Putin would be unwise to make a martyr of the Wagner chief
How do you solve a problem like Yevgeny Prigozhin? The thief-turned-hot dog seller, restauranteur, warlord and — most recently — insurrectionist looked set to end his ascent as leader of Russia at certain points during Saturday’s armed rebellion, yet now finds himself searching for a new role.
Yesterday the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, announced that Prigozhin had arrived in the country, as agreed under the terms of the deal that Lukashenko himself brokered to quell the revolt. The mercenary boss is not arriving alone. Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed on Monday that Wagner fighters could join the Ministry of Defence or another security agency, return home, or go to Belarus.
Lukashenko noted yesterday that, while his country is not building camps or recruitment centres for Wagner forces, it can provide an abandoned military base. Though it is early to speculate about numbers, independent Russian media sources have reported the construction of a camp with the capacity for 8,000 men in Belarus’s Mogilev region. Meanwhile, Lukashenko added that his Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin has proposed integrating Wagner fighters into the Belarusian Army.
Given the ruthless and violent tactics routinely employed by Wagner forces in Ukraine, including against the Russian military, the import of ex-convicts skilled in the use of weapons — not to mention feeling thwarted over how close they came to overthrowing a government — presents a clear risk to Lukashenko’s leadership. The strong anti-war feeling among the Belarusian population can only be exacerbated by this influx. For his part, Lukashenko’s statement that he will “keep a close eye” on Wagner forces does not sound wholly reassuring.
He is not the only one wondering what to do with Prigozhin. Putin suffered the greatest challenge to his rule yet on Saturday, and has a documented history of eliminating enemies who have crossed him in far less public ways. While Putin may feel that Prigozhin’s death now would serve as a warning to any others who feel like mounting a similar challenge, the eyes of the world are upon him. Kill Prigozhin now and his face will appear on T-shirts, Putin having made a martyr of a man who stills enjoys considerable popularity among his own forces and a dedicated online following.
Perhaps the closest analogy to what Putin may do now is the treatment of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Sentenced to an ever-increasing term in prison, Navalny spends his days hidden from public view as the energy gradually drains from a movement deprived of its charismatic figurehead. Though Russia’s federal security service yesterday reported closing the criminal case against the Wagner chief and his mutineers, forcing Prigozhin to maintain a quiet exile in Belarus or opening a seemingly unrelated criminal procedure later on would be a similar tactic.
While he may not seek to impose a death sentence on Prigozhin now, Putin’s wrath and sense of humiliation are unlikely to abate any time soon — he once commented that the only thing that he cannot forgive is betrayal. Both Sergei Skripal and Alexander Litvinenko discovered that Putin bears grudges against his enemies long after their original treachery.
“The compensation for a death sentence is knowledge of the exact hour when one is to die,” remarked Vladimir Nabokov in Invitation to a Beheading. It is a luxury which has not been offered to Prigozhin, who now waits to understand the full consequences of provoking Putin’s ire.