On August 23, the news of Wagner mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death in a private plane crash north of Moscow sent shockwaves across the world. Coming just two months after he led an audacious but short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership, suspicions swirled that his sudden demise was no accident.
Earlier today, the Kremlin dismissed rumours that it ordered the assassination of Prigozhin as an “absolute lie”. Yet the timing and circumstances of the crash strongly suggest that it was an act of revenge by President Vladimir Putin against the man who nearly caused him to lose control of the country he has been leading with an iron fist for decades. By dramatically taking out his wayward mercenary commander, the Russian leader sent a clear message to all his allies and subordinates: No dissent against him and his handling of the war in Ukraine will go unpunished, no matter how powerful or well-connected the dissenter.
The timing of the crash was perfect for a show of power. The day before the crash, Putin had addressed the BRICS summit in South Africa, defended his invasion of Ukraine, and sought to rally member nations to his side. And just a day after the crash, while the global attention was still firmly on Prigozhin’s death, BRICS announced that they invited six more nations to join their powerful block of emerging economies. Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft, which eventually went out of control and crashed, was also supposed to land on the lunar south pole within that same week.
As such, the elimination of the dissident commander, who had threatened and humiliated the Kremlin by marching his seasoned mercenaries to Moscow, appeared to be part of a carefully planned effort to communicate to the world Russia is still here, and still strong.
Nonetheless, the fiery crash that killed Prigozhin, who had risen to prominence after taking an increasingly visible role in the war in Ukraine, is unlikely to help Putin’s flailing invasion.
In fact, the demise of the warlord is very good news for Ukraine.
The death of Prigozhin, alongside Wagner group’s infamous first commander Dmitry Utkin, will likely provide Ukrainian forces with a battlefield advantage for months to come.
Wagner fighters in Ukraine will likely stay active in key front-line areas, but with depleted ranks, funding and morale. And increased infighting between these remaining elite mercenaries and conventional Russian military units may further undermine the coordination between and the offensive capabilities of invading forces.
With Prigozhin gone, it is also not clear what will become of the Wagner mercenaries who are not currently on the front line. Some may be redeployed to Africa, others absorbed into pro-Kremlin militias in Ukraine. But who will lead them? The allegiance of thousands of battle-hardened and vicious fighters motivated more by money than ideology could now be up for grabs. For these guns for hire, the highest bidder becomes the new commander. While the Kremlin will undoubtedly try to include as many Wagner fighters in its ranks as possible, their future loyalty is less than certain.
The death of the Wagner boss could also harm Putin’s war effort by turning sections of his own military against him. Prigozhin had built widespread support within Russia’s military ranks. Many respected him as a rare voice who dared to speak the truth about the corrupt generals and hidebound command structures that are undermining Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Nationalist circles saw Prigozhin as their best hope to force reforms and unleash total war on Ukrainian forces to redeem Putin’s faltering campaign. Prigozhin’s dramatic elimination could bring these long-simmering tensions to a boil.
With Prigozhin out of the picture, Russian public opinion could also turn against Putin, with severe consequences for Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine ensured that a large portion of Russian society enthusiastically supports Russia’s war effort against what they believe to be the Ukrainian “Nazis”. Putin riled up these masses with jingoistic rhetoric, but in the end, it was Progozhin who provided them with an outlet for their zeal for battlefield victory. With the charismatic mercenary chief gone, discontent among these groups about the progression of the invasion could peak, and coupled with a long-deepening distrust in the Kremlin’s leadership, could start threatening Putin’s firm grip on power.
In the eyes of many, Prigozhin’s death is just one high-profile act in a wide-ranging operation to cleanse Russia of any and all voices that are in any way critical of Putin or his strategy in Ukraine. This sweeping purge not only heightens the levels of paranoia and discontent within Putin’s own inner circle but also risks alienating his very nationalist power base that provides Putin with much-needed support as the war’s casualties and economic impacts continue to mount.
With Prigozhin out of the picture, and Putin’s trusted war cabinet reduced to a gathering of the most sycophantic yes-men too intimidated to speak hard truths, Russia’s tactical options in Ukraine will narrow as well.
The urgently needed rebuilding and reorganising of Russia’s battered military forces will be left primarily to senior generals chosen mainly for personal loyalty over actual command competence. This will undoubtedly lead to more and more losses on the field and an increased need for fresh cannon fodder to replenish ever-exhausted battalions. These new forces will have to be drawn from an increasingly impoverished society growing tired of seeing sons and husbands ruthlessly thrown into the meat grinder of the Ukraine war.
This seemingly unbreakable cycle – critiques being eliminated, incompetent loyalists assuming power, and consequent battlefield losses triggering public discontent – does not bode well for Russia’s long-term military effectiveness or staying power in Ukraine.
While enormous risks and challenges remain for Ukraine’s outgunned but spirited defenders, Prigozhin’s sensational demise is the latest indication that the Kremlin’s escalating paranoia, coupled with its brittle control of information and siloed decision-making, is seriously putting the future of its invasion in jeopardy.
If we are reading the signs right, the mysterious plane crash that eliminated Russia’s mercenary boss may someday be remembered as the climax of the elaborate tragedy that is Putin’s Ukraine invasion.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.