The same government that has been slaughtering Ukrainian civilians for more than a year because it claims NATO baddies are too close to its borders allowed its own rogue mercenary boss to shoot down military helicopters on Saturday and, according to state media, kill several soldiers before calmly waltzing away to a new life in Belarus.
The Kremlin even publicly guaranteed that Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin had President Vladimir Putin’s “word” he could safely leave the country—after conveniently having criminal charges against him dropped.
So why is Prigozhin so untouchable? Or is the Kremlin simply biding its time to deal with him in a less public manner?
It’s hard to imagine the former hot dog vendor will get off unscathed after humiliating the Russian leader while the whole world watched. The chaotic spectacle of Prigozhin’s armed uprising and the ease with which he and his Wagner mercenaries appeared to take control in Rostov shattered Putin’s carefully cultivated image as a strongman leader. Hours after Putin vowed to take “brutal” measures against the coup organizers, they walked away. And in another blow to Putin, crowds of supportive Rostov residents were filmed cheering on the Wagner fighters and shaking their hands.
That may have played a factor in the decision to let the whole thing slide. Prigozhin has amassed considerable support among pro-war hardliners in recent months and has appealed to ordinary Russians by positioning himself as an anti-elitist crusader (spoiler alert: he’s not). His frequent criticisms of the country’s military leadership have also won him praise for his “honesty” among some Russians who previously had no idea who he was.
An unnamed source close to the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces was quoted telling the independent Russian news outlet iStories on Saturday that Putin had ordered security services to “liquidate” Prigozhin to avoid having to engage in battles in Russian cities.
“Putin doesn’t need a big shootout, so the main task is to eliminate Prigozhin and tear off the backbone of Wagner, promising amnesty [to Wagner fighters] for this disgrace,” the source said.
It’s not clear if the security services made any attempt to take out Prigozhin during the brief takeover, but he was ultimately allowed to leave, even happily posing for photos while he departed from Rostov. It may be that Moscow recognized the potential for Prigozhin being turned into a martyr if he were to go out in a blaze of glory in the midst of his rebellion.
Several Russian officers interviewed anonymously by The Moscow Times also said most troops were simply not willing to go head to head against Wagner fighters to defend cities from a takeover. “The mood is that no one is going to die for Moscow. Everyone understands that this is not about protecting against the enemy, but about dirty internal skirmishes, it makes no sense to die for this,” one officer said.
Others said they actually supported Prigozhin: “That’s why almost all roads are open for the [Wagner] convoys, for the same reason they managed to take Rostov-on-Don without a single shot in a few hours.”
But Prigozhin also appears to have some powerful figures invested in him, including Yury Kovalchuk, a close friend of Putin and billionaire considered one of the most influential figures in Russia. The independent outlet Meduza cited a source close to the Kremlin last November who described Prigozhin as a “tool” of Yury Kovalchuk and his brother Mikhail. The Kovalchuk brothers were said to have partnered with Prigozhin on launching a “patriotic” and “anti-elitist” political movement that could eventually grow into a party.
Prigozhin was also reported to have met with Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin last March, and the Wagner boss is said to have walked away with an agreement for the Putin ally to sponsor some of his projects.
It’s not clear what exactly he will do in Belarus, or how long he will remain there (if he does in fact move there). As of Saturday night, the mercenary boss was mum on social media, and Russian prosecutors had already blocked him on the popular VK networking site.
Putin, for his part, had apparently retreated to his bunker after the whole dizzying saga, with his spokesman confirming to reporters that the Russian leader had absolutely nothing to say: “No, no. We’ve told you everything that we wanted to and could tell you.”