More than two months have passed since Yevgeny Prigozhin’s ill-fated rebellion against Moscow.
However, it now appears that Yevgeny Prigozhin was living on borrowed time.
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Has Prigozhin’s demise strengthened Putin’s grip on power or has the beast that Putin created left a legacy that could yet prove a mortal blow to his former patron?
President Putin has relied heavily on mercenaries, both in the war in Ukraine but also for exerting influence – and generating revenues – in Africa and beyond.
When Putin’s war in Ukraine was faltering, he turned to his former chef to leverage the Wagner mercenaries to deliver a rare battlefield success for Russian forces in Bakhmut.
Putin knew that the urban battle for Bakhmut would be highly attritional, but bolstered by thousands of convict recruits, under Prigozhin’s brutal leadership, the mercenaries delivered.
Putin was able to channel significant government resources into Wagner contracts – to mutual benefit – knowing that the Russian population would be grateful that it was mercenary convicts (not conscripts) on the brutal frontline.
At its zenith, Wagner had over 50,000 fighters under contract.
Although Prigozhin was a wealthy oligarch, he was an “outsider” to the Moscow elite, but the Wagner group provided him a unique platform for influence.
When he voiced criticism of the poor battlefield performance of the Russian military, his narrative struck a chord with many Russian conscripts, emboldening Prigozhin. But, he was not indispensable.
Russian mercenaries had delivered success on the Ukrainian battlefields, but their lack of professionalism and their complete disregard for the Law of Armed Conflict directly led to Putin being indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Then, when the monster that Putin had created turned upon him in a failed rebellion, Putin recognised it was time to act.
But first, Putin had to be careful not to make Prigozhin a martyr.
He was still a powerful and influential figure, and Putin could not afford to take chances. Instead – despite running the risk of appearing weak – Putin set about eroding the two pillars of Prigozhin’s power: his business interests and his mercenary group.
Prigozhin’s business success was inextricably linked to Putin – without the president’s patronage the oligarch’s empire was vulnerable, and was swiftly dismantled.
The existential threat of Wagner proved a more difficult challenge, however some of the mercenaries were assimilated into the Russian Ministry of Defence, some returned to their families, some were sent off to Africa under new MoD contracts, and some were sent to Belarus.
With no contracts to pay salaries, Prigozhin’s power base gradually evaporated.
On Tuesday, Prigozhin was seen in a promotional video – alone – apparently touting for mercenary contracts in Africa.
However, the Russian MoD was doing the same, but offering their own, government backed, security solutions.
Prigozhin had run out of options. He was no longer a threat.
His power had been drained, and it was time for Putin to re-assert his authority.
Days later, Yevgeny Prigozhin was pronounced dead, along with many of his former Wagner colleagues. Putin must have been relieved to see the end of that dangerous chapter of his presidency.
But, does this brazen and decisive move strengthen Putin’s hold on power?
This past week has been illuminating.
At the high-profile BRICS summit, Putin was unable to join other global leaders in person due to his ICC criminal indictment.
Russia’s attempt to re-assert its global status as a space power ended abruptly when a few days later India showed how it could be done.
Despite Putin’s ambition to reassert Russia’s greatness Russia continues to lose gravitas on the world stage.
At home, Moscow is under nightly drone attack and without the brutal but effective Wagner mercenary forces Russia’s military is on the back foot in Ukraine.
And, a Ukrainian flag was seen flying over Crimea again – albeit briefly.
Although Prigozhin’s apparent demise solves a short-term problem, this has not been a good week for the Russian president.
Prigozhin might have been vanquished, but his legacy lives on.