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Prigozhin’s Jet Crash and the Collapse of Russia’s Mafia State

The reported death of ‘Putin’s chef’ following his attempted mutiny against the Kremlin shows how fragile the Russian President’s grip on power now is

Yevgeny Prigozhin. Photo: Planetpix / Alamy

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A Russian business jet registered in the name of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch known as ‘Putin’s chef’ and the owner of the private military company (PMC) Wagner crashed on Wednesday, killing ten.

Some bodies were identified, including Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin (code name Wagner), and Prigozhin’s telephone was also found on the scene.

At present, Prigozhin’s death has not been officially confirmed. Numerous theories circulate regarding the incident’s cause, including a potential Russian air defence missile or a bomb discreetly planted during maintenance.

While some wonder if the FSB staged the crash, most experts believe this is the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculated response to Prigozhin’s recent rebellion. It was exactly two months since Prigozhin’s alleged “mutiny” against the Kremlin.

Mutiny and Putin’s Revenge

On 23 June 2023, Prigozhin, the owner of  PMC Wagner, consisting of 25,000 ex-convicts turned soldiers known as ‘the Musicians,’ proclaimed a “march of justice” on Moscow after an alleged missile assault on the Wagner rear camp. Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, the founder of Wagner and a confirmed neo-Nazi with affiliations to the GRU, spearheaded the rebellion, demanding the expulsion of the corrupt officials within the Russian defense hierarchy.

A confrontation unfolded as the Russian air force attacked the Wagner group, and Wagner’s air defense system intercepted aircraft, killing 13 pilots. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) increased security measures over multiple cities. 200 kilometers from Moscow, Prigozhin ordered his troops to retreat. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko offered sanctuary for Wagner personnel in Belarus, and Prigozhin was allowed to move there, as charges against him were dropped in Russia. The crash occurred two days after a video circulated on pro-Russia military platforms: Prigozhin in military gear declared his intentions to magnify Russia’s presence in Africa and elsewhere.

Prigozhin’s alleged death hardly astonished anyone. Putin’s reign is characterised by the violent deaths of critics, dissidents, journalists, opposition leaders, rebellious oligarchs, and organised crime group members. In the aftermath of his mutiny, CIA Director William Burns said, “Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold… He is going to try to separate Prigozhin and undercut him, but preserve what’s of value to him.” US President Joe Biden noted, “If I were he, I’d be careful what I ate… I would keep an eye on my menu”.

On the eve of Ukraine’s Independence Day, hours after the crash, the advisor to the head of the President’s Office of Ukraine, Mykhailo Podolyak, commenting on the plane crash, said that Putin orchestrated Prigozhin’s demise, an act strategically timed to send a message to the Russian elite in anticipation of the forthcoming 2024 elections. Former US defense secretary and ex-CIA director Leon Panetta said Russia would likely take control of the Wagner mercenary group operations in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere following the plane crash.

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Prigozhin’s Path

Artem Kruglov, a popular Russian political analyst and blogger, in an interview after the June mutiny, drew a parallel to Frankenstein, likening Wagner to a creature that evolved into a potential threat to its creator. 

Prigozhin’s career, from a criminal to a prominent figure within the Kremlin, is a narrative steeped in irony that reflects the essence – and fate – of the Russian mafia state. After serving a ten-year sentence for petty crimes, Prigozhin transitioned to organised crime in his native St. Petersburg, eventually managing a gambling business overseen by Putin. In the early 2000s, he amassed substantial wealth by securing exclusive state contracts for catering, maintenance, and construction via connections within the Kremlin and Ministry of Defense. 

Yet, no Russian oligarch has control over their fortunes. Everyone pays tribute to the Kremlin for operational privileges and profit accrual. Putin and the FSB function as krysha, the protective shield for all Russian oligarchs. Oligarchs provide monetary compensation or services propping up the regime. Prigozhin’s tribute was “troll factories,” Internet companies disseminating pro-Kremlin propaganda both domestically and abroad, culminating in interference during the 2016 US elections. Later, Prigozhin served Kremlin interests by sponsoring mercenary units in Ukraine and Syria.

Notably, Russia’s law explicitly prohibits private military companies from participating in armed conflicts on foreign soil, a transgression punishable by imprisonment of up to seven years under Article 359 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. The legislature notwithstanding, Putin confirmed state funding for the Wagner group, a staggering sum amounting to $1 billion a few days after the mutiny. Byline Times covered the erroneous description of the status of Wagner group: Wagner, despite the common belief, is not ‘a private military company’ but a secret sub-division of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, the GRU (formerly the Main Intelligence Directorate), completely dependent on the Ministry of Defence.” It is hardly surprising that the Ministry of Defence and the Kremlin eliminated the mutinous subdivision.

As Kruglov noted, Prigozhin’s fate mirrored the fate of Roman Tsepov, another St. Petersburg mafia figure, once close to Putin. Tsepov transitioned from a Ministry of Internal Affairs officer to the owner of casinos and private security operator, guarding Putin in the 90s. His path from ally to alleged interference in the YUKOS affair ended in his 2004 death, reportedly due to polonium-210 poisoning, symbolic of St. Petersburg’s turbulent ’90s reputation as the “bandit capital.”

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Neo-Nazis: Wagner-Utkin

The Wagner PMC is named after Dmitry Utkin’s code name, inspired by German composer Richard Wagner, associated with the Third Reich. Utkin and several of his mercenaries practice “rodnovery,” a neo-pagan ideology with unsettling parallels to Nazism and Bolshevism, cultivated by the KGB in the 1990s. Born and raised in Ukraine, Utkin fought in the Chechen war and worked for the GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) until 2013. He transitioned to a private security company with ties to Senator Alexander Torshin, a Vice-Speaker of The Federation Council, the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, and one of the alleged leaders of the Tambov organized crime group in St. Petersburg. Torshin is under investigation in the US and is connected to Maria Butina, charged with espionage by the US Department. By 2014, Utkin founded the Wagner group. 

Putin’s Russia of 2023 is the 1990s symbiosis of organised crime, military, and security services—with metastases. Even though Prigozhin’s life and death are yet another illustration of an old joke, “All countries have mafia — but Russia’s mafia has a country,” the collapse of the mafia empire is near. The inglorious plane crash on the eve of Ukraine’s Independence Day is rich in symbolism and, many believe, is only the beginning of an epic collapse.

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