A sneaky move at a Kremlin meeting may show why Putin took his time in eliminating Prigozhin

  • On August 23, two months after his brief rebellion, Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash.

  • The cause is unclear, but Russian President Vladimir Putin is suspected of orchestrated the crash.

  • If so, the process of removing Prigozhin may have begun at a Kremlin meeting days after his uprising.

Two months to the day after his brief uprising against Russia's leadership, Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash near Moscow alongside senior members of his Wagner Group private military company on August 23.

While the cause is still unclear, Russian President Vladimir Putin is strongly suspected of orchestrating the death of the mercenary leader who had been challenging Moscow for months. A dramatic meeting at the Kremlin shortly after the failed rebellion suggests Putin was biding his time until he could ensure a smooth takeover of Wagner, which had become an important player in Russian foreign policy.

On June 29, five days after the rebellion was called off, Putin gathered Prigozhin and his commanders in the Kremlin, according to a report in the Russian outlet Kommersant.

Putin asked the group if they would serve under a new leader, Alexei Troshev. The commanders nodded affirmatively, but Prigozhin, who couldn't see their response since they were behind him, was adamant: "No, the guys won't agree to that," he said, according to Kommersant.

That meeting may have sealed Prigozhin's fate.

Emergency specialists carry a body bag near wreckages of the private jet linked to Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at the crash site in the Tver region, Russia, August 24, 2023.
Emergency responders carry a body bag from the wreckage of a jet linked to Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at a crash site in the Tver region on August 24.Reuters

"The June 29 meeting between Putin and Wagner leaders and Prigozhin was intended to show the disagreement between Prigozhin and the group's commanders about the organization's future and thereby prepare experienced leaders of the group for Prigozhin's elimination," Matthew Orr, a Eurasia analyst at the risk-intelligence company RANE, told Insider.

"Reports of the meeting — and the lack of notable cases of dissension following Prigozhin's death — suggest that the meeting likely achieved its goals," Orr said.

Two other key Wagner figures, Dmitry Utkin and Valery Chekalov, also died in the August 23 crash. Utkin, believed to be the group's cofounder, was immensely popular among its old guard and much of the rank-and-file. Chekalov, a senior deputy to Prigozhin, oversaw logistics, coordinating numerous Wagner activities and operations in Libya and Syria.

With these three men out of the picture it could be easier to bring Wagner more firmly under state control, as Putin can now prevent commanders who are more aligned with their views from assuming control amid the turmoil of the reorganization.

Orr said Moscow will most likely use its security and intelligence services, primarily the GRU and FSB, to "solidify control over" Wagner commanders and regional leaders to ensure their operations align with Russian state interests while "technically remaining a private organization."

This undated photograph handed out by French military shows Russian mercenaries boarding a helicopter in northern Mali
An undated photo of Russian mercenaries boarding a helicopter in northern Mali.French Army via Associated Press

"Wagner's operations in Africa in the medium- to long-term may face increased competition from — or eventual absorption by — other PMCs closely associated with Russia's Ministry of Defense, such as PMC Convoy and PMC Redut," Orr said, referring to private military companies.

Reports suggest those other groups recently began "recruiting for potential operations in Africa, where they could compete with Wagner and eventually have the option of phasing out Wagner entirely — which would further serve the purpose of reinforcing the Kremlin's control," Orr added.

Other reporting indicates Russian military officials began moving to assume control of Wagner operations and shore up relations with partners in the Middle East and Africa weeks before Prigozhin's death, doing so even as Prigozhin toured the region to assert control of his organization.

Anton Mardasov, a non-resident scholar with the Middle East Institute's Syria program, said it was "obvious" the Kremlin would not side with Prigozhin in his dispute with the Ministry of Defense for several reasons, including "the specific alignment" of Russia elites, "which a priori was not" with Prigozhin.

"Wagner's autonomous existence was ruled out because, together with Prigozhin, the group posed a serious danger to Moscow," Mardasov told Insider.

"Moreover, Prigozhin violated the agreement from the very beginning, leaving himself many loopholes in business, and it was clear that he would not sit quietly," Mardasov said, pointing to videos Prigozhin released from Belarus and Africa in the weeks before his death as confirmation.

Russia Putin Africa
Putin with African leaders and heads of delegations at the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg on July 28.ALEXEY DANICHEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Under Prigozhin, Wagner amassed a business empire using lucrative concessions from governments and backers in the countries where it operated. The group's profitability allowed it to sustain its operations in sub-Saharan Africa, a huge benefit for the organization and something Moscow will likely seek to preserve.

Orr said Wagner's new leaders, or the group's replacement, will likely be "even more keen to demonstrate their activities" are beneficial to the Russian state instead of "serving (the) parochial economic interests of its owners."

The Kremlin sought to portray Prigozhin's "alleged greed and selfishness" as the reason for his downfall, Orr said, and consequently, "replacement groups may further emphasize their commitment to the common task of furthering the interests of the Russian state."

Despite the Kremlin's years of denials, officials in the Middle East and Africa saw Wagner as a valuable partner because of perceptions that the Russian government backed its operations, Orr said.

Moscow will now be keen to show "strong backing" for whichever organizations replace Wagner, but it is likely to avoid assuming formal control of their missions, which could entail deploying Russian troops to replace the mercenaries, as doing so would be "politically undesirable" amid the war in Ukraine, Orr added.

Mardasov, who is also a military affairs analyst, said the Kremlin likely believed it was extremely unrealistic that Wagner's senior leaders would work under closer government oversight, with attempts to create such an arrangement meeting "serious resistance" from Prigozhin and his closest people.

A fighter from Russian Wagner mercenary group conducts training for Belarusian soldiers on a range near the town of Osipovichi, Belarus July 14, 2023 in this still image taken from handout video.
A Wagner Group member conducts trains Belarusian soldiers at a range near the town of Osipovichi in Belarus on July 14.Voen Tv/Belarusian Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

"Moreover, the Wagner PMC is not just a group of mercenaries. It is a structure based on a number of Prigozhin's business assets, which has political strategists, consulting, intelligence, and so on," Mardasov said. "It is impossible to simply change the owner since military intelligence will not engage in consulting and political technologies, and for the SVR [Russia's foreign intelligence service], such a huge power tool is redundant."

Prigozhin's death has already affected Russia's position in Syria and other countries, including in Libya, a hub for Wagner's operations in Africa and where Russian military leaders are reportedly seeking naval access.

For now, the mercenaries have some leverage, as their departure would create a gap that Moscow is still unsure how to fill "since there is essentially no real working plan to replace Wagner with an expeditionary force" from PMCs over which the military has more influence, Mardasov said.

But Wagner and other PMCs rely on Russia's Ministry of Defense for transportation and other support, and the recent moves by Russian officials suggest they are trying to ensure no such gap opens.

"Among the Wagner Group, there is still hope for an autonomous existence under the leadership of Prigozhin's son Pavel and commanders who really control the situation," Mardasov said. "But this situation cannot last long, especially since the MoD issues ultimatums and the department has leverage over mercenaries."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and columnist who writes about Middle East developments, military affairs, politics, and history. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications focused on the region.

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