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The killing of ‘Putin's cook’ will expose more about the power struggle in Moscow

August 29, 2023 at 5:55 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia on July 04, 2023 [Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency]

The commander of the Russian Wagner mercenary militia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, rebelled against his master Vladimir Putin in June, and was able to control large parts of Russia on the border with Ukraine during his march towards Moscow. This was his protest against the way that the ministry of defence in the capital and some Russian officials dealt with his forces. Prigozhin’s move undermined the image of Russia and its troops, and led, in a major and direct way, to damaging the image, position and role of President Putin.

The rebellion ended with an agreement cobbled together by the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and a guarantee from Putin. This stipulated an end to the armed rebellion; moving the Wagner militia commander to Belarus and dropping criminal charges against him; and allowing Wagner elements who did not participate in the rebellion to cooperate with the Russian ministry of defence by joining the ranks of the Russian army. It also stipulated the return of Wagner mercenaries to their camps, while a large number of them chose to move to Belarus, according to the official Russian narrative. 

Less than two months later, a private aircraft crashed north of Moscow, killing everyone on board. The passengers were Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner officials close to him. 

The fingers of blame pointed at Putin. It was believed that Prigozhin paid the ultimate price for his rebellion against the Russian president. The owner of catering companies which provided food to the Kremlin, “Putin’s cook” became rather too powerful on the president’s watch. After the rebellion, it was predicted that Prigozhin had made himself a prime target for assassination.

Hanging by a thread: Can Wagner survive the post-Prigozhin era?

History is full of such events, with leaders who felt threatened inviting officials for a meeting before having them killed. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, for example, did this with the Mamluks when he wanted to get rid of them in the early nineteenth century. He organised a huge party before the army went to Arabia to eliminate Mohmad Bin Abd Al-Wahhab’s movement, and invited statesmen, notables, senior military officials and civil servants, along with Mamluk leaders. The invitation was accepted by 740 people who turned up in their finest clothes. They were welcomed warmly, before being killed by soldiers in what came to be known as the “castle massacre”.

This is also what Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser did to his friend and Defence Minister Abdel Hakim Amer after the 1967 defeat to Israel. Amer was poisoned. 

The murder of Prigozhin and his Wagner colleagues confirmed Putin’s strength and standing, after being weakened — it seemed — by the rebellion and the quagmire of his war in Ukraine. This has become a war of attrition for him, his army and his country’s economy. He can find no honourable way out of it. 

In the criminal world, it could be argued that Prigozhin died an acceptable death. It was better than the death suffered by Wagner deserter Yevgeny Nozin in November last year. A tape was released showing his execution; his head was smashed-in using a club. Prigozhin boasted that “this dog died like a dog.” Putin was more noble when talking about Prigozhin, saying that he had good points and not so good points, as if he was a modern Peter the Great after executing his son.

READ: Russia confirms Wagner Group head Prigozhin among deaths in Wednesday’s plane crash

What does the future hold for the Wagner group and its mercenaries now that it has lost its leader? Will Putin use it in operations of his dirty wars, as he did in Syria, Libya and some other countries? It is now under the direct control of the Kremlin. Moreover, it is likely that the group’s agents and others linked to Wagner will try to get closer to Moscow rather than to the militia itself.

As such, we won’t have to wait long to find out the repercussions of the assassination on the militia and its operations, as well as its relations with the Kremlin. We will also find out more about the reality of Putin’s situation and the dynamics of the ongoing power struggle in Moscow against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.