fiery coda to one of the most remarkable chapters in the invasion of Ukraine as well as recent Russian history.
A former Kremlin caterer known as “Putin’s chef”, Prigozhin turned his Wagner group into one of Russia’s most formidable fighting forces until the long-simmering conflict with the defence ministry boiled over.
Called in to help steady the ship after the initial invasion quickly proved a disastrous failure, Prigozhin instead emerged as the head of a de facto parallel security force with Putin’s stamp of approval.
He amassed a vast army mostly made up of Russian prisoners released to fight in the war, competed with the regular military for men and resources, and regularly released scathing comments about its generals.
Even before the fateful mutiny, there were always some Prigozhin allies who feared his meteoric rise could not last, with one warning the Financial Times in February there was “a risk he could end up like Icarus”.
At first, Putin’s tolerance of Prigozhin’s maverick behaviour appeared to be part of an attempt to keep rival factions of Russia’s security services in check. But the mutiny showed “Prigozhin spun out of Putin’s control”, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. It was, she added, “a very unpleasant surprise for Putin, even a shock”.
After his meeting with Prigozhin and several dozen Wagner fighters in the Kremlin in July, Putin said he had offered rank-and-file mercenaries the option of continuing to fight in Ukraine under regular military command. But Prigozhin rejected the overture and the transfer never took place.
The episode showed “Putin wanted to keep the core of Wagner because of their battlefield heroics and geopolitical value”, Stanovaya said, adding: “But I haven’t seen any signs that Prigozhin retained any value for Putin. The point of the meeting was likely so that Putin could quietly draw Wagner away from Prigozhin.”
As Prigozhin’s jet criss-crossed Russia and Belarus, and then flew as far as Mali, Moscow elites and western security officials alike started to suspect his time would soon be up.
“I thought they’d use novichok,” said a second former senior Kremlin official, referring to the nerve agent used to poison Kremlin opponents such as ex-spy Sergei Skripal and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. “They’ve added something new to the menu.”
The warlord’s apparent escape from punishment had seemed particularly incongruous after Putin launched a crackdown on senior security officials, including top general Sergei Surovikin, who were known to have sympathised with Wagner, as well as hardliners who blamed the Russian leader for the army’s failures in Ukraine.
Grigory Yudin, head of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, said: “The internal investigation of the mutiny is completed. Surovikin was dismissed yesterday, and the culprits have been executed.”
Yudin added: “It took them two months to investigate it, make the verdict and execute it. Had they concluded that Surovikin was part of the plot, he would have been on the plane too.”
“The crisis has been dealt with quickly and effectively,” said Andrei Soldatov, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and co-author of several books about Russia’s security services. Soldatov said Putin had taken time to deal with Prigozhin’s assets and punish hardliners before exacting his ultimate revenge.
Referring to Machiavelli’s masterpiece, he said: “It’s The Prince of the 21st century for you.”