A key thing to remember
As was the case during Prigozhin’s Putsch the ongoing situation in Russia is characterised by chaos in the infosphere. Non-credible Telegram and other social media accounts are flooding the infosphere with unconfirmed statements, describing situations and actions without even basic evidence, with the majority basing their reports on nothing. The other major source of information are Russian media outlets – used everyday to spread Kremlin’s propaganda narratives, fake news, and conducting often well crafted misinformation campaigns. The Western media and social media accounts are also dealing out judgement and presenting statements without credible and verified sources further escalating the chaos in the infosphere. The situation is also extremely dynamic with new reports and changes coming in every minute. These reports often contradict each other, or aim at nothing more than gathering views. Thus, while some information can be confirmed the vast majority only serves to deepen the chaos in the infosphere.
On August 23rd 2023 Embraer Legacy 600 jet owned by the Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin took off from Moscow to Sankt Petersburg. Set to carry senior members of the organisation, including Prigozhin himself, the plane travelled roughly 350 kilometres from Moscow, before suddenly crashing in the area of Kuzhenkino in Tver Oblast. According to the flight manifest Prigozhin was set to board the plane, however there is currently no confirmation that the Wagner Group leader was actually aboard the plane during the crash. Different media sources including, Russian, Western, and international are scrambling to provide coverage of the crash with different sources presenting contradictory claims as to whether Prigozhin actually boarded the plane, whether his body was found, whether a body double was used etc. So far the Russian Ministry of Defence and the Kremlin have not provided an official statement. The only statement on this topic was presented by Putin during his meeting with Denis Pushilin, where he stated that initial reports suggest that some Wagner personnel was aboard the plane when it crashed. Putin also offered condolences to the families of the deceased. During the speech the Russian president also spoke of Prigozhin and their relationship, stating that he has known “Prigozhin for a very long time” and that “he was a man of a no easy fate. He made some serious mistakes in his life, but he also achieved the needed results – both for himself and, when I asked him, for the common cause.”i Putin however, did not confirm Prigozhin’s demise, only calling for calm and asking the public to wait for the results of the official investigation. Thus, as currently the fate of Yevgeny Prigozhin is unknown, this commentary will serve to examine the potential scenarios of what happened and what it might mean going forward.
Wagner Group and Prigozhin after the June putsch
Since the putsch on June 23rd Prigozhin and the Wagner Group have followed a curious path. Wagner troops in Russia were either relocated (potentially exiled) to Belarus or embedded in Russian army structures in Ukraine. In Belarus the mercenaries occupied a large camp, prepared especially to accommodate them with several thousand members arriving there. The Belarus exiles were employed to train elements of the Belarussian army and also potentially conduct some form of hybrid operations (or at least influence operations) against the Western coalition – especially Poland and the Baltic states. In the meantime Wagner’s presence in Africa regained its status of importance, with the military coup in Niger. The Nigerien putschists quickly established contact with the Wagner Group, and many pro-Russian demonstrations took place in the country. Recently Prigozhin was seen in Africa, where he published a video on continuing Wagner Group’s operations on the continent, furthering Russian influence, and making Russia greater. Prigozhin only recently arrived in Moscow to sign a food delivery contract with his company Concord Catering. After signing the contract Prigozhin was set to fly to Saint Petersburg where Wagner Group headquarters are located.
Scenario 1 – The Death of Yevgeny Prigozhin
This first scenario assumes that the Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin died in the plane crash. Prigozhin’s death would have far reaching consequences, depending on the exact nature of his demise. In all cases however, Prigozhin’s death could heavily hamper the operations of the Wagner Group. There are already scattered reports of some sort of trouble in the Belarussian branch of the organisation. Apparently the mercenary camp suffered some form of communications malfunctions. At the same time soldiers began preparing for an evacuation from Belarus via aeroplane (which was especially transported there for this endeavour) towards an unspecified location. The African branch of Wagner will most likely be less affected, as it has been operating without Prigozhin’s direct oversight for quite some time now. Only a significant collapse of Wagner Group’s structures would meaningfully influence its operations in Africa. This is however, where the nature of Prigozhin’s demise plays a role – which could be divided into two major options.
Scenario 1. Option 1. No foul play
Option 1, in this scenario Prigozhin’s jet simply malfunctioned causing a crash with no foul play involved (or at least successfully presented as such by the Kremlin). In this case higher echelons of the Wagner Group, which have already set up a special meeting, could activate contingency plans meant to stabilise the organisation and keep it from collapsing on itself. Its future status would be uncertain, but it wouldn’t lead to any catastrophic consequences – a potential assimilation by the Ministry of Defence could be plausible. The Kremlin could also use Prigozhin’s death in a propaganda manner, presenting him as a martyr of the Russian cause, generating more popular support for the War in Ukraine. The Kremlin would try to utilise Prigozhin’s popularity by presenting him as a hero of the “Special Military Operation” targeted by villainous Ukrainians. Already Putin has stated that Prigozhin “achieved needed results […] for the common cause.”ii Such a narrative could gather some traction as in the last few weeks Moscow has been hit several times with kamikaze drones, with the Kremlin accusing Ukraine of the attacks. Such public support gathering might be crucial for Russia as it has for several months now been preparing for another mobilisation to replenish their forces in Ukraine, which have suffered significant losses both during the siege of Bakhmut, and the recent Ukrainian offensive. In this case if the Kremlin is successful in convincing the Wagner Group that there was no foul play involved and assimilates it into its own structures, the organisation could be effectively used by Moscow to further Russian goals and ambition in Africa, re-engage Wagner troops in fighting in Ukraine, which could help Russia take some off the pressure of the Ukrainian offensive, and most importantly solidify and strengthen Putin’s regime.
