Prigozhin’s death will not fix Putin’s miscalculation

Wagner’s mutiny was a symptom of intra-elite tensions which will not go away with the passing of its leader.

Portraits of Yevgeny Prigozhin (L) and Dmitry Utkin (R)
Portraits of Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin and commander Dmitry Utkin are seen at a makeshift memorial in front of the PMC Wagner office in Novosibirsk, on August 24, 2023 [Vladimir Nikolayev/AFP]

Asked about the future of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had just carried out a mutiny in Russia, CIA Director William Burns warned that “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold”. On August 23, exactly two months after his short-lived revolt, a private jet crashed in Russia, with Prigozhin reportedly on board.

Some have already credited Burns with predicting Prigozhin’s demise, but for many Russia observers, it hardly came as a surprise. Putin has a long history of taking out those he perceives as traitors.

Throughout his political career, he has made clear that he values loyalty above all else. In the 1990s, when he was deputy mayor of Saint Petersburg and his then-boss Mayor Anatoly Sobchak lost a re-election bid, he supposedly turned down an offer to work for Sobchak’s rival by stating: “It’s better to be hanged for loyalty than be rewarded for betrayal.” In a 2016 interview, he was asked what “cannot be forgiven”; his answer was immediate: “treason”.

Since he took power in 2000, many who have fallen afoul of him have mysteriously died: from General Alexander Lebed, a widely popular governor who was seen as a possible challenger to Putin, who died in a 2002 helicopter crash, to oligarch Boris Berezovsky who funded opposition efforts after going into exile in London, where he died in suspicious circumstances in 2013.

The targeting of former spies Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018 highlighted how Putin is even willing to evoke international ire to enact revenge. One of the men suspected of Litvinenko’s murder by the British authorities was granted state honours for his “services to the motherland”.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine that Putin launched in February 2022 has prompted more score-settling. There has been a string of suspicious deaths of former Russian officials and business people over the past year and a half, not just in Russia but also abroad. From people falling from windows and ships to whole families being killed – the morbid trail of mysterious high-profile people found dead has even become the subject of a podcast.

Prigozhin’s mutiny not only put the crosshairs on his back but also triggered a wave of dismissals of military officials. General Sergei Surovikin, who Prigozhin had publicly praised in contrast to other Russian commanders and defence officials, disappeared after the mutiny. On the morning of August 23, reports surfaced of his official dismissal as head of the air force.

Another sacked general, Ivan Popov, also has not been seen since an audio recording of him criticising the military was shared publicly by a Russian legislator.

While what happened with the private jet reportedly carrying Prigozhin is still unclear – and we may never know the truth – what is apparent is that the Kremlin does not mind the public talking about it.

While Russian state media and institutions have often shied away from reporting on suspicious deaths and assassinations, the plane crash that reportedly killed Prigozhin was well covered. The Russian aviation authorities quickly published the list of passengers on the jet, while onlookers were allowed close to the crash site.

The Kremlin clearly is trying to send a message to the rest of the Russian elite, which over the past year and a half has seen tensions and even open dissent over the war in Ukraine. Instilling fear is Putin’s way of ensuring internal cohesion and obedience, but it can go only that far.

Discontent within the ranks of the army is rising and Prigozhin’s killing is unlikely to suppress that. The economic elite is also unhappy as Western sanctions are biting and there seems to be no end in sight for the war in Ukraine. Capital flight has forced the Kremlin to resort to heavy-handed measures to rein in Russian oligarchs, confiscating some of their property and pressuring them to transfer their wealth back into the country.

Most recently, the plunge of the rouble has forced the Russian government to undertake unpopular economic measures, increasing the interest rate and soft capital controls. It has asked exporters to sell foreign currency to support the rouble, and the Kremlin has indicated that it would go after those seen as non-compliant.

The economic crisis is affecting not only Russia’s rich, but also the middle class and poor. The support of mobilised troops and their families is draining billions from the state coffers, while social support measures extended for the poor temporarily may not be sustained for long.

Part of Putin’s bargain with the Russian population was to provide security, stability and a minimum level of socioeconomic comfort. All of these are now quickly evaporating.

The bloody score-settling and growing feeling of insecurity brought about by constant Ukrainian drone strikes and sabotage operations on Russian territory are bringing back bad memories of the chaotic 1990s, when organised crime and terror attacks terrified ordinary Russians.

Putin’s bargain is breaking down. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine was a major miscalculation. Putin may be blind to this reality, but many around him are not. Prigozhin’s fate reveals how the war he unleashed can turn the closest of allies into the deadliest of enemies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.