With Prigozhin dead, Putin has traded low-budget global reach for safety at home

On Friday, the Kremlin's spokesperson said the idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the Wednesday plane crash that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin was "a complete lie."

But a former senior official who served at the highest levels of the Russian government told Insider a different story.

"The rebellion was an anomaly," they wrote. "But the consequences were indeed inevitable."

In other words: The crash was no accident. It was unavoidable payback for Prigozhin's insubordination, which culminated in a march towards Moscow with a column of his Wagner Group mercenaries. The march was a stunningly open challenge to the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man who had found Prigozhin when he was running a string of Saint Petersburg restaurants and made him into one of Russia's most feared power brokers, trafficking in weaponry, gold, and armed men across three continents.

As for Prigozhin himself, the former Kremlin official scoffed at the idea that his death was an untimely surprise.

"His death could not have been more timely," they wrote. "His life was that of Chekov's gun. When his blank was fired, there was nothing left to do but be swept behind the curtain and let the play carry on."

By invoking Chekhov's gun, the official was suggesting that any private military force that refused to submit to Putin's direct control was destined to be crushed by him.

That famous storytelling principle — a gun innocently hanging on the wall in a play's first act will be fired in its third — is one of Russian literature's great contributions to world culture. But the story of Prigozhin's rise and fall can also be told through a trove of internal files that exposed the inner workings of his corporate empire in the months before his death. Those files included dozens of detailed spreadsheets showing how Prigozhin's Wagner Group tracked and spent its money:

Wages for a Nigerian gig worker to push Kremlin memes through a troll farm — $276.

Fuel to light up a famous hillside sign in the Central African Republic — $791.

Worldwide promotion budget for "Tourist," a feature film depicting heroic Russian mercenaries who save an African government from local bandits and European elites, including ads on TikTok, YouTube, and Google — 29 million rubles, or roughly $300,000.

Those files were obtained from anonymous hackers who had pried them loose from the Wagner Group. They show why Prigozhin was so useful to Russian President Vladimir Putin, not only in the invasion of Ukraine, but in surreptitious campaigns to influence US politics and extend Russia's reach throughout the Middle East and Africa. Even before we reviewed evidence of Wagner troops engaging in rape, beheadings, and other war crimes, Prigozhin was known to be a bloodthirsty warlord, an ex-convict and Saint Petersburg restaurateur who had taken the brutal logic that he'd learned during his years in the Russian prison system to the global stage.

But the spreadsheets showed us that Prigozhin was more than that. He was a bloodthirsty warlord who knew how to stretch a buck. The tiny amounts of money that we saw meticulously accounted for in the Wagner Group's monthly budgets and expense reports were a fraction of what American or European would have spent on similar overseas operations. Of course, that money was supplemented by pillage and extortion. The files included a shakedown letter Prigozhin had sent to the Syrian government, demanding oil revenue from a tract of land that his men had taken back from ISIS.

Russia uses the Wagner Group to boost its military strength, but it is nothing like a conventional fighting force or diplomatic corps. Though often referred to as a private military company — mercenaries — Wagner's brutal methods, semi-official status, and appetite for resource extraction makes them something closer to 16th-century privateers. For so long as he remained loyal, Prigozhin was a perfect instrument for Putin to build up Russia's superpower status despite having an economy less than a tenth the size of China or the US.

During the two months between the time that Prigozhin marched on Moscow and the explosion onboard his private plane, it wasn't impossible to imagine that Prigozhin had made himself so indispensable to Putin that he might be forgiven. Putin had already shown a remarkable tolerance of Prigozhin's grandiosity and his propensity to take to social media and publicly castigate the Kremlin's favorite generals for bad strategy and supply problems in Ukraine. Prigozhin's death suggests that Putin has accepted a setback in Russia's global ambitions in favor of ensuring the stability of his own regime.

Of course, he'd prefer to have both. New reporting by the Wall Street Journal shows how vigorously Putin was attempting to supplant Prigozhin's authority during the final weeks of his life, maintaining Wagner's African shadow empire while centralizing control, and how Prigozhin continued to antagonize the Kremlin by refusing to fade into the background. After the mutiny, Russian authorities punched back, raiding Wagner's offices, blocking their social media channels, and releasing photographs of Prigozhin's lavish apartment filled with cash, gold, and guns.

What they did not do was file criminal charges against Prigozhin or his Wagner minions, despite the fact that they'd killed some 15 Russian service members during their aborted march to Moscow. This led some to believe that Putin and Prigozhin could come to terms, including Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, who fancied himself a peacemaker between the two men. But in fact, Putin appears to have busied himself with absorbing the Wagner empire into the Russian state while plotting his revenge.

Russia's Ministry of Defence reportedly sent emissaries to the foreign governments that Wagner had been propping up, informing them that they should now talk directly to the Kremlin. Other reports suggest that the job replacing Wagner in Africa will fall to the GRU, Russia's military intelligence unit. Regardless of who does it, rebuilding Prigozhin's intricate country-by-country network of bribes, propaganda, and fear will take years.

Gen. James Clapper, the former head of the US intelligence community, told Insider that the apparent decision to kill Prigozhin was unsurprising given his priorities.

"Putin — typically and consistently — has chosen his personal stature, prestige, and power over everything else," Clapper wrote in an email. "I don't think he gave overseas activities a thought." As for Russia's future, "I think we'll just have another strongman as successor to Putin. Just more of the same."

Mattathias Schwartz is Insider's chief national security correspondent. He can be reached by email at schwartz79@protonmail.com.

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