By the time Yevgeniy Prigozhin launched his ‘march for justice’ across Russia in June, he had become a key figure in Russia’s mafia state. Yet he displayed a surprising ignorance of its rules. For over twenty years, Putin has rewarded loyalty and punished defiance. Treachery is an extreme form of defiance, and its reward is death. These are mafia rules, and a mafia don who fails to enforce them invariably ends up dead himself.
The fictitious but all too lifelike Don Corleone observed that ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’. Hot dishes can be delectable, but a hot revenge is hasty and often botched. To revenge cold, preparation is required. The traitor must be conciliated and made to feel that the danger has passed. On the morrow of pronouncing Prigozhin a traitor, Putin prepared a soft landing for him in Belarus; he invited him to the Russia-Africa summit; he punished a few of his supporters and sidelined a few others. Prigozhin not only relaxed, he made noise; he flew to Africa to solidify his holdings; his ultras in the Wagner ‘private military company’ made noise as well.
In the flurry of media speculation about the crash of his personal aircraft on 23 August, one fact largely escaped notice. The actual founder and operational commander of ChVK Wagner, the charismatic Lt Colonel of GRU special forces, Dmitry Utkin, perished as well. The result is that Wagner is decapitated. It has been a textbook operation, competently executed.
Who would have the motive, the means or the audacity to undertake such an operation without clearance from the top? Surely, not the Commander of Air Defence Forces or the submissive CGS, General Gerasimov. The execution of a traitor is a presidential prerogative, not least when the traitor humiliates the president.
Why then all the equivocation in Moscow? Because extra-judicial murder is unseemly. Ordinary Russians long ago ceded their political and civic rights to the regime. But even they have expectations. The admission that the head of state not only killed Prigozhin and Utkin but innocents (the flight and cabin crew, possibly others) might stir memories of more dastardly acts, notably the bombing of apartment blocks in 1999 that gave then Prime Minister Putin the pretext to relaunch the Chechen war and secure his bid for presidential power.
Then there is the West, its fastidiousness about ‘conclusive evidence’ and its addiction to doubt. Flood its news channels with denials, loose ends and plausible alternatives, and questions will drown out conclusions. In Russia, ‘disorienting the opponent’ is not only a principle of war but a habit. As Putin’s supposed ‘grey cardinal’, Vladislav Surkov, stated in 2019, Russia is not wasting its time interfering with the West’s elections, it is ‘messing with its mind’ [вмешивается в их мозг].
But for others — the governing elite of Russia and the country’s ultra-nationalists — the communication code is different. They know the rules, they read between the lines, and they pose the fundamental question: Кому это выгодно? Who benefits? For them the messages are strikingly clear: of course we did it, we are the only ones who could have done it, and you had better watch your step.
It remains to note that the state has not been meticulous about disguising its culpability. The preliminary to any proper investigation is to cordon off the crash site, but OSINT videos show debris being hastily dragged away. Moreover, the only Russians who came forward to deflect blame from Putin were officials of the state or figures closely aligned with it. For his part, Putin has not comported himself like someone determined to deflect blame. His eerie, almost gleeful remarks the evening of the crash praising military heroes who display ‘loyalty to the military oath’ could not have been more pointed.
For now, it would appear that Putin has won hands down. But for how long? Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, exactly two months before his death, exposed swathes of discontent with the direction of the war and the state. Those who were embittered then cannot be less embittered now. The lesson is plain: if you want to defy Putin, you have to go to the very end. That raises the stakes for everyone, not least Putin himself. Wagner was a creation of military intelligence, the GRU. Whereas a few of Prigozhin’s more prominent supporters have been sidelined or dismissed, there are ranks of other malcontents in and outside special forces and intelligence services who cannot be dispensed with in time of war. It would be complacent to assume that all of these individuals lack nerve, networks and allies.
Putin has always played for high stakes, and in the war launched on 24 February 2022, they continue to mount. Thanks to the war and the misjudgements that produced it, every other priority — the relationship with Germany, pre-eminence in European energy markets, the weakening of Transatlantic ties, the diminution of NATO and sound finances in Russia itself — has been sacrificed. Yet as Wagner supporters know, the war can still be lost. This is not a game that ends well.