Ask Me Anything

Wagner leader ‘killed’ in plane crash: Your questions answered

Journalist and documentary maker Tim White on the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin and what it could mean for Putin’s rule

Friday 25 August 2023 14:57 BST
A portrait of Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen at the makeshift memorial in front of the circus building in Rostov-on-Don, on 24 August 2023
A portrait of Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen at the makeshift memorial in front of the circus building in Rostov-on-Don, on 24 August 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

Is the Putin regime now even more secure? Will there be a further backlash from Wagner troops following Prigozhin’s presumed death? And what parts of Russia consider Wagner to be patriots as opposed to problematic?

These were just some of the far-ranging questions readers asked an expert, during The Independent’s latest ‘Ask Me Anything’ event exploring the dramatic fallout of a plane crash over Moscow thought to have killed Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Tim White, a documentary maker specialising in Ukraine and eastern Europe, shared his insight and predictions on what’s next for Wagner and the Russia-Ukraine war.

Here are five questions answered by White.

What parts of Russia consider Wagner - and Prigozhin - to be patriots?

Almost all of the country who knew, or cared, about the “special military operation” or Wagner, regarded him as a patriot until very recently. As soon as the “coup” got underway there was a real information shift with all official channels and also influential “military bloggers” basically told to undermine Wagner and Prigozhin. Putin’s speech denouncing the rebellion was carried live by all networks, even radio, so a percentage of public opinion quickly changed. But how much is almost impossible to say. I’ve seen a lot of comments online, quite openly on some Russian social media, and indeed vox pops on TV where almost everyone says “it’s not a surprise.”

But that does not indicate if they are in favour or against the assassination, as we assume it is.

I also doubt Putin himself knows. So he kept quiet for 24 hours to assess initial reaction. Now he’s ensured “an investigation” which keeps the heat off for a while longer.

But rest assured everyone connected with the Kremlin will be almost constantly watching the public reaction and especially within the armed forces.

With regard to geographic splits, I doubt there are many. Perhaps a little more sympathy in Buryatia and other eastern regions where casualties have been very high, as Wagner is seen as a well run army, and for the most part, treating its soldiers fairly.

Will Prigozhin’s death make Putin’s regime stronger?

With regard to Putin’s security, yes and no.

Ostensibly he has got rid of the main, maybe only, threat. So he should be more secure.

However many in the army will be upset, even angry at this. Many rank and file admired Prigozhin and felt he represented them even if they were not Wagner. First I want to see if any of the bloggers Putin called in to his office, have the guts to criticise him.

On a wider perspective, the oligarchs and backers will be worried. No movement on the frontline (except a little in reverse), huge problems in Crimea and supplying troops beyond there on the front line occupied areas, ever increasing body bags, an economy teetering on disaster. It’s a ‘house of cards’ and one slight move against him could bring the whole mafia house crashing down, but it won’t be without a fight.

Is there any proof Prigozhin is actually dead? Or that Putin may have done this?

Putin will have ensured he has just enough ‘plausible deniability’ while at the same time everyone who needs to know, realises any attack would have had to be sanctioned by the Russian President.

But you are correct to say there is no confirmed proof yet of his death. With so much disinformation coming from Russia we would need to see the body and very close friends/relatives confirming the news. There was a second Wagner/Prigozhin plane in the air at the same time as this one was brought down. So, conspiracy theories abound and will continue, even after the ‘official’ version comes out.

There’s been talk of another Wagner uprising to avenge Prigozhin’s death. With most of Wagner seemingly based in Belarus, would Lukashenko allow Wagner to march on Moscow from his territory?

I am not sure Lukashenko has the power to stop Wagner. He could order his army to try to stop the mercenary group, but it’s highly likely in my opinion the Belarus army would not obey and, as we saw with many Russian soldiers during the rebellion, just stand aside.

How will Putin react? I think we need to wait to see if it happens. But he has recently strengthened the Russian Guard in Moscow, which is effectively his private army/guard. If Wagner reunited all their troops and marched again on Moscow, it would be a bloodbath.

These questions and answers were part of an ‘Ask Me Anything’ hosted by Tim White at 5pm on Thursday 24 August Some of the questions and answers have been edited for this article. You can read the full discussion in the comments section of the original article.

Do you have any topics you’d like to see an expert host an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on? Let us know your suggestions in the comments below.

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