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Putin's willingness to publicly assassinate Prigozhin and Utkin prompts Wagner's command to refrain from appointing successors – ISW

25 August, 2023 Friday
11:10

American analysts believe that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin's willingness to publicly kill Wagner's leadership is likely to prompt the PMC's Council of Commanders to refrain from publicly appointing successors to Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin

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This is stated in a new report of the Institute for the Study of War.

So far, Wagner's Council of Commanders has not issued a public statement following the downing of Prigozhin's plane, despite Russian sources claiming a commanders' meeting as early as August 23. They have not released any statement, and several sources connected to Wagner stressed that reports of the content of the expected statement "are false."

ISW believes that the silence of Wagner's Council of Commanders may be due to the chaos and confusion within their ranks after the deaths of Prigozhin and Utkin, or because of clear instructions from the Russian authorities to remain silent. The Kremlin may consider the commanders' public statement as an attempt to organize and restore the independence of the Wagner Group that may continue to threaten the Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry, experts say.

"Putin’s willingness to publicly assassinate the Wagner leadership is likely prompting the Wagner Council of Commanders to refrain from publicly appointing successors to Prigozhin and Utkin at this time. A member of the Wagner Council of Commanders personally selected by Putin to replace Prigozhin now would risk becoming the focus of the ire of Wagner rank and file upset about the assassination of Wagner’s leadership," the message reads.

According to the Institute, Putin's alleged assassination of the Wagner leadership made it clear that the Kremlin would be outwardly hostile to those who sought to secure independence for its parallel military structures.

"ISW previously assessed that Putin’s demonstrative assassination of Wagner’s leadership was meant to reassert his dominance and exact vengeance for the humiliation of Wagner’s rebellion, and specific individuals who may have planned to oppose Putin, the Kremlin, or the MoD likely took note," the report says.

The Kremlin is likely to view any future efforts to create independent parallel military structures through the lens of its experiences with Wagner and Prigozhin. A similar story with the leadership of the Wagner Group will probably become a constant threat to those who plan to create parallel military structures reminiscent of Wagner PMC.

It is also possible that the Wagner Group will no longer exist as a quasi-independent parallel military structure. And the death of Utkin, perhaps, will be a long-term grievance for the mercenaries.

"ISW had long assessed that Putin refrained from eliminating Prigozhin out of fears of angering Wagner personnel, and he may have determined that he had sufficiently separated Wagner from Prigozhin in the months since the rebellion and could assassinate Prigozhin without prompting a serious backlash. Putin’s likely calculus for killing Utkin probably focused more on the immediate opportunity to destroy Wagner’s leadership completely and less on the ramifications of Utkin’s death," analysts say.

They note that resentment over Utkin's death could become the focus of future conflicts between the Russian military establishment and Wagner's current and former employees. However, it is unlikely that the Wagner fighters will resort to immediate reprisals against those they consider responsible for Utkin's death.

Details regarding Prigozhin’s plane crash

On August 23, a business jet belonging to Yevgeny Prigozhin, an Embraer aircraft, crashed in Russia's Tver region, resulting in the confirmed deaths of 10 individuals. Among the passengers was Dmitry Utkin, a key figure in Wagner PMC. Multiple theories have emerged about the crash: 1) the plane might have been downed by an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system; 2) it could have been hit by air defense systems; 3) an explosion might have occurred onboard.

Subsequently, the Institute for the Study of War suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin might have ordered the assassination of Wagner PMC leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to reassert dominance and seek revenge.

One version from Russian media indicated that an explosive device was planted in the landing gear of the plane carrying Wagner PMC leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. This device would have detonated at a specific moment, leading to wing and stabilizer detachment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy emphasized that Ukraine was not involved in the plane's downing and made light of the situation by joking that such "aircraft assistance" wasn't what Ukraine had asked for.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speculated that after Prigozhin's probable death, Wagner operatives might continue to destabilize Belarus' neighboring countries.

In contrast, the United States believes that the aircraft, carrying passengers linked to Wagner PMC leadership, was likely shot down by a missile from within Russian territory.

The Russian leader also responded to Prigozhin's demise, referring to the Wagner leader as a figure with a complicated fate who achieved necessary results but also made significant mistakes.

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