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Prigozhin's death is business as usual in Russia, but does it help Vladimir Putin?

People carry a body bag away from the wreckage of a crashed jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Russia. Wagner chief Yvgeny Prigozhin is thought to have been on board.
People carry a body bag away from the wreckage of a crashed jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Russia. Wagner chief Yvgeny Prigozhin is thought to have been on board. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Andrew Naughtie, Euronews
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The apparent assassination of the Wagner chief marks just another turn in Putin's effort to shore himself up, but it won't change the disastrous trajectory of the Ukrainian war.

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Reports that Wagner mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has been killed in a plane crash immediately raised suspicions that he had been assassinated by the Kremlin.

Having publicly criticised the Russian military's dire performance in Ukraine, Prigozhin then led a brief mutiny against the Russian government earlier in the summer. That event was defused by a deal with Vladimir Putin's government under which he would relocate to Belarus in exchange for the lifting of criminal charges against him.

Yet Prigozhin seems not to have honoured that deal. The private plane apparently carrying him was flying between Moscow and St Petersburg when it crashed to the ground in flames; 10 bodies have reportedly been recovered from the wreckage by Russian authorities.

According to James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at UK think tank Chatham House, the apparent assassination should not exactly come as a shock.

"The Russians have a lot of form here," he says. "Throughout Soviet and post-Soviet history there have been suspicious air crashes when rivals were a threat or became too popular. For example, Yuri Gagarin in 1968 and General Alexander Lebed (a one-time possible contender for the presidency) in 2002 both died in mysterious circumstances in air incidents."

With the steady flow of assassinations (attempted and successful) and mysterious deaths that have blighted the Kremlin's opponents in recent years, the Kremlin's old reputation for ruthless political action remains justified.

As Nixey puts it: "Almost everybody inside and outside of Russia accepts this is just the Russian way of doing things.

"We in the West may question the precise timing and method – why shoot Nemtsov in front of the Kremlin? Why keep using poison when it fails so often? – but whatever the illogicalities, this is a significant part of 'Russian governance'."

Along with the manner in which the plane was shot down and the certainty that Prigozhin genuinely was on it at the time, there are two key questions about his presumed death and probable killing: why now, what happens next?

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Russian servicemen inspect a part of a crashed private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023.Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Round them up

According to Scott Lucas, an international relations expert at the University of Birmingham and University College Dublin, the time lag between the events of late June and the crash is indicative of the Kremlin's strategy to shore Putin up even as the war effort continues to flail.

"If Putin had moved quickly on Prigozhin after the mutiny in June, he would have risked alienating a number of folks in Russia who have been critical of the military leadership for mishandling the war in Ukraine, and he would have risked cutting adrift the Wagner Group and its fighters," he tells Euronews.

"The fact is that Wagner has become essential to Russian military operations, not just in Ukraine but even more so in Africa. So you don't just immediately get rid of Prigozhin, you have to set up a transition. The signal here is that they feel the transition has been completed."

Lucas points out that just this week, it was confirmed that the head of Russia's Aerospace Forces, Sergey Surovikin, has been removed from his position. A Wagner ally, he has apparently been under house arrest since late June.

"The question is, does the command structure stabilise in Moscow, despite the political and economic pressure?" he asks. "Because this does not remove Russia's problems in Ukraine."

While there have been rumblings of discontent this week from Western allies about the progress of Ukraine's counteroffensive, the Ukrainian military is still making gradual but meaningful advances on the ground.

As the country marked its independence day, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence claimed that a "special operation" had been successfully carried out on the Russian-controlled Crimean peninsula, with Russian losses of personnel and an advanced missile system.

If his claim is proven true, the attack will represent a new level of daring in Ukrainian offensives on areas held by Russia. The capture of Crimea in particular is the pinnacle of Russia's "achievements" in Ukraine since 2014, so the spectacle of Ukrainian incursion there could do grave damage to the perception of the war at home.

As things stand, says Lucas, Putin can off as many of his domestic enemies as he likes, but his efforts to secure his position will not change the trajectory of the conflict.

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"Whatever happens in Moscow in terms of consolidating Putin inside the country, it doesn't really solve the inevitable loss that he faces outside of Russia – with this proviso: if he can hang on until 2024 and Donald Trump wins the US presidential election, everything changes."

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