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Russians mourning the alleged death of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin have erected makeshift memorials in nearly two dozen cities across Russia and occupied Ukraine in recent days, a sign of the commander’s continued popularity and potential challenge to the president Vladimir Putin faced the divisions within the elite and the elite the military over warfare.
Prigozhin and other top Wagner leaders are believed to have been killed after his Embraer business jet crashed northwest of Moscow on Wednesday night, just two months after Putin branded him a traitor for leading a short-lived uprising against the Russian military in June had led.
While the commemorations did not represent a nationwide outburst of shock and sadness, they did show Prigozhin’s support across Russia in hard-line pro-war circles and highlighted the Kremlin’s delicate task of managing potential anger among its supporters, with many members of Russia’s elite being warned by Prigozhin’s alleged Death was an assassination attempt ordered by the Kremlin.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has categorically dismissed speculation about Kremlin involvement as “all lies”.
Russia’s elite learned a lesson from the crashed plane: If you disregard Putin, you die
Russian analyst and independent journalist Dmitry Kolesev, who left Russia after invading Ukraine, said the challenge for the Kremlin is to contain the anger of Prigozhin and Wagner supporters, including junior and middle military officers .
“Although Prigozhin professed his loyalty to Putin, he endangered his regime and showed his weakness, for which he received the inevitable punishment. I think the elites got that signal very well,” he said.
“At the same time, there is a wider audience of military activists, supporters of the Wagner PMC and Wagner veterans, among whom there is a Prigozhin cult,” Kolezev said. “Putin must prevent these people from becoming his opponents and deter them from possible radical actions by paying tribute to Prigozhin and offering an alternative version of his death.”
That is why Putin praised Prigozhin on Thursday, alluding to the mutiny, as a “talented person” who “achieved the necessary results” but “made mistakes”.
The memorials glorifying the Wagner leader came about despite a concerted post-mutiny propaganda campaign by the Kremlin to vilify Prigozhin as a greedy criminal and traitor to Russia. Those efforts curbed Prigozhin’s runaway approval rating, which hit 58 percent in the week before the uprising. According to the independent pollster Levada Center.
Before the Prigozhin plane crash, Russia was preparing for life after Wagner
People laid flowers, photos with the inscription “Hero of Russia”, Wagner flags and badges, candles, religious pictures and even a violin, a symbol of the mercenary group calling itself “The Orchestra” and its members “Musicians”. . Many wore Wagner camouflage suits with obscured faces or black shirts with Wagner’s grinning skull and crossbones logo.
Prigozhin inspired loyalty among his men because they saw him as a fighter for them against intransigent military bureaucrats, despite Wagner’s brutally high casualty rates, particularly among ex-convict fighters, and widespread claims that those who fled battle were often executed .
A Wagner fighter from St. Petersburg, Pavel Shabrin, wrote a poem about Prigozhin with the words: “He was with us at the front: in the trenches, in dugouts.” He knew our problems and rejoiced with us. He slept in tents, ate porridge from knives, and placed candles in front of the icons for the dead.”
Prigozhin refused to smile and flatter the room, he wrote, and “with every word he sliced the air like a whip.”
During the war, Prigozhin boosted his popularity with salty, brutally direct videos shot near the front lines — some apparently at Bakhmut — as explosions exploded nearby and he visited his men in underground bunkers in the war zone. As Russia’s war effort faltered, he proved to many a trusted truth teller, one of the few prominent figures willing to flout Russia’s laws discrediting the military by exposing military failures and heavy casualties .
On two separate days, he displayed dozens of fresh bodies of Wagner men killed in action in Bakhmut and posted videos in which he used obscenities at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, accusing them of treason and demanding more ammunition .
The families of the Wagner soldiers have expressed their sorrow and loyalty in Telegram group chats over the past few days, and worried about whether they would receive the payments and benefits due to them. Prigozhin has long been under US sanctions, and its chief of logistics and management, Valery Chekalov, was blacklisted by the Treasury Department in July. He was on the plane too.
