The rise and fall of mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin offers intriguing insight into the dangerous state of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
A man sits near the grave of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was killed in a plane crash, at Porokhovskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia, on August 30, 2023. © Getty Images
- The war in Ukraine threatens to undermine the Kremlin’s authority and control
- Prigozhin’s brand of privatized violence may spread in Russia if Ukraine prevails
- Should Russia win, the armed forces will be rebuilt and repression will flourish
Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine brought to the fore one of the murkiest features of its military forces, that of the Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner and its firebrand leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The mutiny that Prigozhin instigated on June 28 was a truly unique event. It was striking that the leader of a mercenary outfit may have come close to seizing the Kremlin.
The story offers two intriguing facts. One is that the Wagner forces succeeded in swiftly seizing the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, which coordinates the war against Ukraine, and the other is they managed to advance close to Moscow without encountering any opposition. The enigma lies in how these two facts may be explained.
One possibility is that Prigozhin had support from inside the military establishment, where many commanders have been frustrated by how poorly the war has been prosecuted. That suggests that another military insurrection could be in the cards. Another possibility is that the absence of a response was due to a paralysis of power. When Russian President Vladimir Putin was too terrified to issue orders, and senior officials were scrambling their private jets to escape, senior military commanders may have opted to stand by. This indicates that the center of power may be about to implode.
No matter what the real story was, a third fact is that less than two months later, Prigozhin was dead. He met his end on August 23, 2023, when his private plane crashed en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg. All 10 on board perished, including three crew members and Prigozhin’s right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin. DNA tests allegedly showed that the human remains matched the list of passengers. That was the formal end of the Wagner saga.
The rise and fall of Prigozhin and his PMC speaks volumes about the state of the Russian Armed Forces, the nature of the political system that Mr. Putin has created to cement his power and the culture of extreme violence that permeates not only the armed forces but Russian society.
The use of private military contractors is not specific to Russia. During its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States made use of the Blackwater company (rebranded as Academi), and other countries have similar arrangements. What is specific about the case of the Russian Wagner group is its place and role within the hierarchy of power.
One of the peculiarities is that private military companies are formally illegal in Russia. Given the general Russian contempt for the rule of law, this may seem an irrelevant observation, but it has played an important role in how Wagner developed. Having no legal rights, Prigozhin was dependent on playing the games of the Russian underworld. Up until his death, he showed excellent skills in doing so.
The Wagner group was created under the aegis of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service. It was headquartered at a well-known GRU base. During combat, it had access to GRU airlift, and its wounded were treated in GRU hospitals. That tells us that the GRU viewed Wagner as a valuable addition to its already considerable capabilities.
The first signs of Wagner mercenaries in action appeared during the war in Syria. There, they proved useful, undertaking dirty operations that were beyond the pale even for the otherwise brutal official Russian army. Following their appearance in that war, Wagner mercenaries would appear both in Ukraine, where they won a reputation as a more effective fighting force than the regular army, and in Africa, where unsavory regimes have found them helpful as protection.
These developments provide valuable insights into the state of the Russian Armed Forces. That a mercenary unit like Wagner was tasked with frontline duties in Ukraine should not be taken as a sign that it constitutes a professional fighting force. The only case where it had been in combat with a modern professional military was in 2018 in Syria, when around 500 pro-Syrian government troops and Russian mercenaries got into a nearly four-hour-long firefight with about 40 members of the U.S. Delta Force and Rangers at a small outpost near the city of Deir ez-Zor. That encounter ended with a spectacular defeat for the attackers who suffered massive casualties – 200 to 300 dead – while none of the Americans were harmed. The incident proved that a band of thugs parading as a military force is easy prey for a truly professional combat unit.
Wagner personnel winning a reputation as better soldiers than the regular Russian armed divisions, outperforming even the elite airborne forces, sends an important message about how a Russian army would perform in combat against NATO. This insight has most probably been taken to heart by the Russian military command, if not by the Kremlin itself.
A screen grab captured from a video shows Russian Wagner mercenaries in an unspecified desert area of Africa on August 21, 2023. The image comes two days before the private military company’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was killed in a plane crash between Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia. He bragged that Wagner had made Russia “even greater” on all continents. © Getty Images
Another important message from the Wagner saga concerns Prigozhin’s personal career. Having started in petty crime, he moved into catering and ended up as the leader of a mercenary force that won global notoriety. His catering skills won him a reputation as “Putin’s chef” (and an even more derogatory nickname of “garcon” among envious oligarchs), meaning he had gained the trust and friendship of the country’s most powerful man. His violent end showed that there were limits to that friendship.
As in any good mafia story, much, if not all, had to do with money and turf battles. Although Prigozhin had accumulated a massive fortune, he likely had legal title only to the catering business. The message is that a person in Russia does not get wealthy without protection, and protection comes at a price that is measured in blind loyalty.
