Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Russian private security company Wagner (Photo by Wagner Account/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The rise and fall of Prigozhin

How Wagner came down to earth

Artillery Row

Over the last few hours, war drummers, smoke signallers and bush telegraphists have been working overtime. So too, have online memers and office workers with time on their hands. In the joined-up interwebbed world in which we lurk, news travels faster than a speeding bullet — or an Embraer Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet. I almost look back with fondness to the era when news from Russia would take a day to reach us, and media deadlines bought us another day to make sense of it.

Richard Wagner must be turning in his grave. The recent news of Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin’s alleged Götterdämmerung and his tempestuous relationship with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has robbed the great composer of the Ring des Nibelungen of an unrivalled dramatic plot. The word “alleged” is inserted out of caution for there are many reasons why it might be convenient for the boss of the corporate (not musical) Wagner organisation to have engineered his own departure. The final operatic flourish of the 62-year-old Prigozhin is, at best, fishy.

At the time of writing, the official Kremlin response has been … silence

Eight of the Wagner Group’s key players, including its two co-founders, Prigozhin and Dimitri Utkin, its head of logistics, plus a cameraman and Prigozhin’s personal security detail were taking the same flight, which defies the basic rules of corporate security. However, it may be that, with billions of dollars already salted away, the time had come for Putin’s bald former chef, with his purring white cat and a collection of hungry sharks, to absent himself and join Ernst Stavro Blofeld in a hollowed-out volcano on a remote atoll. Whether Putin or the Wagner boss is to blame, “foul play is certainly suspected”, as Scotland Yard used to warn us. An observer noted of the military chief, known for his meticulous attention to detail, “One thing we’re certain of is that it did not go down because he forgot to change the oil.”

The last the world saw of the warlord was a video of him “somewhere in Africa” where, clutching an assault rifle, he intoned that his mutinous mercenaries were working hard to make “Russia even greater on every continent and Africa even more free”. The footage was curious, not least because the background more resembled the new video footage just arrived from Mars than Mali. Prigozhin seemed to be wearing Arctic combat gear in subtropical Africa, which also prompted many to question the clip’s authenticity.

All we have at present, from a range of unofficial Russian sources, is a passenger list, a shaky video of a falling aircraft, a burning crash site and a report of human remains recovered. The Sherlockian Case of the Flying (or non-flying) Russians seems as mysterious as the story of another Wagnerian epic, Der Flieger Hollander. Either way, nothing yet amounts to confirmation of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s personal entry into Valhalla, where tens of thousands of his warriors await him. Crash sites of alien spacecraft have yielded more clues than the exploded Embraer has done so far.

The Russian Telegram channel is having great fun speculating on the identity of the executioner, ranging from President Zelensky to President Biden. It has to be said that this personal spat between Russia’s leaders will have no effect on the course of the war in Ukraine — not one iota. Wagner troops are no longer at the front, but in Belarus. Russia, as I highlighted last week, is on the offensive, with no use for Prigozhin’s mercenaries. This is a separate drama, which underlines how corrupt the Russian state has become. At the time of writing, the official Kremlin response has been … silence.

Maybe polonium tea or 9mm lead poisoning await them

If their ground-to-air missile flew far and true, many of Putin’s siloviki (his inner circle of corrupt strongmen) will have accosted a bunch of passing Valkyrie Rhinemaidens and be dancing in celebration round a flaming effigy of the Kremlin’s equivalent of Guy Fawkes. Forces Chief Valery Gerasimov and Defence Minister Shoigu in particular had a very public dislike of all things Wagnerian (presumably including the Ring cycle with its 15 hours of endless singing). After the “mutiny”, the FSB apparently raided Prigozhin’s St Petersburg palace and amused themselves by announcing they had impounded “guns, ammunition, gold bars, a cupboard full of wigs, and a stuffed alligator”.

Many rivals were angered that the Wagner Group consistently outshone Russia’s regular army forces, that Prigozhin had recruited the best veterans and paid them more Rheingold. They were even more angered that the Wagnerites shot down a Russian military aircraft during their march on Moscow. If not initiated by Putin, this may have been a very specific form of Gerasimovian–Shoiguesque retribution.

Perhaps it is also no coincidence that yesterday morning, before the Mystery of the Flaming Embraer, news broke of the sacking of General Sergei Surovikin, head of Russian Air and Space Forces. This could have been a reward for the crash landing of his lunar module on the moon’s surface, a misfortune spectacularly upstaged by the successful arrival of India’s moonshot rocket on the lunar south pole. It might instead be connected with Surovikin’s well-known support for Wagner, with the ripples this caused in the Russian Defence Ministry.

The high-profile general had a reputation for speaking his mind after four decades of army service, with many supporters at every level. Various reports have him demoted, interrogated or imprisoned, but he has not been seen in public since the day of the so-called “mutiny”, led by his Wagnerian friend Prigozhin. Perhaps there is a broader Stalinist purge under way of Russia’s military ranks, as the winners of this game of Russian Roulette shuffle their chairs closer to their leader. Several others, including Surovikin’s able deputy, Andrey Yudin, and a vice-chief of military intelligence, Vladimir Alexeyev, seem also to have vanished from the public eye. This is a time when loyalty triumphs over competence.

Maybe empty tenth-floor windows, polonium tea or 9mm lead poisoning await them, for whatever the cause and outcome, whether they are dead or alive, the Führer-like diktat from the Kremlin is loud and clear. “Never, ever disagree with me.” We have witnessed over two decades of mysterious poisonings, stabbings, hospital deaths, heart attacks, road crashes and accidents, involving windows, stairs and a wide range of domestic appliances, afflicting those even remotely connected with Vladimir Putin. The office for the promotion of military staff amounts to a revolving door. The accompanying theatricals are far beyond any Hollywood scriptwriter’s wettest of dreams.

As of today, the gloves are off. Mr Putin no longer cares who he kills, or that the world knows he is a killer. The Prigozhin drama resembles that major internal security milestone of the last century, known as the “Night of the Long Knives”. On 30 June 1934, Hitler purged the leadership of his own faithful Sturmabteilung (SA) stormtroopers. Executed by Himmler’s Schutzstaffel (SS), the brown-shirts were eliminated in response to fears that they were about to become the new power-brokers of Nazi Germany. The SS did the dirty work on behalf of the Reichswehr, the armed forces. Here, in their fears of Wagner’s dominance, we appear to have a similar score-settling by factions loyal to Putin and his secret police, the FSB.

We may never know the true facts, but 23 August 2023 may have seen the zenith of overt Russian knifework — or it may be just the beginning.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover