Prigozhin’s life and death exposed the rot in the Russian state

The political system in Russia, compromised by Putin, led to the Wagner Group’s mutiny and will continue to pose a risk to his grip on power.

A view shows a framed photo of Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at his grave at the Porokhovskoye cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia
A framed photo of Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen at his grave at the Porokhovskoye cemetery outside St Petersburg on August 30, 2023 [Reuters]

On June 23, the power vertical President Vladimir Putin had carefully constructed over more than two decades shook violently. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, closely tied to the Russian president, staged a mutiny, exposing the deep fractures in the Russian elite.

The confrontation ostentatiously ended in a deal that saw the Wagner Group’s forces move to Belarus while Prigozhin was allowed to travel back to Russia, access his assets and property, and continue his involvement in Africa. But it appears now, this was a short-lived truce.

On August 23, a private jet carrying Prigozhin and his right-hand man in Wagner, Dmitry Utkin, crashed in the Tver region near Moscow. A few days later, the Russian authorities confirmed their deaths after DNA tests were carried out.

Various interpretations and conspiracy theories have emerged in the aftermath of the crash, but the most parsimonious explanation is that Prigozhin was assassinated in a delayed response to his insurrection.

Whether it was a planned act of revenge by the Kremlin to “save face” and “reassert control” or a more selfish move orchestrated by actors who wanted to take over Wagner’s lucrative operations in Africa and elsewhere is not clear. But what is apparent is that Prigozhin’s life and death revealed the nature of the Russian state.

Under Putin, the political system in Russia has been further infiltrated by patronage networks that have increasingly undermined state institutions and taken over their functions. It is on the basis of this informal power system, which rewards people favoured by the Kremlin, that Prigozhin accumulated his vast wealth and managed to create a business empire spanning catering companies, media organisations (including a much-publicised troll farm), and Wagner, his private military company (PMC).

His role in Russian domestic and foreign operations was denied until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The demands and pressures of the war created an opening for informal actors like him to come to the fore and publicly pursue their ambitions.

In 2022, Prigozhin finally admitted to establishing Wagner and opened its formal headquarters in a glitzy building in St Petersburg. He started speaking up regularly on social media, bragged about interfering in the 2016 US elections and even signalled he might be preparing to lead a conservative movement and perhaps establish a new party – presumably to fill the big void left behind by the death of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the populist, right-wing Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

Meanwhile, the humiliating defeats the Russian army suffered in Ukraine gave more space for the Wagner Group and other irregular forces, such as the troops loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, to gain ground on the battlefield. The battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, led by Wagner mercenaries, allowed the group to present itself as the only military force that could deliver military victories.

The effectiveness of his PMC enabled Prigozhin to gain even more influence in the war and challenge the very institution responsible for waging it: the Ministry of Defence. This confrontation was made very public by Prigozhin’s regular video addresses, in which he castigated the Russian military leaders, including Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.

The defence ministry responded by trying to bring Wagner under its control, which ultimately led to the mutiny launched in June.

Prigozhin’s death put an end to this specific incident of intra-elite conflict that developed over the previous year and is undoubtedly being celebrated at the defence ministry. However, it will not resolve the broader problems of the Russian state and its institutions – generated by the informal patronage networks – which the war is only exacerbating.

Prigozhin’s death removed one influential actor who spoke “truth to power”. While publicising the uncomfortable truths about how the war was progressing undermined the military and the state authorities that were criticised for corruption and ineffectiveness, it also revealed problems that Putin (and the pubic) may not have been made aware of otherwise.

Furthermore, Prigozhin’s verbal escapades also served as a “pressure valve”, giving voice to war hardliners’ frustrations with the Russian military and the perceived incompetence of the officials in charge.

Now with the arrest of Igor Girkin, a former intelligence officer turned influential war hawk, and the removal of General Sergey Surovikin, who was dismissed for his critical stance within the army leadership, the Kremlin has clearly demonstrated that it has little tolerance for influential critics and it wishes to control the war narrative.

But the complete silencing of war hardliners and Prigozhin sympathisers might not be possible, and signs of simmering tensions are likely to re-emerge. One group to watch are the growing number of volunteers who are helping the war efforts by raising funds and sending supplies to Russian soldiers at the front. These groups engaged in the war effort at home might channel growing dissent in a society that until now has tried to disengage from the realities of war.

Prigozhin leaves behind a vast business empire, which will be broken down and likely taken over by state and private actors. But those who inherit his ventures are unlikely to have his skill or inspirational leadership to manage his operations, especially in Africa. Whatever developments are to take place in this realm will likely remain out of the public eye, just as they used to be before Prigozhin ventured out into the open.

For now, Putin appears to have maintained his grip on power. The mutiny is sure to make him more wary of future “black swan” events triggered by the war in Ukraine. But in the long run, the precariousness of Russia’s political system, reflected in – among other things – Prigozhin’s challenge to power, will persist.

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