On Aug. 23, a plane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin, a one-time hot dog vendor turned top rival of Russian President Vladimir Putin, crashed in the outskirts of Moscow, killing all aboard. Prigozhin was head of the Wagner group, a private military organization that has carried out brutal violence during Russia’s war against Ukraine. He also made headlines in June when he led a short-lived uprising against the Kremlin.
While the cause of the plane crash is unknown, Prigozhin’s death, which Russian officials confirmed Sunday, fits a pattern there. In 2020, for example, Alexey Navalny, a prominent Putin critic, narrowly survived after he was poisoned with a chemical weapon. He’s now in prison in Russia.
Sarah Wilson Sokhey, associate professor of political science at CU Boulder, studies post-Cold War politics in Europe and Asia. CU Boulder Today got her take on what Prigozhin’s presumed death means for the war in Ukraine and how a coup attempt against Czar Nicholas II in 1907 could provide clues about what will happen next.
Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin, and how did he get to where he was?
Prigozhin started out as a businessman in St. Petersburg with a chain of hotdog stands that he ran with his mother in the early 1990s. He expanded through his various connections to run a successful catering business and got a number of lucrative government contracts with schools and the military. People sometimes call him “Putin’s Chef.”
Then in the 2000s, he expanded and started a private military group. That was the Wagner Group. It has its origins in 2014 when Russia first invaded Ukraine in the eastern territories and the Donbas. The Wagner Group has also been involved in fighting in Syria and several countries in Africa, among other areas.
Do we know yet what, or who, caused his death?
We don't know the full explanation of why the plane went down. Some people think there was an explosive on the plane. There is a theory that a missile maybe hit the plane. But many people strongly suspect that the Kremlin or Putin was likely behind it in some way.
Will we ever have those answers?
We’re not in the same era that we were during the Cold War. Unlike in the Soviet era, we have social media. We have footage of the plane crash. We may find out relatively quickly more of the details about what actually happened. It's harder to cover things up than it used to be. On the other hand, we may never fully know what happened.
In the U.S., a lot of people first heard about Prigozhin during his failed uprising against the Kremlin in June. Why did he turn on Putin?
It's still not entirely clear why Prigozhin chose that particular time to lead a coup attempt. Officially, he claimed the coup attempt was aimed at getting Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu out of power—that it was an attempt against the Russian military leadership and not against Putin.
Did the coup attempt weaken Putin?
In the short term, Putin seems to have weathered that coup attempt fairly well domestically. The Russian public seem more or less willing to accept the state media explanation that Prigozhin was a bit of a loose cannon and that the coup was quickly put down.
We see other signs that Putin is cracking down in the short term, such as with Evan Gershkovich. He is an American journalist of Russian heritage who was investigating the Wagner group several months ago and was arrested in Russia earlier this year. The same day that Prigozhin’s plane went down, they announced that Gershkovich would be held in pretrial detention for another three months.
That’s the short term. What about the long term?
The fact that Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, who was also high up in the Wagner organization, were killed on the plane sends a sign that the Kremlin is worried and that there is infighting at the elite levels.
One interpretation is that this could be the beginning of the end. There are a lot of cracks in the system. But Putin still has a lot of authoritarian tools he can use, even if he's on his way down.
What will happen to the Wagner Group with so many of their leaders dead?
That will be really interesting to see how it plays out. One possibility would be that there's another very powerful businessperson close to the Kremlin who swoops in to control it. We could see the Wagner Group officially dissolved. We could see the Kremlin more directly stepping in to take over Wagner resources.
What will this mean for the war in Ukraine?
Prigozhin’s death itself probably does not change Russia's military tactics. But it's another sign that Russia should stop waging a war against Ukraine that it never should have started in the first place. They’re committing a genocide in Ukraine, and they're continuing to attack a sovereign country.
Does Russian history tell us anything about what might happen in Russia in the months or years ahead?
We might have to look back to the pre-Communist era when we see a failed coup attempt against the czar. That was a precursor to the civil war that happened in Russia in 1917.
What the historical context best tells us in this case is that when you have a coup attempt, and when you have generals being demoted and you have a failing military campaign, there are a lot of cracks in the system. It's very difficult for people to predict how that power struggle will play out, but violently and chaotically is one way that has played out in the past. And that's something we should be concerned about.