In Putin’s power hierarchy, the mercenary leader and ex-convict Yevgeny Prigozhin was absolutely unique. He didn’t come from the KGB and he was never a professional bureaucrat, but he achieved an extraordinarily high position in the Kremlin’s hierarchy. That was all thanks to one man – Putin. 

Prigozhin’s usefulness was the secret of his ascendency. Until recently, Putin saw the former robber as someone capable of fixing any crisis that a clumsy state apparatus was too slow or stupid to solve. Prigozhin became a professional proxy who was always happy to serve Putin by any means, whether it was to undermine US elections, to flood social media with lies and so swamp Russia’s enemies with untruths, or to recruit former cellmates by freeing killers and rapists to fight the regime’s war of aggression in Ukraine and to die in their thousands, while a war-weary Russian army tried to pull itself together after a series of defeats. 

Prigozhin also acted as a means to intimidate and unbalance Putin’s elites during the war. That, of course, included the military, first and foremost — Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov who were the primary targets of Prigozhin’s diatribes. To intimidate civilian bureaucrats and the oligarchs, Prigozhin talked tough about his urge to send spoiled, wealthy kids to the battlefield, and his sledgehammer.  

Street smart and wholly immoral, Prigozhin also proved to be very effective in spreading the Kremlin’s baleful influence on the African continent, through gems-for-gunmen deals whereby Wagner’s mercenaries provided security for regime elites in return for the right to loot the continent’s commodities, like gold and oil. 

The 62-year-old became Putin’s top deniable operator: when the boss needed something sensitive and dirty to be done, Prigozhin was always ready and willing.   

But there is always a problem with dark fixers of Prigozhin’s ilk. They operate far beyond the normal limits and possess an audacity born of experience which succeeds because such adventurism is not constrained by bureaucratic rules. This is a dilemma for a regime leader like Putin: Yes, the fixer acts when others don’t and gets results; on the other hand, the regime is based on predictability.  For a very long time, Putin found a way to juggle these competing needs. His bureaucracy has stayed loyal and obedient, and he had his fixers who operated outside it —  first Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, and then Prigozhin. 

The crisis — and the war is the largest crisis Putin ever has had — made it clear that this balancing act could not continue. Prigozhin, whose ruthless fighters were seen as the most effective force on the Russian side, began to get above himself. Predictably, he began to take chances once he found himself on the wrong side of his deal with the army. His public complaints (once filmed against a background of Wagner corpses) became a distraction and subsequently a challenge in the form of June’s mutiny.  

Putin raced to defuse the crisis and succeeded, but it left him with a challenge. What is more important – capable and ambitious adventurers, or docile but not very competent bureaucrats?   

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Putin chose predictability. A cold-blooded and calculating dictator, he took his time to assess Prigozhin’s assets and resources. Ever the good tactician, he tried to turn the humiliation of the mutiny to his advantage, by removing hardliners within the army and suppressing the voice of dissent in the military circles.  

And then, on August 23, he made his move. Prigozhin’s jet was downed soon after news broke that the long-disappeared General of the Army Sergei Surovikin, one of the most capable of Putin’s officers, had been removed as head of the air force. Surovikin, known as General Armageddon, was credited with saving a 30,000-man force withdrawing from Kherson last fall but was also said to have intimate ties to Wagner. 

It was quite remarkable that all our sources in Russia, including many in the security establishment, immediately assumed that Prigozhin was killed on Putin’s orders, and not by some rogue elements in the army or secret services, for example to avenge the 20-plus pilots shot down and killed by Wagner during their march on Moscow. 

These mysterious “rogue elements” are a regular feature of Russian political killings. They were the prime suspects in all previous assassinations – from Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning in London and the gunning down of Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow in 2006 to a cold-blooded killing of Boris Nemtsov just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin in 2015, as well as the poisonings of Alexei Navalny in 2020.  

This is clearly not the case this time. Almost everybody with any knowledge of the issue, Western and Russian alike, believes that Putin hadn’t wasted the two months since the humiliating mutiny. And that Prigozhin’s killing, along with much of the Wagner Group hierarchy, shifted his image from weak and indecisive to back in control. 

Problems persist, nonetheless. The reasons Putin needed Prigozhin in the first place are still there. There are tactical problems — how to ensure a smooth transition of the lucrative African contracts from Wagner to military intelligence-controlled groups like the GRU; and what to do with Wagner in Belarus, to just name a few.  

Putin faces other strategic challenges: he needs to keep his generals on the leash, and off balance. He needs to invent more ways to intimidate his elites, and he is in need of operators ready to rush to him with unorthodox solutions when things go wrong on the battlefield.  

Because a desperate and bloody war is still being fought, and Putin is not winning. Predictable, obedient, and intimidated bureaucrats are fine in peacetime, but in wartime, something different is required. As Prigozhin showed, this means a reliance on a more volatile type of person, someone who can become extremely dangerous. Whether Putin wants it or not.  

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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