Death of Prigozhin Shows Putin’s Iron Grip

Almost two months ago, Putin experienced what could be the darkest moment of his regime. Wagner mercenaries, led by Prigozhin, launched a military mutiny and marched from Rostov toward Moscow, facing almost no organized resistance. Putin has to make a significant yield and allow Prigozhin to be exiled in Belarus while the soldiers participating will not be punished.

To many observers, the mutiny and Putin backing down could mark the beginning of the end of the Putin regime. However, nothing is predictable like the coup and many recent events in Russian politics. Prigozhin’s private jet crashed in Russia.  Prigozhin and other Wagner leaders are now presumed dead in this incident. According to Wanger’s Telegram channel, Prigozhin was shot down by Russian air defense. While Putin sent his condolences to the families of those killed in the accident, he also claimed that Prigozhin was a man who made mistakes but achieved common good.

On the same day, Putin fired General Surovikin, who runs the war in Ukraine. He has not been seen in public for weeks after the attempted coup. Many have suspected that he was under arrest immediately after the coup. Surovikin is known for being Prigozhin’s ally. This event could be seen as Putin’s move to strengthen his control over the military.

Although Prigozhin is only presumed dead, one thing is sure: Putin retains the iron grip on power. The coup did not damage his authority as many anticipated. Putin restored his control over the military during this period. Although no clear cause of the crash is provided, the death of Prigozhin also serves as a reminder to anyone with the potential ambition to challenge Putin in any manner. Russia has also tightened up Wagner’s operations after the coup. These signs indicate that Putin is regaining his power in Russian politics.

Putin has proven that he still has the total control of the military in Russia. During the coup,  the Wagner group claimed that they had taken over the military facilities in Rostov “without a single shot.” It seems like Putin has lost control over the military. However, there was no mutiny on the frontline before and after the coup, where most troops were. Putin’s swift action of firing General Surovikin indicates that he won’t tolerate any potential dissent within the military. Surovikin is a close friend and supporter of Prigozhin. His downfall further expressed Putin’s determination to control the military.

Putin used carrots and stick method to strengthen his control over the military. He hosted ceremonies honoring the military in the Kremlin. Meanwhile, he has substantially raised the salary for all the security agency employees days after the coup. On the other hand, Putin has also started the purge of high-level officials. Other than Surovikin, Moscow has detained multiple high-level officers days after the coup. These actions all indicate Putin’s motif in controlling the military.

Prigozhin’s death is also a reminder to any potential challengers. Domestic politics speaking, the Kremlin also doesn’t lack challengers. Although the opposition in Russia has been cracked down, Russia has developed a potential warlordism, which erodes the government’s authority. Regional powers and illegal mercenary groups, from Wagner to East Ukraine militias, started to snowball in recent years. Many troops, like Kardyrov’s Army, had much more independence from the Kremlin and wanted future expansion.  Kardyrov’s Chechnian forces fought against Moscow in a bloody war in the late 1990s. These independent troops, like Wagner, could harm Russia’s stability.

From this incident, Putin made an example out of Prigozhin. Putin lacked trust in these quasi-private troops, and the death of Prigozhin reminded them of the consequence of being rebellious. Although it took two months, but Putin still plotted revenge against Wagner. It became a sound alarm to the ambitious ones that results are coming with challenges against Putin.

At the same time, the Moscow government was also restricting the activities of Wagner after the coup. After the attempted coup, the Wagner Group ceased operations in Russia. In the first video after the coup, Prigozhin said that the Wagner will now focus on the operation in Africa. Also, Wagner’s side businesses are under strict scrutiny in Moscow. Russian authorities have shut down the office of Wagner in St. Petersburg while the Wagner-owned media group was closed after the coup. The Kremlin has also cut ties with Prigozhin’s catering business.

The Wagner group in itself has been weakened. Mercenaries signing contracts with the Ministry of Defense further tightens Moscow’s control over the mercenaries. Putin wanted all groups to sign contracts before July 1 to “ensure social guarantees.” Wagner recruitment centers have also halted all recruitments indefinitely while the troops handed the heavy weapons to the Russian government. From equipment to personnel, Wagner is now under the close watch of Moscow.

However, Putin is far out of the deep water. The ongoing war in Ukraine keeps draining Russian resources. Prigozhin’s death could also lead to friction between Russia and Belarus, as President Lukashenko represented Putin during the negotiation and protected Prigozhin.  Furthermore, as Wagner’s operation shifted toward Africa, the future of these operations became uncertain as the group lost its leader.

Yet, one thing is sure: after a dramatic attempted coup and the death of Prigozhin, Putin showed the world his iron fist and took the chance to clean up the military, deterring challengers and regaining control of Russia. The presumed death of Prigozhin further indicates Putin still obtains significant power in Russia.

[Photo: Telegram via @razgruzka_vagnera/AFP]

Henry Huang serves as the Research and Communications Assistant at the DPRK Strategic Research Center in KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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