Putin’s chef meets his ‘window.’ What does that mean for the future of Ukraine?
The legacy of the world’s most famous mercenary leader is likely copycat organizations, and little else, experts say.
An old joke among Kremlin watchers is, essentially: If you fall out of Vladimir Putin’s favor, stay away from open windows. It’s a reference to the high number of Russian oligarchs and officials who have angered the Russian president and, soon after, died by defenestration.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group and a Kremlin insider commonly referred to as “Putin’s chef,” seems to have met his ‘window’ Wednesday. Prigozhin died in a plane crash in western Russia, along with the nine other people on board, according to Russian state media.
The death comes almost exactly two months after Prigozhin staged a baby coup to gain control of the Russian Ministry of Defense. U.S. President Joe Biden, when asked Wednesday about the plane crash, said he had said after the coup attempt that he’d “be careful what I rode in,” adding that while he doesn’t “know for a fact what happened,” he’s “not surprised.”
“There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind,” Biden added.
While the Wagner Group has played a large role in Russia’s offensive operations in Ukraine in 2014 and more recently, analysts who spoke to Defense One offered mixed views on how Prigozhin’s death might change Russian operations there.
The Kremlin hasn’t taken responsibility for the crash. But Grey Zone, a Telegram channel associated with Wagner, on Wednesday claimed that Prigozhin’s jet had been shot down while traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg. A separate Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel claimed that Dmitry Utkin, Wagner’s first commander, is also among the dead.
“If true, this is not unexpected,” said Michael Kofman, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. “Putin doesn’t forgive what he sees as betrayal. The only surprising part is how long it took the regime to sort out Prigozhin.”
Mark Voyger, the director of the master's program in global management at the American University in Kyiv and senior fellow at the Center for European Analysis, told Defense One, “This is nothing short of a decapitation. It cannot be a coincidence,”
But what the news means for the future of Wagner’s—and Russia’s—operations depends on what the facts ultimately bear out, and the degree to which the leadership of the Wagner Group has been affected.
“I would wait to see if any other Wagner commanders were on the plane. Pirogzhin was the head of the organization, but arguably they matter more to Wagner’s potential as a fighting force,” Kofman said.
Dmitri Alperovitch, founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, told Defense One, “If it is indeed the case that the entire Wagner leadership and command structure is now decapitated because of this plane crash, this likely means that Wagner no longer exists as a fighting force. That has wide-ranging implications for Russia's efforts to spread its influence across Africa, as well as any future desires they may have had to use Wagner shock troops in offensives in Ukraine.”
But one U.S. intelligence analyst who works on Russia issues said the news likely won’t change much on the front lines in Ukraine.
“Wagner forces withdrew from Ukraine in June following the failed rebellion and haven't been contributing to combat power for some months… More than anything, this sends a strong message to not buck the chain of command or criticize leadership. It could potentially make Russian [after-action reports] more difficult to conduct in the long run, especially if criticizing the establishment becomes taboo,” the analyst said.
Putin could even use the death as an excuse to stage another attack, Voyger said.
“Putin will likely be tempted to use Prigozhin’s death as a hybrid pretext/justification to launch new massive missile and drone attacks against Ukraine (or commit other outrageous acts of state terror) tomorrow, 24 August, Ukraine’s Independence Day, or this week in general. Regardless of the reasons behind Prigozhin’s death, whether intentionally or by coincidence, it fell on Ukraine’s National Flag Day and on the eve of Ukraine’s Independence Day, as well as on the 1.5-year anniversary of the start of the war, so it’s too good of a pretext to be wasted by Russia, in my opinion. The symbolic significance of these dates would not be lost in Putin,” he said.
In terms of the future of the Wagner forces, the Russian military has already been making attempts to absorb them, following the June coup attempt, with mixed success. Given the nature of the group—composed in large part of hardened convicts—it’s very difficult for the Russian Ministry of Defense to integrate them into regular service alongside teenage conscripts, according to Voyger. But Putin may still try to use them to conduct small assassination or sabotage actions from Belarus and, of course, in Africa, he said.
“Russian special forces now have mostly been decimated. So there isn't really anyone else to send to Africa to do the job in the context of the ongoing war,” Voyger said.
Still, their loyalty to their Wagner commanders will make them hard to discipline and motivate. Therefore, the death of Pirogzhin and his top commanders—if true—would leave Wagner a very different and much less independent organization.
However, that doesn’t foretell the death of Russian private military contractors, Voyger said. Even if the world is more expectant of “little green men” staging quiet invasions—such as the 2014 takeover of Crimea—such groups still hold great value for the Kremlin in terms of operating in places the formal Russian military is excluded, and according to rules that are looser and more brutal than those for regular Russian forces.
The difference now, Voyger said:, “Putin will try to exert as much control as possible over the new mercenaries structure that appears in lieu of the Wagner Group.”