Faculty Spotlight

Q&A: On the Death of Yevgeny Prigozhin

Posted Aug 25 2023
Professor Kimberly Marten of Barnard College, the Harriman Institute, and SIPA's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

A specialist in international relations, international security, environmental politics, and Russia, Kimberly Marten is a professor of political science at Barnard College and a faculty member and executive committee member of Columbia’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies and SIPA’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

Marten is also one of the world’s leading experts on the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary company that briefly mutinied against Russia’s military leadership in June. Although the incident raised questions about Vladimir Putin’s hold on power, the Russian president’s response at the time was muted.

It has been about two months since the uprising, and earlier this week, on August 23, Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, appeared to die in a plane crash. Marten spoke to Lionel Beehner MIA ’02, SIPA’s senior editorial director, about this turn of events, what it means for Russia’s proxy armies, and more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

It’s been said that, for Russian president Vladimir Putin, revenge is a dish best served cold. Were you surprised by how fast Putin appears to have had Prigozhin killed?

Honestly, I’m not all that surprised. Everyone thought Putin would take revenge. I didn’t expect it on this date but it’s been two months exactly since the failed mutiny.

It’s also fitting it was done on an airplane. Prigozhin loved his airplane; he did ‘tasks’ for Putin across Africa on the same airplane. And you’ll remember that during the mutiny his people shot down several helicopters and an airplane, killing 13 Russian airmen. 

What does this apparent assassination mean for Putin’s grip on power?

On the one hand, he has demonstrated that he's not going to let somebody like Prigozhin, who had done so much for him, get away with a mutiny. So it is an action of strength.

But we also need to wait and see how the uniformed military will react, because there had been some suspicions at the time that Prigozhin’s mutiny was launched, that Prigozhin believed more people in the uniformed military were going to come in on his side. We thought that [Sergei] Surovikin, the general who was in charge of the air and space forces in Russia, had been identified by Prigozhin as his go-between with the defense ministry. And Surovikin has not been seen since the day after the mutiny; he's been apparently under house arrest, but nobody’s sure exactly where he is. And then two days ago, he was relieved of his command duties for the Air Force, although he is still in the military. So it's possible that Surovikin represents a larger group of military officers who supported what Prigozhin did, and are against the current defense ministry. So that is the one thing to watch in terms of what might be a direct result of this leading to some form of instability. It's just too early to know.

That segues nicely into a question about civil-military dynamics. Have you ever seen anything like this in Russia before? Is there a historical parallel? 

Russia has no history of civil-military unrest, with the one exception that Putin himself raised during the mutiny — [the Russian Revolution] in 1917 and the events surrounding it, and then the Kronstadt rebellion. In the very earliest phase of Bolshevik rule, there was uncertainty and instability in terms of what role the military would be playing, and what would happen to the so-called “White” military forces — the ones who were loyal to the tsar — now that the “Reds” —  the Bolsheviks — had taken over. So at that time there was uncertainty and violence and so forth. But we have not seen that anytime since — and not at all during Soviet times, and not at all in post-Soviet times. Of course, in the coup attempt against Gorbachev in 1991, and the civil disorder in Moscow in 1993 involving Yeltsin and the parliament, there were complicated questions about what role the uniformed military was playing — but they were always following the orders of civilian leaders. So this is unprecedented.

But it's also unprecedented that you have this kind of semi-state force that was given such a very large role in what Russia was doing. There had always been forms of informal contracting, dating back to the time of at least Ivan the Terrible, when you had a relationship between the Cossacks in Russia, who were engaged in border defense on behalf of the czars, for example. And we saw some of this during Stalin's time, in World War II, and again right after the breakup of the Soviet Union — we saw some of this in terms of having people who weren't quite working for directly the Russian state, but nonetheless were cooperating with Russia. But this has been unprecedented in terms of its size and in terms of the number of places where [Wagner forces] have been deployed. So, no, we haven't seen anything like this before.

Some of these groups like Wagner have been surprisingly effective on the battlefield. What's your take on the use of having a Wagner group-style paramilitary? Is it just about plausible deniability?

We know that from the beginning, the Wagner Group was associated with the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency. “Mr. Wagner” himself, [cofounder] Dmitry Utkin, was a recently retired GRU officer of the special services. And so Wagner had that GRU association for many, many years and even trained alongside the GRU until after the mutiny.

Prigozhin was never ever a commander. He was the face of the Wagner Group, but he was not the commander.

