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Will Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin survive betraying Putin?

Polonium or window?
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Head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin left the Southern Military District headquarters on June 24, 2023 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the words of the immortal Omar Little: “If you come at the king, you best not miss.”

But missing is exactly what Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Russia’s Wagner Group private military company, did over the weekend when he vowed to march on Moscow, posing the largest threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reign in more than 20 years.

Now Putin has vowed that the organizers of the aborted rebellion will be “brought to justice.”

“This is criminal activity, which is aimed at weakening the country. This was a colossal threat,” Putin said during a televised address to Russians on Monday.

Prigozhin ordered his fighters to cross from Ukraine into Russian territory on June 23 after claiming that the Russian military had attacked Wagner forces, but within 36 hours he ordered his mercenaries to return to their camps in Ukraine as part of a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov told reporters on June 24 that Wagner fighters who took part in the attempted coup would not be punished, and those Wagner mercenaries that did not participate in the uprising will have the option to sign contracts with Russia’s defense ministry.

Prigozhin’s current whereabouts are also unknown, although social media posts indicated that he might be staying at a hotel in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

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On Monday, Prigozhin released an 11-minute audio message in which he said that he turned his forces back before they reached Moscow to avoid spilling Russian blood. He also claimed that his march on Moscow was an act of protest, not an attempt to overthrow the Russian government.

“Our march showed many things we discussed earlier: the serious problems with security in the country,” Prigozhin said.

Prigozhin also said that Alexander Lukashenko has offered proposals under which Wagner could continue to operate “in a legal jurisdiction.”

A screen grab captured from a video shows Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin making a speech after Headquarters of the Southern Military District surrounded by fighters of the paramilitary Wagner group in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023. (Wagner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

But there is a long list of Putin critics who have been murdered for crossing the Kremlin.. Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer who fled to Britain, died in 2006 after being poisoned by polonium, a radioactive substance. Boris Nemtsov, a Russian politician who opposed Putin, was shot to death close to the Kremlin in 2015 shortly before a planned protest of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine. In 2021, a German court determined that the Russian government was responsible for the death of Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who fought against Russian forces in the 2000s. Khangoshvili was killed in Berlin in 2019.

It’s worth noting that Russia also seems to have a serious problem of high-level officials and business leaders falling to their death from high places, including Marina Yankina, the former finance director for the Russian defense ministry’s Western Military District. 

It is likely that Prigozhin will become another one of Putin’s victims, said Ivana Stradner, a Russia expert with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, D.C. Putin does not forgive people who betray him, and Prigozhin has humiliated him by exposing his weakness.

“In Russia, weakness is something that voters do not tolerate,” Stradner said. “The way Putin came to power was through strength. So, having said that, I do not believe that Prigozhin will survive this. Putin has to send a strong signal to anyone who wants to overthrow his regime.”

Moreover, Russian state media has reported that Russia’s prosecutor general is continuing to investigate Prigozhin despite earlier reports that he had been granted amnesty, Stradner said.

It is likely that the Wagner mercenaries who took part in the uprising will also be punished despite what the Kremlin has promised, she said.

A screen grab captured from a video shows Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin (second to the left) after Headquarters of the Southern Military District surrounded by fighters of the paramilitary Wagner group in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023. (Wagner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“That is going to be for everyone in Russia to see that Putin is a strong leader,” Stradner said. “Fifty-six percent of Russians actually believe that Stalin is a great leader. So, if more than 50% of Russians believe that, you can only imagine what kind of leader they are willing to support. They do need to see the strong Putin because Putin has not looked strong recently. He was not able to claim any victory.”

As the attempted coup unfolded over the weekend, the United States and its allies were determined to avoid giving Putin any excuse to blame the uprising on the West or NATO, President Joe Biden told reporters on Monday.

The United States made clear that it was not involved in the mutiny, which was part of a power struggle within Russia itself, Biden said at the White House.

“We’re going to keep assessing the fallout of this weekend’s events and the implications for Russia and Ukraine, but it’s still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where this is going,” Biden said.

It is unclear how the turmoil following Prizoghin’s attempted coup will affect Russia’s ongoing military campaign in Ukraine. A U.S. defense official did not answer directly when asked on Monday if Wagner had moved its fighters from Ukraine to Belarus, telling Task & Purpose, “We are monitoring the situation and gathering further details.”

A National Security Council spokesman declined to comment when asked on Monday if Prigozhin is currently in Belarus, and if he has retained command and control over his Wagner mercenaries.

If Prigozhin is in Belarus, it is possible that he can stay alive for a while, said Evelyn Farkas, executive director of the McCain Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Lukashenko could benefit from having Prigozhin alive and in his custody if you will,”  said Farkas,who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia from 2012 to 2015. “Lukashenko would love to also get a piece of the action from the Wagner enterprise, and Lukashenko could use Prigozhin and everything he knows and the fact that he’s in Belarus as leverage against Vladimir Putin, who of course would like to take the last shred of Belarusian sovereignty if he can.” 

Members of Wagner group prepare to pull out from the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to their base in Rostov-on-Don late on June 24, 2023. . (Roman Romokhov/AFP via Getty Images)

Many of the consequences of Prigozhin’s failed uprising remain to be seen, including how the deal negotiated to end the coup will be implemented and what Russia’s defense ministry will do with Wagner fighters, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The fact that Wagner is returning to their training camps with military equipment indicates that the Kremlin intends to maintain at least certain elements of Wagner’s manpower rather than seek to immediately demobilize them, although the future of Wagner’s command and organizational structure are unclear,” ISW wrote in its June 25 assessment of the war. “The Russian leadership could redeploy Wagner to Ukraine or instead commit them to an international mission.”

While Putin will likely settle scores from the attempted coup over time, both Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries may be safe for the moment, said Douglas Klain, of the Atlantic Council think tank’s Eurasia Center.

“In the last week, he displayed some real power and sway, and if he were to be killed now, there are real risks that these tens of thousands of Wagner fighters would remain loyal, and that he would be seen as something of a martyr,” Klain told Task & Purpose on Monday.

But Putin also knows that Prigozhin represents a long-term threat to his regime, Klain said. When Wagner fighters entered Rostov on Don over the weekend, Russians came out into the streets to hail him as a hero. Kremlin officials are likely wondering how many other Russians would greet Prigozhin with the same warmth.

It’s unclear when Putin might strike Prigozhin, but the Russian president has shown that he can wait years before exacting his revenge on Litvinenko and other defectors.

“I think things really depend in Prigozhin’s case on the course and the conduct of the war [in Ukraine],” Klain said. “Russia still is not doing well, and they need these tens of thousands of Wagner fighters, who – for all of the risks that they represent – are still some of the most effective fighting forces that Russia has.”

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