The armed uprising against Russia’s military command was called off just as quickly as it first began, but the fate of Yevgeny Prigozhin—the leader of the Wagner mercenary group who led the mutiny and incurred the enmity of Russian President Vladimir Putin—is now uncertain.
On Saturday, Prigozhin reportedly agreed to leave Russia for an “early retirement” in Belarus after withdrawing his troops from marching on Moscow in a deal mediated by the neighboring country’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin’s.
“Realizing all the responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed from one side, we will turn our convoys around and go in the opposite direction to our field camps,” Prigozhin said in an audio broadcast on Telegram.
The paramilitary leader then left the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don that evening. In video footage, Prigozhin was seen smiling and shaking hands with his supporters who flocked to his car to cheer him on.
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His current whereabouts are unknown, but on Monday, Prigozhin posted an 11-minute audio message on Telegram. Referring to previous orders from the Russian ministry of defense asking his commanders to sign government contracts, Prigozhin said the Wagner group was “categorically against the decision to close Wagner on 1 July 2023 and to incorporate it into the defense ministry.”
The sudden turn of events has raised questions over whether Prigozhin will continue to pose a threat to Russian leadership, and whether he can survive in exile in Belarus given Putin’s long history of retaliation against his critics and opponents.
One political commentator even likened Prigozhin’s fate to that of Julius Caesar’s assassins, who were initially pardoned for their crimes. “The assassins went into voluntary exile. Caesar’s supporters promptly reneged, revoked the amnesty – and hunted the assassins to death,” David Frum posted on Twitter.
The Kremlin’s unkept promise
Under the deal brokered by Lukashenko, the Kremlin agreed not to prosecute Prigozhin or other members of the Wagner group for launching an armed rebellion if Prigozhin departed to Belarus, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said Saturday.
On Monday, however, Russian media outlets reported the criminal charges against Prigozhin had not been dropped and the Russian Federal Security Service was continuing its investigation against the Wagner chief. The reports came via Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, and the country’s three main Kremlin-run news agencies—Tass, RIA, and Interfax—citing anonymous sources. Though the reports could not be independently verified, they suggest that if the proceedings do continue, Prigozhin—who has been accused of “betrayal” and “treason” by Putin and Russian officials—potentially faces up to 20 years in prison.
“Whatever agreement they made over the weekend, Putin has now dropped it,” says Martin Kragh, the deputy director of the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies. A reversal is also predictable on Putin’s part, Kragh continues, given that 15 Russian servicemen were killed during the uprising by Wagner.
“It’s one thing to allow [Prigozhin] to leave the country and never show his face; it’s another thing to say that Putin is going to forget about this,” he says.
In the “pure logic” of a KGB leader, Putin now needs to “punish his enemies and traitors” to demonstrate his strong leadership, adds Sergej Sumlenny, the founder of the European Resilience Initiative Center in Berlin. “The question is, does he have the required resources to do so?”
Putin’s long history of retaliation
Putin’s regime has long been defined by his efforts to crush dissent and political opposition. In 2003, he put Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, behind bars for a decade for criticizing state corruption before he was released and exiled to Zurich.
In January 2021, he arrested the country’s opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, sparking some of the biggest protests that the country had seen in years. The authorities met pro-Navalny protestors with violence, and since then, Putin has intensified his tactics by eliminating opposition politicians, weaponizing the justice system, and labeling critical journalists as “foreign agents.”
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“All the prominent figures who challenged Putin in the past are either in exile or have been persecuted or killed,” says Tymofiy Mylovanov, the President of the Kyiv School of Economics and an adviser to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine.
Not every Putin critic dies under mysterious or suspicious circumstances, but there is a long history of Kremlin foes who have indeed died this way. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and vocal critic of the Russian Federal Security Service, died in a London hotel after drinking a cup of tea laced with deadly polonium-210. A British inquiry found that Litvinenko was poisoned by Russian agents who were acting on orders that had “probably been approved” by Putin.
Similarly, Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition leader and Putin critic, was killed in Moscow in 2015 after he was shot four times in the back by an unknown assailant within view of the Kremlin. The attack occurred just hours after Nemtsov urged the public to join a march against Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine.
And in 2016, Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian Communist Party member who began sharply criticizing Putin after fleeing Russia, was shot in Kyiv in what former Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko called an “act of state terrorism by Russia.”
Still, the weekend’s events were “qualitatively different from anything else we have seen before,” Kragh says, because while those who previously challenged the Russian president were “primarily outside of the political system,” Prigozhin owes much of his rise in the political and military ranks to Putin.
Since forming the Wagner mercenary group in 2014, Prigozhin has been a key tool of Putin’s overseas adventurism, from propping up his ally Bashar Al-Assad in Syria to helping replace French influence in Mali. Experts have noted how the Wagner group operated at an arms-length from the Kremlin and therefore allowed Putin to deny Russian involvement, which in turn made Prigozhin popular with the Kremlin and enabled him to build up his own power base.
As a result, there are still questions about what happened over the weekend, Kragh says. “We still don’t know to what extent the Russian intelligence agencies were aware of a potential uprising, and why they failed to react,” he says.
What happens next?
For now, experts say the future of the Wagner chief remains unknown, in part because Prigozhin’s main objective was calling Putin’s attention to the imminent breakup of Prigozhin’s mercenary army. “These weren’t demands for a governmental overthrow; they were a desperate bid to save the enterprise,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, posted on Twitter.
She continued, “Now it appears that these merits helped Prigozhin to get out of this crisis alive, but without a political future in Russia (at least while Putin is in power).”
Cutting a deal with Putin may have left Prigozhin in a fraught situation with the estimated 25,000 Wagner troops who took part in the rebellion and will now have to disband. As they face the choice of either signing contracts with the defense ministry or dispersing into Russian society under the watchful eyes of the Kremlin, they are likely to resent Prigozhin for putting them in their bind.
“Prigozhin’s life is in danger from both Putin and his own guys because he set them up,” says Mylovanov.
It’s likely that Putin will react by becoming “more paranoid, and even more repressive than in the past,” Kragh guesses. Comparing the weekend’s events with the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, which resulted in the detention of more than 160,000, he says something similar could unfold in Russia with Putin targeting the opposition, civil society, and the media more aggressively.
“If that is the case, then of course, Russia will move in a direction that is even more resembling a traditional dictatorship than anything else,” says Kragh.
If Putin cracks down even further, experts say he’ll likely rethink allowing Prigozhin to live in quiet exile in Belarus—especially after he openly challenged the Russian leader in the public eye.
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