DANIEL VAUGHAN: Prigozhin's End and Putin's Continued Iron Grip

 August 28, 2023

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner paramilitary-group boss who marched Wagner forces on Moscow in an alleged coup, is dead. The Russian government confirmed the news, saying that DNA testing showed that Prizgozhin was in the place when it crashed, along with several other officials. It's the most predictable Russian ending for a truly bizarre story. The man who allegedly defied Vladimir Putin and managed to live for a few months finally met the end everyone expected.

Also, it is evident that Vladimir Putin is still in control of Russia, and the war in Ukraine continues with no end in sight. When Prigozhin launched his march on Moscow and abruptly ended it, I said we needed to "Trust, but verify." There was no way to know if this was a legitimate coup, a ploy by Putin loyalists, or something else.

Trust, but verify.

Predictably, most Western media rushed to claim this was another sign that Putin's reign was ending. Op-Ed pages at all the major publications were filled with Western hopes that Russia was on the verge of a regime change. I wrote this: "In the end, you can't trust anything you see or hear in Russia. We can't trust them, nor can we verify much." That made most of the opinions published on this front nothing more than wishcasting with the veneer of analysis.

As it is, United Kingdom intelligence says that Russian forces kidnapped or directly threatened the families of Prigozhin and other Wagner leaders during the Moscow march. Whether Prigozhin intended to march and overthrow the Russian military brass or Putin himself is unclear. But the abrupt end of it all is best explained by the threat posed to the families of the coup leadership.

It also seems likely that Russia communicated this threat through its puppet leadership in Belarus, and the so-called deal cut by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was a less amicable negotiation than a brutal threat. The message was clear: "End the march to Moscow or else."

Evidence for an assassination attempt.

US intelligence is coalescing around the idea that Prigozhin was assassinated, though this is preliminary and subject to change. Occam's Razor suggests this is the correct explanation, however. If only because this wouldn't be the first time someone died "mysteriously" in Russia that wronged Vladimir Putin of the Russian government in some way.

The Wall Street Journal reports, "The preliminary US government assessments, which officials stressed were incomplete, suggest that a bomb exploded on the aircraft or that some other form of sabotage caused the crash. US satellites with infrared sensors can detect the heat from missile launches, and none was detected at the time the plane was downed, defense officials said."

If it were a missile, we'd know about it. That means this was a planned, orchestrated assassination attempt. Of course, it's also possible that Prigozhin's plane crashed due to a random chance mechanical failure. But while possible, no one is betting money on that. Even if that were true, everyone would naturally and correctly assume Russia had assassinated Prigozhin.

As I said before, we can't trust anything Russia says. Even with the confirmations we have of Prigozhin being dead, it's hard to trust the Russian government's explanation of events or the evidence proffered. It's easy to trust their confirmation in this case because the Russian government and Vladimir Putin have reason to see Prigozhin killed. And because it aligns with their interests, we can assume they got what they wanted.

Vigilance is the only solution for a belligerent Russia.

With all that said, this is a fairly loud, brute-force assassination, even for the Russians. Taking everything at face value, it's the kind of assassination attempt that no one in Russia or the outside world misses. As with most Russian events, there's likely a deeper message for other Russian leadership: mess with Putin, and you meet a similar demise.

Does Putin use Prigozhin as an object lesson for everyone, or do we see more assassinations of those under Prigozhin? Only time will tell, but when a government resorts to these kinds of open displays of power, they do it for a reason. Past assassination attempts, successful or not, by the Russians have been quieter, though targeting enemies of the Russian government. This was anything but quiet.

Vladimir Putin is asserting total control over everything in the Russian state. The message is clear: attempt anything similar to Prigozhin, and you're dead. It's obvious why this happened to Prigozhin. Still, you can't help but wonder whether Putin is trying to tell a broader message to everyone else. Is he doing that simply because he can or because he feels like he needs to?

Whatever the answer, we must remain vigilant and trust but verify every claim and event involving the Russians. We don't have the luxury of being lax. American security requires steady vigilance on all fronts.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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