OPINION - Prigozhin’s exit signals Putin is clearing way for new phase in the war

Yevgeny Prigozhin with Vladimir Putin in 2010  (AP)
Yevgeny Prigozhin with Vladimir Putin in 2010 (AP)

Yevgeny Prigozhin is gone — subject to confirmation from biological remains at the plane crash site in Tver Oblast. Like Icarus, the blustering, ambitious schemer fell from a great height.

Prigozhin had become an embarrassment since his march on Moscow two months ago. Few in Russia’s elite will mourn. A sample of members of the Duma, the parliament in Moscow, registered lack of surprise at his apparent death and welcomed it. Intriguingly, the technocrats that have kept the institutions and the banks running show little sympathy.

Most of all, the military command wanted him gone. But the importance of Prigozhin and his Wagner Group should not be underestimated. Some of the mercenary organisation will live on, no doubt directed by figures such as Aleksandr Kuznetsov, the Wagner chief executive who was not on the Embraer flight from Moscow to St Petersburg yesterday.

Prigozhin rose to prominence with Vladimir Putin under the charismatic mayor of St Petersburg of the early Nineties, Anatoly Sobchak. His vehicle was Concord Catering, provisioner to the stars and the Russian Army. He then became a guiding influence of the Internet Research Agency of St Petersburg, the Troll Factory which played a key role in the social media wars of 2016. He also became the sponsor and leader of Wagner, a military and security company founded in 2014 by Dmitry Utkin, who is also believed to have died in yesterday’s crash.

Wagner has been part of Russia’s adventures in Syria, Libya, Somalia and Sudan, and now in West and Central Africa. They offered protection and controlled interests in rare minerals and gold mines. These assets are now up for grabs.

But Prigozhin’s exit appears to change little in the war in Ukraine. Wagner had bolstered the fight for Bakhmut, with Prigozhin criticising the Russian leadership for lack of support, especially in ammunition and artillery reinforcements. Those he criticised most, defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Commander in Chief Valery Gerasimov, are still in post. Yesterday morning, Putin sacked Wagner’s biggest military ally, General Sergei Surovikin, former deputy commander in the Ukraine war.

Putin appears to be clearing the decks for a new phase in the conflict. Yesterday he spoke to the BRICS summit in South Africa by video link. He declared that Ukraine was no longer a special military operation, but a war for Russia’s strategic survival.

Sadly, too many people in Russia have come to believe him.