Will Prigozhin's death strengthen Putin?

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin like no other with his Wagner mercenary force, is apparently dead. What does this mean for Russia and its war in Ukraine?

Yevgeny Prigozhin (Photo: DW)
Yevgeny Prigozhin (Photo: DW)


Many were expecting Yevgeny Prigozhin to die, but what has apparently come as a surprise is how.

"The fact that he was killed so spectacularly is something new," Russian investigative journalist Irina Borogan told DW on Thursday, adding that the exact circumstances may never be clarified.

Only a few doubt that the head of the notorious Wagner Group is even dead, and his death is unlikely to have been accidental. There is a high probability that it was a "contract killing ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin," said Austrian political expert Gerhard Mangott. He suggested that the move could have been Putin's revenge for his embarrassment during Prigozhin's attempted coup attempt in June and a "warning to critics in leading positions."

Wagner co-founder Dmitry Utkin also onboard

Apart from Prigozhin, whom Russian sources said was on board the private jet that crashed on Wednesday evening, Dmitry Utkin, who co-founded the mercenary group and whose alias "Wagner" gave the militia its name, is also believed to have died in the incident. There is growing evidence that the plane exploded en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

For a while, it seemed the conflict between Prigozhin and Putin had been resolved. The former, who had relocated to Belarus, had been seen moving freely and had even posted videos where he appeared to be recruiting troops for new deployments, including in Africa.

When, in late June, Prigozhin led an armed mutiny against Russia's military leadership, occupying the command center in Rostov-on-Don without meeting resistance, marching part of his private army to Moscow, and shooting down the plane and helicopters that tried to stop him, Putin called him a traitor. But there was no showdown; there was a deal: Prigozhin was promised immunity from prosecution in exchange for exile in Belarus.

Military challenge to Putin stunned Russia

The incident stunned Russia. Right in the middle of the war of aggression against Ukraine, Prigozhin dared to challenge the Kremlin chief as no other, with military means. For several hours, Putin came across as being weak and powerless. In the previous months, Prigozhin had clashed with the president's close ally, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and with Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Army Valery Gerasimov, accusing both of military incompetence. He also indirectly attacked Putin by questioning his rationale for the war in public.

There was a time when he had been considered very loyal, and his mercenaries were instrumental in helping the Russian army conquer territory in Ukraine, most recently in the town of Bakhmut in late May. Prigozhin, whose relationship with Putin goes back to the 1990s, was the first to be allowed to raise a private force for challenging and dirty missions on Moscow's behalf in Ukraine, the Middle East and Africa.

Though Prigozhin's supporters may now be frustrated, Putin probably does not have to worry about a second mutiny, said Marina Miron of University College London, telling DW that he had seemingly found a way "to control the group."

Little impact on war in Ukraine expected

Few experts thought the incident would impact the war in Ukraine, considering that the now leaderless Wagner Group had already been severely weakened during heavy fighting in spring. The Russian army has been fighting without the help of the Wagner Group for the past three months and is in a better position in Putin's eyes.

"The question is what will happen to Wagner's missions in Africa because the group did a lot of dirty work for the Russian government and significantly strengthened Russia's influence in African states," said Mangott.

He added that what was also unclear was how long Putin will have successfully consolidated his power. He said this would depend on the further course of the war in Ukraine.

It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin chief will continue to stand by his defense minister. Prigozhin was not the only one to call for Shoigu's replacement; various nationalists and so-called war bloggers whose support for the war is essential to Putin, who has met some of them in person, have done the same.

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Published: 25 Aug 2023, 8:20 AM