Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first comments on the death of his former close ally and friend Yevgeny Prigozhin while meeting Denis Pushilin, head of the fake Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), in the Kremlin.
Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash on Thursday. American intelligence believes it was a deliberate act of assassination.
“First of all, I want to express my sincere condolences to the families of all the victims, this is always a tragedy,” said Putin.“Indeed, if they were there, it seems … preliminary information suggests that Wagner Group employees were also on board.”
“He was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results needed both for himself and when I asked him about it – for a common cause, as in these last months,” the Russian president continued.
The “common cause” Putin was speaking of explains why the Russian president didn’t have Prigozhim executed a lot earlier. Prigozhin spent the previous few months brokering deals for Putin in Africa, where his Wagner Group fighters were extremely valuable.
Graeme Wood points out in The Atlantic that Putin needed Prigozhin and his thousands of Wagner mercenaries to expand Russia’s sphere of influence in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Last month, when it seemed that Prigozhin had been sidelined, one of the first signs that he was not yet gulagged was his public appearance at the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg. The gathering was intended to announce a whole series of Russian initiatives in Africa. A photograph showed Prigozhin shaking the hand of a senior aide to CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. In CAR, the deal Wagner and Russia have offered is straightforward: We get your diamonds and other natural resources, and in return we will secure your rule by whatever violent means are necessary, using our mercenary army. CAR must fully enter the Russian orbit. Tell France (the country’s colonial patron) and the United States to pound sand. Vote as Russia suggests at the United Nations.
The CAR is one of the most violent, unstable regimes in Africa — which is saying a lot. President Touadéra is constantly beset with plots — both real and imagined — and Wagner mercenaries have performed this kind of service before. In Syria, along with General Sergei Surovikin, AKA “General Armageddon,” Wagner ‘s cold-blooded killers put down the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. There is no more ruthless, pitiless bunch of murderers and criminals than the fighters in Prigozhin’s outfit.
So Putin saw that Prigozhin was still useful to him and kept him around long enough to cement the deal with the CAR and make sure that Wagner’s troops would continue to work in Russia’s interest.
Russia is a poor country—not as poor as CAR or Sudan, but poor enough that it cannot hope to compete with Europe and America by leveraging its money or status. Prigozhin offered Putin a service that would allow Putin to dictate terms overseas and even develop a sphere of influence. The real puzzle in the life of Prigozhin, assuming it has ended, is why he thought he could develop a locus of power independent of Putin’s. The mercenary always loses power games like these, because any real success is its own guarantee of failure. If you succeed and get powerful, your boss ends your streak, to keep you from becoming a rival.
U.S. intelligence does not think that Prigozhin’s plane was shot down with a missile; they believe it some other form of sabotage. “We have no information at this time to suggest that a surface-to-air missile was launched against the private aircraft reportedly carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin,” a senior Biden administration official said.
U.S. satellite infrared sensors did not detect a missile launch in Russia at the time. It raises an interesting point: Why wasn’t Prigozhin on high alert? Had he been lulled into a false sense of security?
It’s hard to imagine that someone with a target on his back like Prigozhin wouldn’t take every possible precaution — including staying off airplanes and not staying in hotel rooms with high balconies — for the rest of his life. But Prigozhin wouldn’t be the first victim of “Sudden Russian Death Syndrome” who never saw it coming.
And he probably won’t be the last.