That very strong relationship with the GRU has persisted: Other people have done in-depth investigative reporting showing that when Wagner has gone abroad, the foreign passports issued to its members have come from the same agency within the Russian services that gives the passports to the GRU. When Wagner Group forces have been flown into various places — for example, in Syria, and [multiple countries] in Africa — it's always been through a military base in Syria that Russia now has a long-term lease on. That means that the Russian military has been responsible for flying these folks back and forth, wherever they've gone.

Certainly, when [Wagner Group soldiers] were fighting in Ukraine, they were doing so with very clear support from the regular Russian forces, they were not acting independently at all. Even early on in Bucha in 2022, where we had that terrible massacre of civilians, Wagner and the Russian uniformed military were operating side by side. And then more recently, in the events that happened in 2023, we again saw a great deal of cooperation between them. 

People have called them a private military company, or they've called them mercenaries. They weren't really either of those things. They were a semi-state actor and always have been.

With Prigozhin having left the scene, will somebody else fill his shoes or does it mean the end of Wagner? Or will some other group that's a semi-state mercenary-like organization fill the vacuum?

Nobody knows what will happen next. But we did see, immediately after the mutiny, that the forces working for Wagner in Syria seem to have been asked either to sign new contracts or to go back home. And while several dozen chose to leave, according to reports, that means that there are still several hundred in Syria who decided to stay there under some other contractual arrangement. And in Syria, that could have meant two things: it could have meant directly working with the Russian Defense Ministry, or it could have meant working under the aegis of a different group called Redut [or Redoubt]. Redut — it used to be called Shield before it changed its name — is very much associated with Gennady Timchenko, who is a different oligarch much more closely associated with Putin than Prigozhin ever was. Timchenko is very strongly associated with the phosphate mining industry and exports in this area, and also had a number of oil and gas concerns through his company. 

There have been rumors that Redut has been trying to recruit people to go to Africa, but it doesn't have the combat experience that Wagner does. Redut did have a small group go into Ukraine immediately in the spring of 2022, and they didn't do very well. In contrast, Prigozhin and the Wagner Group were able to take to Ukraine Russian prisoners who had their sentences commuted in return for fighting for Wagner; the former prisoners did a very good job in terms of taking Soledar and taking Bakhmut because they had no choice except to move forward. They were shot, basically, if they retreated. So using prison labor in this way he had just huge numbers of people willing to take casualties to seize those cities.

Redut doesn't have that kind of experience. That means when we're talking about a situation where Wagner had been involved in a lot of heavy combat against rebels — as in the Central African Republic (CAR) or Mali — we don't know if Redut could take Wagner’s place. It's possible Redut and other groups will try to take over Wagner, but it's also possible that the local commanders of Wagner will either keep their designation as Wagner Group forces, or will change the name of the group in some way without any real change in the structure on the ground. We just have to wait and see. 

The big puzzle right now is what's going to happen in Belarus, because the Wagner Group forces there were the ones who actually staged the mutiny in late June. They were moved away from Russian territory into Belarus through a deal that was reached with Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, and I've always thought that it was kind of convenient for Russia to have them there. First of all, they were disarmed from heavy weaponry — probably all they have at this point are Kalashnikov [assault rifles]. And they're sitting there in the middle of Belarus, in very rural territory, not near any big cities. And so it would be very easy — if there were a problem — for the Russian regular military to just fly in and surround them and cajole them and deter them, and so forth. And there's actually some evidence that that might be happening: There was apparently a Russian military transport plane that landed in Belarus yesterday [August 23], and as of today there were at least rumors on Twitter that that plane had landed at the airbase near where these Wagner forces now are. 

Another thing to keep in mind about the Wagner forces in Belarus is that they're mostly these prisoners who got out early because their sentences were commuted — so they are the ones who are likely to be intensely loyal to Prigozhin, even though Prigozhin has no combat experience, because he actually did something for them. So it makes sense that Russia would want to be watching them. On the other hand, they are not the most highly trained veterans, and they probably don't have heavy weapons.

And we just don't know what the loyalty is of the Wagner forces that are elsewhere. Observers were struck by the fact that only a few dozen out of the hundreds in Syria seemed to want to come home rather than fighting for someone else. And the people who are fighting in Africa, they've always known that they are really fighting for Russia, and they're really fighting on behalf of the GRU. And the vast majority of them are veterans of Russian military and police. So they may not feel much loyalty to Prigozhin, who came out in his military uniform and in fatigues and, you know, did all his rah-rah stuff to publicize himself, but had no combat experience.

