From the moment Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched his June mutiny against the Russian general staff (and indirectly against President Vladimir Putin himself), there has been intense interest in Putin’s response. Two months later, with Prigozhin’s reported death in a plane crash north of Moscow, it seems there is an answer: the boss of the Kremlin has taken his revenge.
Or has he? As more information about the event emerges and Russian authorities conduct an investigation, competing explanations are sure to surface: that the crash was an accident; that Prigozhin was targeted by one or more of his many enemies; that Putin’s advisors organized the killing but were not instructed by him to do so; and finally, of course, that Putin ordered the hit. None of these views will rest on real proof, but all of them shed light on how the system Putin oversees is changing.
1. An Accident? The probe into Prigozhin’s crash is extremely likely to find it an accident of some kind. However, politically charged investigations in Russia (such as this one) lack transparency in the best of circumstances. An official report will likely rely on various pieces of information to deflect suspicion from the Kremlin, such as the fact that the plane’s Brazilian manufacturer said it had ceased servicing the aircraft because of sanctions on Russia; that the Wagner leadership team had just returned from an exhausting trip to Africa to shore up ties with its clients there; that air defense units around Moscow were on high alert because of Ukrainian drone attacks. Yet even Russians who believe this version of events will also be reminded of how much Putin has destabilized the country.
2. Targeted by His Enemies? For years, Putin’s favor helped shield Prigozhin as he aggressively acquired wealth and power. With that protection removed by the mutiny, rivals may have felt more freedom to settle scores. These include competitors from the business world (Prigozhin grew rich from contracts with the government that others surely envied), and prominent figures at the highest level of the Russian government itself, including senior generals of the ministry of defense. If it turns out that the plane was brought down by air defense units, the Moscow high command will come under greater suspicion. Could they have acted on their own? Quite possibly. Russians know that the system of power that Putin oversees these days expressly allows for the advancement of narrow institutional interests. (As Tatiana Stanovaya, one of the best analysts of Russian politics, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, senior people in the system have “started to learn to operate more independently of Putin.”)
3. The Staff Did It? U.S. President Joe Biden has observed that not much happens in Russia that Putin does not want. Yet some Russians will give this reading of Prigozhin’s death a different spin. Doing what the boss wants without asking him explicitly is a centuries-old tradition among high-level courtiers, and it is hardly restricted to Russia. (The phrase “plausible deniability” has Washington origins.) The idea that Kremlin advisors took the initiative against Prigozhin will be strengthened by the way that Putin’s managerial style has unfolded in recent years. He is now widely seen as more aloof, detached, and indecisive than in the past. That Putin’s circle acted on his preferences, but not necessarily on his orders, will seem especially persuasive to those alarmed by Kremlin dysfunction—and by the near-limitless freedom of action it gives the security services.
4. An Order Straight From the Top? It will not be hard to come up with examples of Putin’s vindictiveness toward those he regards as traitors: it is a long list, and he explicitly labeled Prigozhin a traitor in the immediate aftermath of the June mutiny. Add to this a widespread perception that Putin showed weakness in his initial handling of the revolt, and it is easy to argue that he relished and then seized on the opportunity for a conspicuous, even dramatic show of force. Putin does not like to show weakness. Particularly at a time when he surely knows that his own advisors question his judgment, he may have seen this decision as important to re-establishing his leadership. For many years, he has tried to make stability his brand, and he has to know that his own actions in launching the war on Ukraine have weakened that claim.
Two trends will shape the evidence about this case as it becomes public. The Russian system will try to keep it under tight control. At the same time, much other open-source information—from the chatter of the air defense units and the records of the plane’s recent movements to Wagner’s social media posts, leaks from Western intelligence, and the ever-active Mocow rumor mill—will surely add to what comes to light. Putin is unlikely to welcome the result: none of these explanations make him look good.