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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

PRIGOZHIN’S DEATH: THE BELARUS ANGLE

After Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenaries marched on Moscow in late June, and then dramatically backed down, one thing was clear – there was unfinished business.


Vladimir Putin had accused the mutineers of ‘a betrayal’ and invoked the memory of 1917 and Russia’s collapse into civil war. Putin said: ‘Our actions to defend the Fatherland from this threat will be harsh’ and the mutineers will ‘inevitably be punished’. And now Prigozhin is assumed dead with strong suspicions the Russian state killed him.


Few are surprised at his apparent demise. If the events in June made little sense (for a recap see my summary here), then the apparent swift ‘resolution’ was even less comprehensible. As I wrote shortly after the mutiny, ‘any truce brokered so swiftly between Putin and Prigozhin cannot have resolved the core issues.’ Belarus was central to that ‘resolution’ and I argued that it boded ill for the country; the implications of the latest news for Belarus are discussed below.


A dead man? A dead outfit?


Soon after the news of the plane crash broke, Russian news agencies reported that no one on board had survived and that Prigozhin and his deputy, Dmitry Utkin, were listed among the passengers.


It seems most probable that the plane was brought down by a surface-to-air missile. Former RAF Air Vice-Marshall Sean Bell on Sky News gave a persuasive explanation about how the trails of smoke and fuel from the falling plane indicated this was far more likely than an onboard bomb or a mechanical failure. (This article repeats a selection of his remarks.)


From an analyst's perspective, regardless of what happened, it’s necessary to think about the implications. Does Wagner Group survive with a new leader? What happens to its activities?


Given that Prigozhin commanded his fighters’ loyalty through charismatic leadership, and the group’s reliance on his personal ties to Putin, my answer to the first question – with a high level of confidence – is that Wagner Group is finished. It would seem that my thinking runs against the grain on this issue, but it is hard for me to see it enduring in any shape whatsoever. The main exception I can see is if its name survives for some arcane legal reasons.


Wagner Group has carried out important functions on behalf of the Russian state in Africa and I expect the Russian state will look to find other private military companies (PMCs) to take over those contracts. For all the attention on Wagner Group over the past few years, there has been a proliferation of PMCs in Russia and there is intense competition between them.


Other PMCs that have been operating in Ukraine include Redut (‘Redoubt’) and Fakel (‘Torch’), and there will be people involved with such outfits eager to take over lucrative contracts protecting resource mines, providing security and dealing arms on the African continent. They could employ many of the former Wagner soldiers already on the ground.


Wagnerites in Belarus


As part of the ‘truce’ between Prigozhin and Putin, the mercenary boss was supposed to relocate to Belarus. Around six thousand Wagner soldiers arrived in Belarus, according to estimates, but there was never any clear suggestion of what would happen to them. Prigozhin himself seldom seemed to be in Belarus, cropping up instead in St Petersburg or Africa. It’s hard to believe Belarus’s Alyaksandr Lukashenka really wanted Prigozhin in the country: the Belarusian dictator has built a complicated array of security agencies and outsourcing security work to foreign citizens is risky at the best of times, let alone to a group that had already turned on their own country’s leader.


The chemistry between Lukashenka and Prigozhin was unlikely to work out since they both see themselves as the boss. Among Wagner soldiers, Prigozhin went by the monikor ‘batya’ (father) – his last Telegram message began ‘Dad is in the building’ – which happens to be how Lukashenka has traditionally chosen to style himself (‘bat’ka’). Belarus never looked large enough for two bat'kas.


There’s no compelling reason for the Belarus-based Wagner fighters to remain in the country. Lukashenka would be foolish to let them stay, and they are no longer a significant threat to Putin. It has been reported over recent days that they were fleeing the country anyway, dissatisfied with the scant pay they have received since relocating. It looks like most of them have been sitting around unoccupied, too. Realistically the story of Wagner Group in Belarus, which never found its groove, ends now. That is good news for Lukashenka and all Belarusians, whether they support the regime or the opposition.


Belarusians, consuming state media, will be fed whatever line the Kremlin settles on about what happened to Prigozhin. The wearily predictable line that has emerged quickly in Russia is that Ukraine is responsible. For example, Life.ru says the ‘baseline version’ is that it was ‘a terrorist act organised by Ukraine.’ The next step will probably be to claim that American or British intelligence agencies helped to orchestrate the incident in order to sow division inside Russia.


I think it’s hard for those of us not living fully immersed in the Russian-language information space to grasp how easily the Russian audience believes what it is told, but states employ propaganda because it works. If you are fed a diet of conspiracy theories, then the latest claims will be consistent with what you think you already know.


Outside Russia, most assume the Russian state brought down the plane. It is consistent with so much of what we know. If I were in Putin’s shoes, I would not have been happy with some half-baked deal struck with the input of the Belarusian state. Prigozhin remained a danger to be got out of the way.


But for the moment it is important to keep an open mind. It is not impossible that there was some kind of fault on the plane, although Sean Bell’s analysis persuades me otherwise, and while it would be extremely convenient, such coincidences do happen. The Russian state will want people to doubt its culpability, but it will also want Russians to doubt its denials so that they understand what happens to ‘traitors’.


General Armageddon


There is absolutely nothing about Prigozhin's fate on the Belarusian state news agency's website as I write this. It looks like the Belarusian state media is awaiting cues for what, if anything, to report. In much of the English-language media, meanwhile, events in Russia have inevitably overshadowed India’s achievement yesterday. India’s successful moon landing came just a couple of days after Russia had failed in its own effort to land a craft near the lunar south pole.


Although it is unconnected to the failed moon landing (that's the domain of Roscosmos), the head of the Russian Air and Space Forces defence agency happened to be relieved of his post yesterday. General Sergey Surovikin, known as ‘General Armageddon’, had commanded the Russian armed forces in Ukraine from October 2022 until January 2023.


Surovikin's latest post represented a demotion and he may have begrudged Putin. He was rumoured to have quietly backed Prigozhin’s mutiny and has barely been seen (if at all?) since late June. Some Russian media report that he was taken into custody as part of investigations into his alleged complicity in the mutiny. After hearing of Prigozhin’s assumed fate, one person who won’t have woken comfortably this morning is General Surovikin. If he is at large, expect him to turn up in Minsk soon after a friendly chat with Lukashenka.


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