So it sounds like Russia is not going to get out of the business of interfering in Africa, but it might do it under a different umbrella. I read today that there are a lot of kind of private militias in Russia; it seems every single oligarch in Russia has his own private army. They’re not going to go over to CAR and meddle in politics, but do these groups suggest that Putin has things under control domestically? Could these groups potentially rise up?

So there certainly have been formations of guard forces for various oligarchic concerns and various big businesses within Russia — like Rosneft, the big, state-controlled oil firm, and Gazprom, the big state-controlled natural gas firm, for example. In recent months, the Russian government has been encouraging the people who are business owners, and also people who are regional governors to form their own version of forces that would go fight for Russia in Ukraine. I would not call those private armies — that is not what they are at all [because] they are working on behalf of the Russian state for Russian state goals. 

For example, Gazprom apparently formed three new small forces that may already be in eastern Ukraine and seem to have been working to some extent with Redut and with the defense ministry. The Russian space ministry has sent out a recruiting call for people to go fight for Russia in Ukraine. Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord in charge of Chechnya for many years, has always had his own military and security and intelligence forces for Chechnya. But he formed his own separate groups in 2022 again to go fight in Ukraine — they haven't done very well there, apparently.

So, yes, there are all these various groups, but they're not private military forces — I would not call them that. What appears to have happened today, with Putin taking down Prigozhin, sends a very strong message about where power lies in the country. I highly doubt that any of [the private armies] would attempt anything that would be against Putin's interests.

What effect will Prigozhin’s exit mean for the war in Ukraine?

It doesn't have any immediate operational impact because the Wagner Group forces had not been doing any fighting in eastern Ukraine since early May. Do keep in mind, Prigozhin was never ever a commander. He was the face of the Wagner Group, but he was not the commander. And the people who were fighting in eastern Ukraine most recently may have felt this loyalty to him, because he got them out of prison, but he had no battle experience himself. And so if you're a military person, you'd have to look at him with sort of a skeptical eye because he doesn't have the experience that you do of putting his life on the line for his country. And it remains to be seen what effect this might have on military morale. 

I had been concerned a couple months ago, when the when the mutiny happened, that it might have an effect on military morale, because you'd have to start questioning if you're a person who really has been fighting for such a long time, and you've seen your comrades be killed and wounded. You’d have to ask: why are these people — these politicians — fighting each other in Russia, rather than unifying behind what's supposed to be this national effort? And you know, the two really bad things Prigozhin did during the mutiny was allowing his forces to shoot down those helicopters and the airplane, killing Russian airmen during the mutiny. But the other really bad thing that he did in terms of Putin, and in terms of morale, was to say that Putin’s justification for the war was built on lies told to Putin by his defense minister. And so, Prigozhin said, Ukraine didn't need de-Nazification. Ukraine had not been about to attack Russia and NATO enlargement didn't matter. And the whole war in Ukraine was being fought for the oligarchs to get a foothold and for [Sergei] Shoigu, the defense minister, to get a medal of honor. 

If you're in the field and you're hearing this, that makes you really start to kind of wonder what's going on, especially since Putin didn't get rid of Prigozhin immediately. [One would think] how could Putin make a deal with this guy after calling him a traitor, after he said these things? It's not clear what people in the field are thinking — they may be thinking, yeah, [Putin] finally got [Prigozhin]; he was just biding his time. Or it could have been that there were more people in the Russian military who supported what Prigozhin was doing. And this now gives them some sense that they no longer have an advocate for their feelings about the war, because other pro-war, very hardline nationalist voices in Russia have also been imprisoned in the last few weeks. These are people who Putin had tolerated for a long time — people who were pro-war but who were angry about how the war was going. After the mutiny, he stopped tolerating that.

What does it mean for Shoigu, the defense minister? Will he get that medal of honor? 

Prigozhin had asked Putin to pursue certain changes, and there was a limited shakeup following the mutiny: Surovikin was detained and fired, and the Wall Street Journal reported that 13 others were at least temporarily detained and 15 more relieved of duty. But Shoigu and [chief of the general staff Valery] Gerasimov have not been touched. In fact, Putin was very careful to appear with Shoigu in a very friendly meeting just a couple of days later.

It remains possible that Shoigu and Gerasimov will be fired at some point, but I would bet if that happens, it's going to be far enough in the future that people will stop making the connection to what Prigozhin sought. Shoigu and Gerasimov are not known for being particularly competent in what they are doing, at least with the fighting that's going on in Ukraine.