“You got him?” “Yeah.” “You sure? Because if we f— this up…” “I got him, I got him.” “And the guy with the camera? We need to make sure we get this on video becau—” “He’s there. I just talked to him.” “Ok, blow that traitorous bastard out of the sky.”
Or maybe: “Wasn’t that supposed to go off by now?” “Give it another minute.” “Ok, but if he makes it to St. Petersburg ali— Oh, there it goes.” “Yeah, he’s done.”
I don’t know if that’s the way things unfolded on the ground in the final moments before a plane carrying hot dog vendor-turned international warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed north of Moscow on Wednesday. And readers will presumably forgive the profane, macabre humor. But some version of those fictitious exchanges between a pair of Russians tasked with writing the final chapter of Prigozhin’s unlikely life story could’ve pretty easily taken place if Thursday’s reporting is anywhere close to accurate.
According to a pair of US officials who spoke to Reuters, the Biden administration initially believed Prigozhin’s plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile “originating from inside Russia.” Separately, The New York Times said Western intelligence suspects an explosion aboard the plane. The Wall Street Journal cited a bomb or sabotage and called the missile explanation unlikely, a line the Pentagon later echoed. “Nothing indicates that there was a surface-to-air missile,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters.
It’d hardly be surprising if Vladimir Putin did simply decide to shoot Prigozhin out of the sky. Or blow up his jet. Or sabotage the craft. Putin is known for guile, but not always for subtlety.
The Kremlin needed to make an example of Prigozhin lest anyone else should get “bad” ideas about the prospects for regime change in Moscow. Dictators can’t afford to look weak, particularly not at delicate junctures or during wartime. This is both in Russia: A delicate juncture and wartime.
Prigozhin always claimed he wasn’t trying to depose Putin, only the Russian military command. It never mattered. The idea that Prigozhin could escape with his life on the excuse he only wanted to kidnap Putin’s top military brass was so absurd that one had to wonder if there was more to the story. (There surely was, but it’s irrelevant now.)
Witnesses described a pair of explosions before video captured the plane falling from the sky and ultimately exploding in flames upon rendezvousing with the ground.
Plainly, Putin will never admit to assassinating Prigozhin if that’s what happened, and there won’t be any way for international audiences to definitively establish culpability. What matters for the Kremlin is that the Russian populace gets the message. That message: Challenging the regime is a death sentence, irrespective of who you are and your excuse.
Note that according to the passenger manifest, Wagner’s entire top leadership was on the plane, including Chechnya veteran and GRU member Dmitry Utkin, who named the group for his military call sign (a tribute to Richard Wagner), and Valery Chekalov, its logistics chief.
Lou Osborn, an analyst at the “All Eyes on Wagner” research group, called the decision to “put so many senior-level people on one plane” a poor one. “Prigozhin was feeling overconfident,” she said. “He might’ve genuinely been made to feel he was pardoned.”
In remarks carried by Russian television, Putin on Thursday described his erstwhile hired gun in the past tense. “This was a person with a complicated fate,” he said. “He made some serious mistakes in life, but he also achieved necessary results.”