In mafia jargon, by virtue of his friendship with President Putin, Prigozhin should have been untouchable, and so it was – for a time. It is important to note that in all the videos he published in the weeks leading up to his mutiny, hurling gross insults against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, he was scrupulous in never mentioning Mr. Putin.
The central question that permeates all speculation about what really happened with the mutiny and its fallout concerns how it could be that Prigozhin overstepped so catastrophically that he had to be eliminated (unless his death was an accident.)
When Wagner made its move into Africa, where it would be making lots of blood money, it expanded into novel territory. By far, the most credible explanation of the mutiny is that the GRU resented how Prigozhin was enriching himself. He was their creation, and perhaps he was not showing gratitude. A decision was made to muscle him out so that the GRU could rake in the money for itself.
As the Kremlin loses both authority and control, a variety of players will resort to violence to protect their turfs.
It was when Prigozhin learned that his saga might be coming to an end that his increasingly grating public videos started appearing. His rambling complaints about how the military leadership was not giving him enough ammunition were a mere cover. When the regular military took over the Wagner forces, it transpired that they had plenty of ammunition. The challenge for Prigozhin was to get the GRU to withdraw from his turf, and he likely calculated that Mr. Putin would cover his back.
As it turned out, that was a grave miscalculation. In relations with President Putin, money matters far less than loyalty. Prigozhin made the fatal mistake of publicly attacking two senior officials who had demonstrated boundless devotion to the president. With his subsequent mutiny, he had to capture the Kremlin or perish.
The Wagner saga provides two important insights into what will happen next. The first is that agreements with Mr. Putin are of little to no value. The essence of this insight has been expressed by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who suggests there is no reason to believe President Putin will behave differently in negotiations about the war against Ukraine: “As for the calls for negotiations with Putin, anyone who asks about this should ask not us, but Prigozhin. He had a conflict with Putin, he held successful negotiations with Putin, ended the conflict, agreed on security guarantees and then Putin killed him.”
The second insight concerns the premium that is placed on loyalty and the retribution that will follow any form of perceived insubordination. At the time of the rebellion, Mr. Putin vowed that the response from the state would be harsh. A period of total confusion followed when speculation about the fate of Prigozhin was rife, that the two may even have met in person and that a continued existence for Wagner in Belarus, under the protection of President Alexander Lukashenko, was being touted, spooking fears in Poland and Lithuania.
The pattern of privatized violence that Yevgeny Prigozhin set will outlast him to the great detriment of the Russian state.
It was a ruse, of course, designed to sow confusion and create false security while preparations were being made for the end game. Also, it was a classic application of the maxim that you must keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Originally formulated by the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu around 500 B.C., over the centuries it has been repeated by sources that range from Niccolo Machiavelli in “The Prince” to Mario Puzo in his novels about the Mafia family Corleone. It is probably the latter that best explains the true nature of the Russian mafia state, with Mr. Putin acting as capo di tutti capi (boss of bosses).
When the time came for the curtain call, it was both swift and decisive. Once the leaders of the Wagner group had been eliminated, the hammer of retribution was also brought down on their underlings. Graves of fallen Wagner mercenaries were bulldozed and covered with concrete. Wounded Wagner fighters were thrown out of hospitals with their treatments unfinished, their payments for medical care were terminated and payments and benefits to their families stopped.
The message was loud and clear. You simply do not challenge the man at the top. The sledgehammer that Prigozhin had made into his trademark came down on his own head. He had banked on being protected by his friendship with Mr. Putin, and he got it terribly wrong.
What will follow next depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. In the less likely event that Russia manages to get out with some form of deal it can tout as a win, then the status quo ante may be restored. The GRU will take over the African business and relations between the various factions in the military and security spheres will be brought back to the normal state of balance by the master of the Kremlin. The armed forces will be rebuilt, and the culture of extreme violence that the war against Ukraine has enhanced will both demand and permit draconian repression to maintain order.
In the more likely event that Russia cannot sustain its war, the roof may be expected to cave in. The Kremlin will be faced with a situation resembling the end of World War I, with armed and embittered soldiers returning from the front. The incidence of gun violence and serious crime has already spiked in regions bordering Ukraine, as convicts who were released from prison to serve in Ukraine have returned home even more brutalized and vengeful. It can and will get much worse, with rogue militias terrorizing the citizenry.
As the Kremlin loses both authority and control, a variety of players will resort to violence to protect their turfs. It will range from resource-rich corporations that set up private military forces to protect their assets and local officials making deals with local military to provide local security, to senior military commanders transforming into warlords who embark on new adventures to take Moscow and other cities. In this sense, the pattern of privatized violence that Prigozhin set will outlast him to the great detriment of the Russian state.
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