Geopolitical Insights

ACADEMY SITREP – Wagner Owner Prigozhin Killed in Plane Crash in Russia

August 23, 2023
What has Happened:
  • Earlier today, Tass (the Russian state news agency) reported that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was listed as a passenger on a plane that crashed northwest of Moscow, killing all 10 people on board.
  • While unconfirmed, social media channels associated with the Wagner Group said that Russian air defenses had shot down the plane (one of several owned by Prigozhin).
  • As we reported in our SITREPs at the time, Prigozhin launched a mutiny on June 23 after taking control of the city of Rostov and then began a march on Moscow while demanding that Russia’s Defense Minister (Sergei Shoigu) and the Chief of the General Staff (Valery Gerasimov) be relieved of duty.
  • However, he later reversed course and decided not to continue to Moscow after President Lukashenko of Belarus mediated a deal between President Putin and Prigozhin.
  • CIA Director William Burns recently predicted that Russian President Putin (whose strength was challenged during the short-lived mutiny) would sooner or later get his revenge.
Why it Matters:

“If true (and if Prigozhin was on board), the dramatic effect of the shoot down was not just a surprise but was also expected. Why it took so long is remarkable to anyone in national security spheres of influence. The way it was done demonstrates Putin’s ruthless control of Russia. The key now is how the Russian military folds the Wagner Group into its global operations. Putin is not about to just send them home. He needs their experience and capabilities to win in Ukraine and extend his global influence and operations. He knows who the Wagner leaders are that did not support the coup and he will leverage their leadership and experience along with Wagner's battle-hardened soldiers.” General Robert Walsh

“This is not surprising if it is a killing (and I believe that it is). I believe that the plane’s manifest carried other Wagner senior leadership. This returns full control of the Ukraine war to the Russian Federation Armed Forces. I don’t believe that it affects the military operations in a meaningful way. Wagner will likely become more aligned with the Russian Army in their efforts globally (and if they are re-deployed to the “Special Operation” in Ukraine). The leadership for Wagner will be carefully selected based on loyalty.” General Frank Kearney

“The only surprise is that Prigozhin lasted this long after his failed coup. The experience of the Wagner Group will be exploited immediately by the Russian Federation forces. The celebrity of Prigozhin was a distraction. Look for his former subordinate leadership to be less visible and subsequently, more difficult to read in terms of next steps. More significantly, Putin just made his next strategic move in solidifying his hold on power. A month ago, the Russian military was stalled in Ukraine, Putin tolerated a direct threat to his control, and the world was poised to watch the Ukrainian military crush Russian forces in their much-anticipated counteroffensive. Today, the counteroffensive appears stuck, Russia's military is not being forced out of its defensive positions, and Putin retains a firm grip on power. It's not all quiet on the eastern front.” General Spider Marks

“This looks like a “higher” altitude version of the “epidemic of Russian oligarchs falling out of windows”. This brings the recent count to eight. In 2017, USA Today published a list of 38 Russian officials and figures who died under suspicious circumstances. Clearly, this is a highly visible message to the rest of the oligarchs that Putin is still in charge, and those who challenge him will pay the price. Through that lens, I would expect that Generals Popov and Surovikin are packing a “go bag” just in case. This presents a great opportunity for the U.S. and other nations to start new efforts regarding relationship building in Africa. This incident also presents a very clear characterization of Russian leadership and “syndicate” rule. The incentive for senior military officers to do anything but push the gas pedal down on a failing strategy has evaporated. The risk of escalation (a desperate Putin, egged on by Medvedev) may bring the tactical use of nuclear weapons closer. It remains to be seen if the American and European foreign policy arms can use these examples as “character witnesses” for current Russian governance and what an Africa controlled by Putin would look like.” General Michael Groen

“While we all wondered why Putin hadn't eliminate Prigozhin sooner, it goes to the adage that “he who controls the OPTEMPO gets to strike at a time and place of his choosing”. Perhaps a happy Gerasimov and Shoigu may have been given “weapons free” to eliminate their rival. This eliminates any future challenges and brings Wagner under the complete control of Putin and his designated successor. I don’t see an impact on their operations in Africa unless the U.S. acts to message the risks of dealing with the likes of Putin (and that often falls on deaf ears). Wagner can be rebranded as desired without any dissenting voices, whether that be in Belarus, Africa, Ukraine, or any other theater. This is Russian housekeeping, and I would not see any changes to Putin’s overall strategy. He’s still watching the U.S. elections. This is just part of doing business in Russia. Prigozhin overplayed his hand, and it just took some time for Putin to rectify the situation. I’d be watching open-source reporting and for the IC to monitor SIGINT closely for reflections and attribution (don’t count out the Ukrainians). However, I am also hearing that there may have been two planes and they missed their target, so we will have to look for official confirmation.”

General Robert Ashley