With Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Death, Putin Projects a Message of Power

Just as the news broke on Wednesday of the presumed death of the mercenary chief Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was presiding over a televised World War II anniversary ceremony on a dark stage lit dramatically in red.

He held a moment of silence, flanked by service members in dress uniforms, while a metronome’s beats sounded, like the slow ticking of a clock: Tock. Tock. Tock.

The eerie split screen — the reported fiery demise of the man who launched an armed rebellion in June and the Russian president telegraphing the state’s military might — may have been coincidental. But it underscored the imagery of dominance and power that Mr. Putin, 18 months into his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, appears more determined than ever to project.

Mr. Prigozhin may have been brutally effective, throwing tens of thousands of his fighters into the maw of the battle for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, tying up Ukrainian forces in the process and hobbling Kyiv’s ability to stage a counteroffensive. His internet “troll farm” helped the Kremlin interfere in the 2016 American presidential election, while his mercenary empire helped Russia exert influence across Africa and the Middle East.

But with his June rebellion, Mr. Prigozhin threatened something even more sensitive: Mr. Putin’s own hold on power. After the crash of Mr. Prigozhin’s plane on Wednesday, the Kremlin appears to be sending the message that no degree of effectiveness and achievement can protect someone from punishment for violating Mr. Putin’s loyalty.

“Everyone’s afraid,” Konstantin Remchukov, a Moscow newspaper editor with ties to the Kremlin, said of the reaction among the Russian elite to the plane crash Wednesday that Western officials theorize was caused by an explosion on board. “It’s just that everyone sees that anything is possible.”

Never before has someone so central to Russia’s ruling establishment been killed in a suspected state-sponsored assassination, said Mikhail Vinogradov, a Moscow political analyst.

“This is a rather harsh precedent,” Mr. Vinogradov said, adding that the Kremlin appeared to be doing little to dissuade Russians of the view that it had sanctioned Mr. Prigozhin’s killing. After all, if members of the ruling elite concluded that one of the Putin system’s most powerful players had been killed against the Kremlin’s wishes, it would send a devastating signal of Mr. Putin’s loss of control.

Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said on Friday that the suggestion by foreign officials that the Kremlin was behind Mr. Prigozhin’s death was an “absolute lie.”

To some, the fact that Mr. Prigozhin was able to survive for two months after staging his rebellion was more surprising than the crash of his private jet. In an address to the nation on June 24, as Mr. Prigozhin’s forces were marching on Moscow and already in control of a city of a million people in Russia’s southwest, Mr. Putin accused the warlord of “betrayal.”

And betrayal, Mr. Putin has said previously, is the one act that cannot be forgiven. So when Mr. Putin appeared to strike a deal with Mr. Prigozhin allowing him to retreat safely to neighboring Belarus, the act struck some Russians as a sign of the president losing control. The view was magnified when photographs surfaced of Mr. Prigozhin meeting with African officials on the sidelines of Mr. Putin’s marquee summit with African leaders in St. Petersburg in July.

“After he ‘forgave’ Prigozhin, it was understood by those around him as weakness,” said Aleksei A. Venediktov, who headed the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station before the Kremlin shut it down last year.

Mr. Venediktov, in an interview in Moscow on Thursday, argued that Mr. Prigozhin’s apparent death had strengthened Mr. Putin’s dominance in the Russian political system after the chaos of the rebellion. Now, “Putin has shown his elite,” Mr. Venediktov went on, that “any betrayal will be found out.”

U.S. officials are increasingly certain that Mr. Prigozhin was killed in Wednesday’s crash, and that Mr. Putin ordered the assassination. But when it comes to the power dynamics inside Russia’s ruling elite, whether Mr. Putin personally ordered the attack may be beside the point: What matters is that Mr. Prigozhin suffered a violent death after Mr. Putin publicly condemned him.

“He called him a traitor,” Mr. Remchukov said. “And that was enough for everyone to see that this person is no longer invulnerable.”

When Mr. Putin broke his silence about the plane crash on Thursday, some 24 hours after it happened, he described Mr. Prigozhin as a “talented man” with a “complicated fate.” Mr. Putin revealed that his personal ties with Mr. Prigozhin dated back to the early 1990s, and he acknowledged for the first time that he had personally asked Mr. Prigozhin to carry out tasks on his behalf.

“He made some serious mistakes in life, but he also achieved necessary results, for himself and, when I asked him about it, for our common cause,” Mr. Putin said.

Mr. Prigozhin had long been suspected of acting in the shadows in Mr. Putin’s interest while giving the Kremlin plausible deniability. His forces deployed to eastern Ukraine in 2014, back when Mr. Putin was stoking a separatist war there while insisting he had nothing to do with it. In 2016, Mr. Prigozhin’s internet “troll farm” intervened in American politics as part of the Kremlin’s attempt to swing the presidential election to President Donald J. Trump.

But what Mr. Putin left unsaid in his brief eulogy of Mr. Prigozhin was that by turning against the Russian president after decades of devoted service, Mr. Prigozhin may have signed his own death sentence.

On Friday, another longtime confidant of Mr. Putin, Aleksei Dyumin, issued a statement that made the message a little clearer. Mr. Dyumin, a former bodyguard of Mr. Putin who is now the governor of a region south of Moscow, said he had known Mr. Prigozhin “as a true patriot, a decisive and fearless man.” He said he mourned all Wagner fighters who had died in Ukraine, and added: “You can forgive mistakes and even cowardice, but never betrayal. They were not traitors.”

The apparent subtext was that Mr. Prigozhin’s soldiers and commanders were loyal men worthy of respect. But it also hinted at the notion that if Mr. Prigozhin himself was a traitor — as Mr. Putin had said — then he may have deserved his death.

But Mr. Prigozhin’s death also carries risks for the Kremlin. In Ukraine, Wagner was seen as one of Russia’s most effective and brutal fighting forces, exacting and taking enormous casualties in the monthslong battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

In Africa, where Mr. Prigozhin built a mercenary empire propping up autocrats loyal to Moscow in countries like Mali and the Central African Republic, it is far from clear whether Wagner will be able to retain its footprint. Wagner’s top military commander, Dmitri V. Utkin, was listed as a passenger alongside Mr. Prigozhin on the plane that crashed, according to the Russian authorities.

Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Mr. Putin who is now a political consultant based in Israel, said the Kremlin was most likely behind the plane crash, and he argued that the risky decision to kill Mr. Prigozhin in order to send a signal of deterrence revealed the president’s fears of losing power.

“To send this signal, Putin decided to risk a bunch of projects,” Mr. Gallyamov wrote on social media. “This is important for understanding what his priorities are right now: maintaining power, not external expansion.”

Mr. Putin has also long made it clear that he sees his personal interests as inextricable from those of the Russian state. “He believes that if something is important for keeping him in power, then all other concerns are secondary,” said Grigorii Golosov, a professor of political science at the European University at St. Petersburg.

It’s a philosophy that Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of Russia’s lower house of Parliament, summed up simply earlier this year: “As long as there is Putin, there is Russia.”

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