Vladimir Putin’s Russia has long been a land of mysterious deaths. In 1998, soon after he had been appointed head of the security services, Galina Starovoitova, a parliamentarian who believed in bringing democracy to Russia, was gunned down in the stairwell of her apartment building in St. Petersburg. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who had learned too much about the Chechen wars that Putin used to propel himself to power, met the same fate in the stairwell of her apartment building in Moscow. In 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Putin’s presidency, was killed by an assassin only steps away from the Kremlin. Other critics barely survived. In 2020, Alexei Navalny, organizer of the only truly national anti-Putin political movement, fell critically ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow after being poisoned.
All of these victims were Putin’s formal opponents, people who spoke or wrote in opposition to the kleptocracy he built. Since Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a different class of victims—members of the Russian business elite who were perhaps insufficiently loyal or insufficiently keen on the war—have also begun to die in strange circumstances. In the year and a half that has passed since February 2022, two gas-industry executives were found dead with suicide notes. Three Russian executives were killed, alongside their wives and children, in what appeared to be murder-suicides. The body of the owner of a resort in Sochi was discovered at the bottom of a cliff. Another executive was found floating in a pool in St. Petersburg. Others have fallen out of windows or down staircases in Moscow, India, the French Riviera, and Washington, D.C.
Still, even on the very long list of people who have been shot, hanged, poisoned, or subjected to lethal accidents because they somehow got in Putin’s way, Yevgeny Prigozhin stands out. Prigozhin’s private plane mysteriously fell from the sky this afternoon, following an explosion that, whether a bomb or a rocket, could only have been organized by the state. The state, in turn, could only have acted on Putin’s orders, or at least in anticipation of such orders (Will no one rid me of this turbulent mercenary?). But Prigozhin wasn’t an opponent of Putin; he helped create Putin. He wasn’t a critic of Putin’s kleptocracy; he built the Wagner mercenary group, which supported African and Middle Eastern dictators and exploited diamond mines on behalf of Moscow too. He also ran the Internet Research Agency, the organization that used hacking, leaking, and social media to help elect Donald Trump.
Prigozhin was no opponent of the current war either. His men, and the convicts they recruited, fought the long, bitter battle of Bakhmut, achieving the only significant Russian victory in Ukraine so far this year. Thousands of Russian soldiers, maybe tens of thousands, died in that struggle, thanks to military tactics so wasteful of human life that they are described by the Russians themselves as the “meat grinder.” Along the way, Prigozhin did begin to have some doubts about how the war was being fought, and maybe about the true motives of some of those leading the battle. As a result, he dared to challenge the Russian army leadership, and thus the Russian president, in a bizarre and largely unopposed march into the military headquarters of the city of Rostov-on-Don, and then nearly all the way to Moscow, exactly 60 days ago.
So, yes, this is another mysterious death, but it is a new kind of mysterious death. With this plane crash, the violence on the periphery of Russia’s empire has now migrated to its very heart. Putin’s rule has always been maintained by a heady combination of opportunism, bribery, and the facade of Russian nationalism, propped up by the subtle threat of violence. In the aftermath of Prigozhin’s rebellion, Putin needs something more spectacular: theatrical, public violence; violence of the kind that brings down a plane soon after takeoff in the middle of a sunny day; violence designed to terrify anyone who secretly wished for Prigozhin’s victory.
He may soon need a lot more of it. There is no mutual trust among Russia’s elite, no true shared ideology beyond self-interest, and no wonder: Prigozhin’s safety, and the safety of his mercenaries, was supposed to be guaranteed by Aleksandr Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus. That promise, like most of Putin’s promises, turned out to be empty. Everyone who is still part of the inner circle already hires bodyguards and, if they can, sends their family abroad. Those who can afford it already have private armies. Anyone associated with Prigozhin now has new reasons to fear for their safety too. One general close to Prigozhin was relieved of his command today. He had not been seen in public for many weeks. Prigozhin’s deputy, Dmitry Utkin, died today on the plane along with him.
But many others in Moscow knew Prigozhin, worked with Prigozhin, and benefited from Prigozhin’s businesses, military and criminal. Will they wait passively for violence to consume them? Will they escape—there were reports earlier this week that Wagner troops were already leaving their newly built camps in Belarus—or will they try to strike first? “Grey Zone,” a Telegram channel associated with the Wagner Group, has already made this threat explicit: “The assassination of Prigozhin will have catastrophic consequences,” one posting today declared. “The people who gave the order do not understand the mood in the army and morale at all. Let this be a lesson to all. You always have to go to the end.”
By “the end” the author means Moscow. Prigozhin didn’t go to Moscow. Maybe somebody else now will.