A month after Prigozhin’s suspicious death, the Kremlin is silent on his plane crash and legacy

Why Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private jet plummeted into a field northwest of Moscow is still a mystery. The Russian military leaders he tried to oust with his armed rebellion remain in power. His mercenary army is under new management.

And President Vladimir Putin, whose authority was badly dented by the short-lived mutiny, seems as strong as ever, with Prigozhin’s fiery death sending a chilling message to anyone challenging him.

A month after Prigozhin was killed in a suspicious plane crash, the Kremlin seems to be succeeding in keeping the demise of the profane and outspoken Wagner chief as low-key as possible — a strategy underlined by Putin’s absence at his funeral and troops keeping the media from entering Porokhovskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg for his Aug. 29 burial.

Prigozhin’s funeral was “the culmination of a covert operation aimed at his elimination,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. It was conducted under the strict oversight of security agencies, “shrouded in secrecy and involved deceptive tactics,” she noted.

Makeshift street memorials sprouted in several cities honoring the 62-year-old Prigozhin, but they have been quietly removed by authorities. Recruitment billboards for the Wagner Group had vanished shortly after the rebellion fizzled.

In a further indignity, someone stole a violin that was left on his grave, a nod to the mercenary group’s namesake, German composer Richard Wagner. Another man tried but failed to steal a sledgehammer placed there — another Wagner symbol after the group boasted of using such a tool to beat traitors to death.

Now, a surveillance camera is mounted on a nearby tree and a 24-hour guard monitors Prigozhin’s well-tended grave, which on Friday was covered in flowers and written tributes. Cemetery workers say there is a steady trickle of visitors.

FROM BAKHMUT SUCCESS TO MUTINY’S FAILURE

Prigozhin’s greatest wartime accomplishment — the Wagner-spearheaded capture of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in May after months of bloody combat — is under threat. Kyiv’s troops are seeking to reclaim it in their counteroffensive in order to deal a psychological blow to Russia.

Still, the private army that once counted tens of thousands of troops is a precious asset the Kremlin wants to exploit, and Russian officials are pondering the possibility of sending some Wagner fighters back to Ukraine.

Prigozhin launched the June 23-24 rebellion, bent on ousting the Russian Defense Ministry’s leadership that he blamed for mistakes in pressing the war in Ukraine. His mercenaries took over Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and then rolled toward Moscow before abruptly halting the mutiny.

Putin denounced them as “traitors,” but the Kremlin quickly negotiated a deal ending the uprising in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. The mercenaries were offered a choice to retire from the service, move to Belarus or sign new contracts with the Defense Ministry.

Exactly two months after the rebellion’s start, a plane carrying Prigozhin and his top lieutenants crashed on Aug. 23 while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing all 10 people aboard.

An investigation was launched but no findings have been released. Moscow rejected an offer from Brazil, where the Embraer business jet was built, to join the inquiry.

A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment concluded an intentional explosion caused the crash, and Western officials have pointed to a long list of Putin foes who have been assassinated. The Kremlin called allegations he was behind the crash as an “absolute lie.”

The day after the crash, Putin gave a dry eulogy for Prigozhin in brief televised remarks, saying he had known him since the early 1990s. Prigozhin was “a man of difficult fate” who had “made serious mistakes in life,” he said, without displaying any emotion.

Asked last week why the official investigation hasn’t yielded any results, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded tersely that it’s a “difficult probe.”

AFTER THE CRASH, A RECKONING

Despite any damage done to Putin by the rebellion, Prigozhin’s death was a powerful signal to Russian elites about challenging his authority.

Russian officials, meanwhile, moved quickly to take control of the company’s personnel and assets.

Deputy Defense Minister Col. Gen. Yunus-Bek Yevkurov led a delegation to Syria, Libya, Central African Republic and other countries where Wagner has operated to tell their leaders that the Defense Ministry will take over the job.

“The death of Wagner’s leaders allows the Kremlin to establish control over the mercenaries in Africa,” said Africa expert Alexandra Fokina in a recent analysis. “Africa’s strategic importance for Russia is rising, and Moscow will likely try to ‘nationalize’ those assets without the loss of efficiency.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean Wagner mercenaries in Africa will be placed under the control of the Defense Ministry. Instead, Fokina said the Kremlin could allow some of them to operate autonomously as a private entity under new, government-appointed leadership.

“By maintaining such hybrid model, Moscow would be able to continue using the mercenaries in the ‘gray zone,’ officially keeping a distance from Wagner’s activities in the region,” Fokina said.

Wagner’s African operations hinged heavily on personal contacts developed by Prigozhin and his lieutenants, links that could be broken if the Defense Ministry tries to take full control, she noted.

“Choosing an appointee from the ranks of ‘Russia instructors’ working in Africa would allow the Kremlin to rely on the existing channels of communication with the local leadership,” she said.

Whether all Wagner mercenaries come under the government’s command or some are allowed to operate privately, Moscow is likely to retain its clout in Africa.

“Russia’s appeal as a security guarantor and military partner remains intact, irrespective of the fate of the Wagner Group,” Mathieu Droin and Tina Dolbaia wrote in an analysis published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In Belarus, the field camps that housed several thousand Wagner troops after the mutiny have shrunk following Prigozhin’s death. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said they could be offered contracts with his military.

Other Wagner forces could return to Ukraine under the auspices of Russia’s National Guard, according to messaging app channels linked to the mercenary group, although there is no official confirmation of such a plan.

PRIGOZHIN FOES STILL IN POWER — FOR NOW

The military leaders Prigozhin cursed and castigated in profane videos last spring — Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov — remain in power and have effectively secured their positions despite his calls for their ouster.

“Shoigu and Gerasimov seem very much to have won,” said Mark Galeotti, a London-based Russia expert who heads the consulting firm Mayak Intelligence. “Their position was saved precisely by Prigozhin’s mutiny.”

He noted that while Shoigu and Gerasimov were “phenomenally unpopular figures within the military” and widely blamed for mishandling the war, they also are very useful to the Kremlin as a “lightning rod, attracting all the criticism, rather than Putin himself.”

Shoigu attended Putin’s talks this month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and accompanied Kim as he inspected Russia’s nuclear-capable strategic bombers and a warship on a visit that fueled Western concerns of a possible deal for Moscow to tap Pyongyang’s huge munitions arsenals for use in Ukraine.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, whom Prigozhin had mentioned as a possible replacement for Gerasimov, vanished from public view after the mutiny and eventually was dismissed as air force chief after a two-month investigation into his possible connection to the mutiny — a sign authorities worked methodically to uproot any dissent in the ranks.

Shoigu and Gerasimov also removed other senior officers who appeared too ambitious or defiant, including Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th army in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region who was dismissed after speaking out about challenges faced by his troops amid Kyiv’s counteroffensive.

Surovikin was appointed air defense coordinator for the Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance of former Soviet nations. While it’s a token job with no power or influence and clearly a humiliating demotion, the fact he wasn’t booted from the military altogether signaled the investigation hadn’t implicated him in any serious wrongdoing.

Earlier this month, Surovikin was seen in Algeria as part of a Russian military delegation.

Galeotti emphasized that despite the demotion, Surovikin has kept his rank. If Putin reshuffles the military leadership, he might return with a senior job.

“Surovikin is now in a position in which he has no power and no prestige but also no responsibilities. He can’t screw things up,” Galeotti said in a recent podcast.

A successor to Shoigu could make Surovikin a new chief of the General Staff, he said, adding: “They don’t have many truly able figures.”

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