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ISW: Assassination of Wagner Group Leadership effectively ends organization’s autonomy from Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin is suspected of assassinating Wagner Group leaders just weeks after their armed rebellion against the Kremlin.
Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2010. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
ISW: Assassination of Wagner Group Leadership effectively ends organization’s autonomy from Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to be behind the assassination of Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder Dmitry Utkin, and logistics head Valery Chekalov on 23 August, ISW reports.

The attack on 23 August, which downed Prigozhin’s private jet, has effectively ended the mercenary group’s ability to operate independently of the Kremlin.

The Wagner Group staged an armed rebellion against the Russian military leadership on 24 June to force Putin to remove top generals. According to the US-based think tank, Institute for the Study of War (ISW), this angered Putin, who refused to pay Belarus for hosting Wagner fighters and reduced payments to Wagner personnel. Satellite imagery from August 1 and 23 shows that Wagner had dismantled almost a third of the tents at its camp in Tsel, Asipovichy, Belarus, in the previous month, suggesting that the effort to weaken Wagner may have resulted in a notable flight of Wagner personnel from the contingent in Belarus.

During a brief de facto eulogy of Prigozhin, Russian President Vladimir Putin portrayed Prigozhin as his loyal subordinate until his death, the armed rebellion notwithstanding. Putin characterized Prigozhin as having a “difficult fate” in which he made “serious mistakes.”.

Putin notably refrains from suggesting that Prigozhin had ever betrayed him. But in his speech after the crash, Putin subtly indicates that Prigozhin’s loyalty through the years was not enough to offset the “serious mistake” of launching a rebellion against the Russian military leadership.

The exact cause of Prigozhin’s plane crash remains unclear as US and Russian sources offered varying explanations. US officials have provided different preliminary unconfirmed explanations for the plane crash: surface-to-air missiles, a bomb aboard the aircraft, or other sabotage. Pentagon Spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder stated that the Pentagon does not indicate that a surface-to-air missile downed the plane. Russian state news outlet Kommersant reported on 23 August that there is no reason to believe that a terrorist attack downed Prigozhin’s plane, contradicting a Russian official who immediately blamed terrorism.

As per ISW’s report, Putin’s almost certain assassination of Wagner’s leadership has made it clear that the Kremlin will be outwardly hostile to those attempting to secure independence for their parallel military structures. ISW previously assessed that Putin’s demonstrative assassination of Wagner’s leadership was meant to reassert his dominance and exact vengeance for the humiliation of Wagner’s rebellion.

Other key takeaways from the report:

  • The 24 June agreement between Putin, Prigozhin, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was likely invalidated by the destruction of Prigozhin’s aircraft, and Lukashenko will likely remain silent on the matter to avoid provoking Putin and further risking his already vulnerable position.
  • The Russian information space largely refrained from linking the Kremlin and the Russian MoD to Prigozhin’s and Utkin’s assassination.

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