Power Plays and Shadows: The Complex Legacy of Prigozhin’s Alleged Demise


There’s daggers in men’s smiles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has finally broken his silence on the tragic plane crash that took the life of notorious mercenary leader Evgeny Prigozhin. In a brief statement issued during a meeting with the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Putin offered his “sincerest condolences” to the families of the victims, while also managing to subtly imply that Prigozhin’s demise was perhaps more than just a tragic accident.

Evgeny Prigozhin was a man of many talents who made a “significant contribution” to the struggle against neo-Nazis in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, commenting on the plane crash that reportedly killed the Wagner Group head.

“Ah, yes, Prigozhin,” Putin mused, his voice heavy with the weight of history. “A talented man, a talented businessman. He was a man of great complexity, with a difficult fate that led him down a path of… shall we say, ‘creative entrepreneurship.’ Yes, he made mistakes, grave errors of judgment. But he also achieved great things, for himself and for our country. A true patriot, in his own way.”

There’s daggers in men’s smiles. The near in blood, The nearer bloody.

― Macbeth ―
William Shakespeare

As Putin spoke, his eyes seemed to gleam with a hint of satisfaction, as if he had finally found the perfect opportunity to settle old scores. For those who have followed the machinations of the Russian state over the years, it is well known that Putin has never taken kindly to those who dare to challenge his authority. And Prigozhin, with his brazen defiance and his rebellious action, was certainly seen as a threat to the established order.

Putin pointedly refers to Prigozhin’s “serious mistakes in life”, a euphemism for treachery against Mother Russia itself. The message is clear. Prigozhin outlived his usefulness once he challenged the established order. Like some modern-day condottiero, he overreached. Now he is gone.

Yevgeny Prigozhin

The president pledges a “thorough investigation” into the plane crash, yet his platitudes ring hollow. He speaks warmly of Prigozhin’s talents, but only in the past tense – a requiem for a discarded pawn. The Kremlin’s ruthlessness is an open secret. It has eliminated many a troublesome player before.

Prigozhin knew the perilous game he played, yet overestimated his impunity. He flew too close to the sun and was duly despatched by the icy calculation of Russian realpolitik. The plane crash removes an over-mighty rival, a warning to others who overstep the mark.

The official truth may never align with obvious reality when it comes to Putin’s Byzantine world of power politics. Like some modern Rasputin, Prigozhin had to be eliminated once he exceeded his remit. Now the grey cardinal is gone, the palace intrigue continues unabated. Few will mourn this turbulent figure’s passing. For the president, it simply restores order.

As Russia’s wars grind on, shadows loom around the Wagner Group and its murky mercenaries. With erstwhile paymaster Prigozhin gone, these guns-for-hire await new patrons to line their pockets and buy their fickle loyalty.

Who inherits these modern guns for hire now their former owner has crashed and burned? In the labyrinth of Russian power, many shadows could yet emerge to claim Prigozhin’s dangerous legacy. Money speaks loudest to the Wagnerians, their loyalties are auctioned to the highest bidder.

Perhaps a sympathetic oligarch or an intriguer from Putin’s court will move to scoop up the dead man’s thriving enterprise and point it towards old and new enemies alike. All know the Group’s bloody potential and its pliability in ruthless hands.

Or will the president himself move to tame Wagner’s mercenary zeal and absorb it into his arsenal, its firepower contained and controlled by the state? Putin permits no rivals, but while ever the dogs of war are fed these hirelings still have uses to be wrung from them.

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