Who’s afraid of Prigozhin and Wagner?

While Russian President Vladimir Putin had every reason to be annoyed with Prigozhin, at least three considerations discredit the hypothesis of Putin’s involvement in his death

August 25, 2023 by M.K. Bhadrakumar
Yevgeny Prigozhin Wagner
Yevgeny Prigozhin speaks to camera in an image taken from video released on Wagner-linked Telegram channels on August 21, 2023.

There was an avalanche of Western media reports within minutes or hours of the ghastly death on Wednesday of the head of the Wagner organization of Russian military contractors, Yevgeny Prigozhin, which pointed the accusing finger at President Vladimir Putin as the perpetrator. 

It is almost as if a button was pressed at some unknown command center to launch a new narrative to demonize Putin for serving the cold dish of revenge to Prigozhin, to borrow the CIA director William Burns’ recent words, for staging a failed coup in Russia. No one cared to produce empirical evidence.

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” — the law of propaganda is often attributed to the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels who understood the power of repeating falsehoods. It is now the West’s compass to “erase” Russia. 

True, Putin had every reason to be annoyed with Prigozhin — a “stab in the back,” as he put it — when the nation was waging an existential war against sworn enemies who seek the dismemberment of Russia. But three considerations discredit the hypothesis of Putin’s involvement. 

First, why such a crude method reminiscent of the murder of the charismatic Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the spearhead of Tehran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ against America, by former US president Donald Trump? 

In his celebrated 1827 essay titled On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, Thomas De Quincey wrote, “Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle… and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it, that is, in relation to good taste.” The aesthetic of Prigozhin’s murder is, simply put, the least appealing by the principle of murder connoisseurship if the motivation were revenge. 

Second, Prigozhin was a dead man walking for staging such an idiotic act, after his security cover was withdrawn by the state. Imagine ex-president Barack Obama without secret service protection after the murder of Osama bin Laden — or Mike Pompeo and Trump walking around without security after murdering Soleimani. 

But Putin made it clear that Wagner still would have a future and the nation will remember its role in the Ukraine war. Putin even invited Prigozhin to a Kremlin meeting. Arguably, Putin’s first remarks on Prigozhin’s death betray a trace of pity. (here and here)

Putin said, “I’ve known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the early 1990s. He was a man of no easy fate. He made some serious mistakes in his life, but he also achieved the needed results – both for himself and, when I asked him, for the common cause. The way it was in recent months.”

“As far as I know, he returned from Africa only yesterday. He met with some officials here. He worked not only in our country – and he worked successfully, but also abroad, especially in Africa. There, he dealt with oil, gas, precious metals and stones,” Putin added.

In the excessive zeal to focus on Prigozhin’s murder to demonize Putin, what is overlooked is that whoever choreographed the crime also ensured that Wagner’s entire command structure has been eliminated. Bye, bye, Africa! 

There isn’t going to be anyone in the foreseeable future to challenge the hegemony of the French Legion in the Sahel or match the vast network of 29 bases under Pentagon’s Africa Command spread across the continent from Djibouti in the north to Botswana in the south. Put differently, the long arm of Russia’s “smart power” has been chopped off with one single swing of the blade. Who stands to gain? 

Third, Prigozhin’s murder was staged on a special day that in a historical perspective, must be counted as the finest hour of Russian diplomacy ever since the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. The reality of “a new starting point for BRICS” — as Chinese President Xi Jinping stated — is yet to sink in fully, but what is beyond doubt is that Russia is walking away as the winner. 

Make no mistake that the BRICS unity held firm and rubbished all Western prognosis; BRICS expansion means that the issue of a single settlement currency is on the table, and the international financial system is not going to the same again; de-dollarization is knocking at the gates; a new global trading system is taking shape which renders obsolete the exploitative 4-century old Western regime geared to transfer wealth to the rich countries; BRICS has graduated, finally, from an informal club to an institution that will eclipse the G7.

The host country South Africa delivered big-time for the Russian and Chinese agenda of multipolarity. The joint statement issued by South Africa and China and the induction of Ethiopia (where the West tried to stage a regime change) as a BRICS member underscores the emerging alignment in Africa. Doesn’t all that add up to something? 

And, above all, the big message coming out of Johannesburg is that with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, the Biden administration has failed miserably to “isolate” Russia — it is writ large in the resplendent glow of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s effulgent smile. Russia is capping its gains in the battlefields of Ukraine with an outstanding diplomatic victory by being on the right side of history alongside the global majority. 

Isn’t it plain common sense that of all days, Putin would never have chosen Wednesday to act as a spoiler when Russia’s prestige was soaring high in the international community? Again, the question arises: Who stands to gain? 

The plain truth is, there could be any number of people who wanted to physically eliminate Prigozhin. Within Russia itself, Prigozhin had recruited criminals undergoing prison sentence to fight in Ukraine and thereby get their sentence commuted. He deployed them without adequate military training and over 10,000 of them reportedly got killed. There is a deep sense of revulsion within Russia in the matter. 

Then there are the external enemies starting from France, which has been virtually evicted from the Sahel region, its playpen where it had a field day until Prigozhin came and spoiled the party. France could barely hide its rancor toward Russia since then. 

Meanwhile, the brewing crisis in Niger alerted the US that Prigozhin was on the prowl. The redoubtable acting secretary of state Victoria Nuland, who masterminded the 2014 coup in Ukraine, traveled to Niamey to plead with the coup leaders not to have any truck with Wagner. 

However, Prigozhin reportedly had sneaked into the neighboring country, Mali, where Wagner is well established, with a view to establishing contact with Niger’s new rulers and offering the services of Wagner. Suffice to say, Prigozhin was threatening to do to the Pentagon what he earlier did to the French Legion in Sahel. 

It is entirely conceivable that the Biden administration decided that enough was enough and Wagner must be decapitated. Of course, Prigozhin’s departure along with his senior commanders will weaken Wagner. 

Within Russia, the ruthless Ukrainian intelligence operates at different levels. The drone attacks on Moscow are being staged by saboteurs within Russia. And Ukraine too has a score to settle with Wagner, which is present in Belarus. 

Without doubt, there is a congruence of interests between the Ukrainian intelligence and its Western mentors to destroy Wagner and eliminate it from the geopolitical chessboard altogether.  

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.