“To be a warrior is to live forever!” wrote the sister of a deceased Wagner fighter. “For me personally, he is a capital letter man who won the battle first against himself and who created the Wagner PMC, undoubtedly the most combat ready army in the world, which has become a real family for many men!” A true patriot Russia, who loves the fatherland and hates the countless hordes of bureaucracy, and who, unfortunately, never managed to break through them!” She wished him a “bright and everlasting memory”.
Prigozhin’s apparent death strengthens Putin and casts doubt on the Wagner group
Another woman expressed her fears about the uncertain future survival of the Wagner fighters without Prigozhin’s protection and the likelihood that they would be forced to join mercenary groups controlled by the Defense Ministry or enlist as volunteer soldiers.
“Who will protect the guys without the leadership qualities, without the connections, without the authority of Yevgeny Prigozhin from signing contracts with the Ministry of Defense?” she wrote. “And who is taking care of her return home?”
In Moscow, people left their tributes at the Church of Saint Maxim the Blessed on Varvarka Street, and in Prigozhin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, they left their tributes at his business center and a cafe connected to it.
State Duma Deputy Vasily Vlasov of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia proposed renaming Tsolnaya Street in St. Petersburg, where his office center is located, in Prigozhin’s honor.
Prigozhin, 62, met Putin, a former KGB officer who worked in the mayor’s office, in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, shortly after Prigozhin was released from prison in 1990, where he was serving nine years of a 13-year sentence was serving time for theft and fraud and robbery, according to Russian media.
Prominent Russians have intervened in public eulogies, taking inspiration from Putin’s praise. The nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin called him the “best man”. Tula Governor Alexei Dyumin, a former Putin security chief who knew Prigozhin well, called him a “true patriot, a determined and fearless man” who was not a traitor.
Sergei Mironov, leader of the Fair Russia for Truth political party, said Prigozhin had angered many people, but warned that “Russia’s enemies will pay hard for the deaths of heroes”.
According to analysts, many members of Russia’s elite are convinced that Prigozhin’s death was an assassination attempt ordered by Putin. Paris-based Russia analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said the public statements by prominent figures followed Putin’s lead – but also expressed their unease at the incident.
“It’s all very subjective, of course. But the feelings of people like Dyumin can now be understood: they believe that personalities like Prigozhin, despite their mistakes, do not deserve such a death,” she wrote on Telegram.
Kolezev, the analyst, said Dyumin’s comments hinted at splits within elites over Prigozhin’s “punishment.” He said Dyumin, who appears to be positioning himself as a future defense minister, needs to earn the loyalty of lower- and middle-level officers, “and they are likely to take a negative view of Prigozhin’s assassination.”
Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed his belief that Putin ordered the assassination of Prigozhin in a column in the Daily Mail, the most outspoken statement by a Western politician on the incident to date.
“As we watch the terrifying footage of this plane spiraling toward Earth, we witness something historic. This is the violent liquidation of his enemies by an existing head of state – on TV. “I can think of no other example of such blatant and unrestrained cruelty by a world leader – not in our lifetime,” wrote Johnson, a staunch supporter of Ukraine as prime minister. He said the world should “know” that Putin was responsible.
Western analysts believe the true cause of the crash may never be known given Russia’s politicized investigative system. Russian state and pro-Kremlin media focused on the official investigation into the accident, speculating that the plane was destroyed by Ukrainian saboteurs or foreign intelligence agents.
The pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that Prigozhin’s jet was parked outside and was being repaired shortly before the fatal flight. It was reported that two potential buyers for Prigozhin’s jet stayed on board for an hour just before departure.
Since Wagner captured Bachmut in May, Russia has had few gains in the war, and recent drone strikes on the capital Moscow have brought the war home to Muscovites. According to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Russian air defense forces shot down a drone near the capital early on Saturday. Sheremetyevo, Vnukovo and Domodyevo airports were all closed for several hours overnight.
The far-right Russian paramilitary group Rusich, also fighting in Ukraine, announced late Friday that it was withdrawing its fighters from the Ukraine war after a prominent member, Yan Petrovsky, was arrested in Finland, where he may have gone to Ukraine is extradited to court for involvement in a terrorist organization. Rusich claimed that Russian officials did little to help Petrovsky.
“If a country cannot protect its citizens, why should citizens protect the country?” The group posted on Telegram.
Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.
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