Scenario 1. Option 2. The Assassination of Yevgeny Prigozhin
Option 2, is a bit more bleak. Here Prigozhin’s death is presumed to be an orchestrated assassination plot. This option is quite possible as there are several factions within Russia that potentially would want to get rid of Wagner Group and Prigozhin especially. A plausible culprit here is the Kremlin itself, tying loose ends after the Prigozhin Putsch which happened exactly two months ago. In that time the Kremlin has been systematically purging unwanted and problematic actors within Russia – all of them either connected to Wagner Group, such as general Surovikin who was detained two months ago and stripped of his position in the last few days, or vocally critical towards the Kremlin, like Girkin, a milblogger highly critical of the Russian effectiveness and management during the war in Ukraine. If Prigozhin was purged by the Kremlin it would signify a momentous change with the Russian oppression apparatus reaching new heights. It would serve as a powerful message to all those that try to rebel against the Kremlin, especially to Russia’s wealthy oligarchs who previously could feel as if they were untouchable. The issue here, for the Kremlin as least, is what happens to the Wagner Group.
Already some elements of the Wagner Groups have become riled up, expressing their will to march on Moscow and settle their grudge. It is possible that the Kremlin would’ve struck some sort of deal with the remaining high-level Wagner personnel to manage such a situation, however many Wagner soldiers were fanatically loyal to Prigozhin (or at least his money) which could nonetheless lead to some infighting within Russia. Though these potential Wagner rebels would most probably lose, as they have had to give up a significant portion of their heavy equipment after the June putsch, while the Kremlin loyal Rosgvardia has been recently granted permission to use heavy equipment, including armoured vehicles. Even considering the popularity of the Wagner Group in Russia, visibly seen by the shows of public support with candles and wreaths set in memory of Prigozhin, it would offer no real resistance to the Kremlin regime. Thus, if Prigozhin was killed by the Kremlin it could serve only to further the oppression in Russia, potentially strengthening Putin’s regime and furthering its totalitarian and imperialistic ambitions.
Scenario 2 – Prigozhin lives
The second scenario assumes that Prigozhin has not died. This is based on the fact that so far, Prigozhin’s body has not been recovered and his death remains unconfirmed by the official channels. Furthermore, similar, though not as drastic, situations took place in Russia previously. A good example here could be the case of the temporary disappearance of the president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko earlier this year. Lukashenko arrived in Moscow to celebrate the May 9th Victory Day parade. After the parade the Belarussian leader disappeared for several days without trace, with only scant rumours about a serious illness. It is possible that Prigozhin has disappeared in a similar manner and will re-emerge when the time is right. Why would Prigozhin “disappear” however? There are several options, though two are most likely.
Scenario 2. Option 1. Prigozhin fights
Option 1, Prigozhin disappeared as he caught wind of a potential attempt on his life. In this case he has most probably retreated out of sight and will be trying to reach some sort of Wagner safe house from which he can continue operating. Should Prigozhin choose to stay in Russia and engage in conflict against the Kremlin using Wagner Group assets the situation could develop into a major internal conflict in Russia, potentially even a civil war. While the chances of victory for the Wagner Group would be significantly lower than during the June putsch, due to loss of heavy equipment and a better equipped Rosgvardia loyal Kremlin, it would significantly destabilise Russia, and potentially derail its entire war effort. This could potentially allow Ukrainian forces to achieve more significant breakthroughs along the frontlines as Russian forces would be distracted by the internal conflict, further deteriorating the Russian regime and potentially liberating all of Ukraine.
Scenario 2. Option 2. Prigozhin runs away
Option 2, Prigozhin lives but instead of engaging in conflict with the Kremlin he chooses to flee Russia. Here Prigozhin could have two main choices. Either he decides to run away to one of the many Wagner owned overseas strongholds, most probably somewhere in Africa. In this case Prigozhin could try to consolidate his power outside of Russia, effectively cutting ties with the motherland and a vast number of Wagner assets in Russia, including the headquarters in Saint Petersburg. This would most likely lead to Wagner Group being fractured, with Russia based assets taken over by the Kremlin and the Belarussian branch facing an unknown fate. Prigozhin could have a fair chance in maintaining control over Wagner operations in Africa, which would become increasingly detached from Russia and its sphere of influence, or at best continue limited cooperation with Russia based on very strained and crippled relations. Potentially Prigozhin might try to look for allies elsewhere hoping to trade Wagner influence in Africa and other regions for protection from the Kremlin.
The second choice for Prigozhin would be to vanish entirely, abandoning Wagner Group while taking away as many resources as possible to offer a chance for a new life away from Russia. In this case as well Prigozhin might try to trade state secrets (including confidential military information) for safety – though without Wagner’s resources this seems very improbable. The Wagner Group itself would most probably be in some way taken over by the Kremlin in order to maintain influence and operations in Africa, and utilising Wagner Groups resources, potentially even its mercenaries, to fuel the War in Ukraine. In this case Putin consolidates his power in Russia and the issue of Prigozhin is somewhat resolved after a two month long period of uncertainty.
The situation in Russia is extraordinarily dynamic and chaotic. The reasons, objectives and even allegiances of involved actors are in majority unknown. Amidst the informational chaos only one thing can be certain – whatever happens the influence on the war in Ukraine and Russia as a nation will be significant. Amidst the chaos it is again vital to remember that the entire situation is controlled by the Russian infosphere which is heavily influenced (if not entirely controlled) by the Kremlin. For now the world can only watch as the Kremlin plays its hand.
Author: Sebastian Czub, analyst at Casimir Pulaski Foundation