When President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia let the mercenary tycoon Yevgeny V. Prigozhin escape seemingly unscathed after launching a mutiny in June, critics around the world seized on the Russian leader’s apparent show of wartime weakness. Some even said the brief rebellion presaged the start of the post-Putin era.
Two months later, Mr. Prigozhin is presumed dead in the mysterious crash of a private jet in a field between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Mr. Putin is securely in the Kremlin, publicly eulogizing Mr. Prigozhin as a talented person with a “complicated fate,” who made many mistakes in life. And the remaining Wagner group leadership is either dead or silent.
U.S. and other Western officials said their leading theory is that the plane was brought down by an explosion, and several, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they believed Mr. Putin ordered it destroyed.
In Mr. Putin’s Russia, fates can quickly change in a system where existential affronts to the leader are neither forgiven nor forgotten. For more than two decades, individuals who have posed threats to the Russian leader have regularly found themselves exiled, imprisoned or dead, swiftly stripped of their power.
The pattern began in the Russian leader’s earliest days, when Boris A. Berezovsky, an oligarch influential in Mr. Putin’s rise, ran afoul of him and fled, treated for years as a public enemy before his death in Britain in 2013 under murky circumstances. Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, another oligarch who failed to fall in line, spent more than a decade in prison.
Former members of the Russian security services considered traitors have met the grimmest fates. Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former spy who publicly accused Mr. Putin of running Russia like a crime syndicate, was fatally poisoned with a rare radioactive isotope in 2006. Sergei V. Skripal, the onetime intelligence officer who had been a double agent for the British, was derided by Mr. Putin as a “scumbag” and a “traitor,” after narrowly surviving a 2018 assassination attempt with a deadly nerve agent.
Those posing political threats to Mr. Putin have also suffered. Opposition campaigner Boris Y. Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015. Pro-democracy campaigner Aleksei A. Navalny remains in prison in Russia, after surviving poisoning in 2020 with a nerve agent similar to the one used on Mr. Skripal.
Although Mr. Prigozhin’s remains have not been officially identified, Mr. Putin said he had been briefed by investigators and “initial data” indicated members of the Wagner group were on board the plane that crashed.
Whatever happened, questions about Mr. Prigozhin’s fate have stalked his every move from the moment Mr. Putin delivered an address on June 24 accusing him of “betrayal.”
The word choice was unmistakable coming from an authoritarian leader who came up through the KGB and once famously called betrayal an unforgivable act.
Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, wrote Thursday that when the word “traitor” is uttered by the leader in such a system, it must come with consequences.
“Otherwise a system built on informal, conceptual principles and practices, rather than on institutions, risks becoming unmanageable,” Mr. Baunov said. “The absence of clear signs of the punishment of Prigozhin,” and the fact that he seemed to travel freely within Russia, “were increasingly interpreted as signs of helplessness and flabbiness in the system.”
The Wagner mutiny, which Mr. Prigozhin said was aimed at toppling Moscow’s military leadership but not the president, presented one of the biggest threats of Mr. Putin’s 23-year rule.
“This is a knife in the back of our country and our people,” Mr. Putin said then, noting that “inflated ambitions and personal interests” had led to “treason.”
Mr. Putin refused to mention the tycoon by name, his common practice with those he views as enemies. The Russian leader vowed harsh punishment.
So the response was collective puzzlement when hours later the Kremlin announced a deal to end the mutiny, whereby Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries would escape punitive measures and Mr. Prigozhin would leave for Belarus without facing prosecution.
Some Kremlinologists theorized that Mr. Prigozhin escaped because he was too useful to the Kremlin, in Africa and potentially once again in Ukraine, where his forces wrested control of the city of Bakhmut in a rare Russian victory. Others said his fighters were too heavily armed and posed too big an immediate threat to be neutralized on the spot.
Still, some predicted a denouement that had yet to come.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the next day, “I don’t think we’ve seen the final act.” President Biden, asked about Mr. Prigozhin the following month, said, “If I were he, I would be careful what I ate.”
Though his forces stood down, Mr. Prigozhin could hardly take back all that he had said in tirades against the Russian military leadership. His broadsides risked gaining traction among the Russian public, as he attacked corrupt and incompetent Russian elites waging an ill-managed war with little concern for the lives of rank-and-file soldiers.
For two months, Mr. Prigozhin functioned as a kind of ghost. He moved around Russia stealthily. He ceased releasing public statements. He slipped back into the shadows from which he had emerged the previous year.
Mr. Putin, all the while, chipped away at the mercenary chief’s stature in public.
The Russian president emphasized that Wagner had been funded by the Russian state. The Russian defense ministry announced that it had collected the private military outfit’s vast arsenal of weaponry. Russian authorities set about dismantling the tycoon’s business empire.
Five days after the mutiny, during a meeting with Wagner’s top leadership at the Kremlin, Mr. Putin asked the commanders if they would be prepared to fight under a different leader, according to an interview the Russian leader gave to the newspaper Kommersant. Mr. Putin claimed he saw many heads nod in agreement, before Mr. Prigozhin, who was seated in front of the fighters and couldn’t see their faces, refused.
Legally speaking, Wagner doesn’t even exist, Mr. Putin told the paper, noting that Russian law didn’t allow for private military companies.
In late July, Mr. Prigozhin popped up in St. Petersburg while a Russia-Africa summit was taking place there. It yet again disproved the notion that he would retire to exile in Belarus and gave rise to speculation that he may have retained his influence at least as the Kremlin’s go-to man in Africa.
The mercenary tycoon sought to propagate that idea in a video he released earlier this week, his first since the days of the mutiny.
Appearing in military fatigues in a place he said was 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), he said Wagner fighters were carrying out search and reconnaissance activities, “making Russia greater on all continents and making Africa even freer.”
The following day, a private jet with Mr. Prigozhin’s name on the passenger manifest went down in a field in the Tver region while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Since the crash, Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels have been promising a statement by the remaining leaders of the group, which also apparently lost its founding commander, Dmitri V. Utkin, in the crash. As of late Thursday night, no statement had materialized.
The Russian military leaders that Mr. Prigozhin targeted in his short-lived mutiny, Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery V. Gerasimov, have remained in their positions. Mr. Putin regularly praises the Russian armed forces for holding back a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In his remarks on Thursday, Mr. Putin underscored the contribution Wagner fighters had made to Russia’s war against Ukraine, an attempt to address its members — many of whom feel used and discarded after heavy losses in battle — and their supporters.
Mr. Putin also expressed his “sincere sympathies” for the family members of those on board the flight and said an investigation would get to the bottom of what happened.
“It will be carried out in full and completed,” Mr. Putin said. “There is no doubt about that.”
Julian Barnes, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
Paul Sonne is a foreign correspondent for The Times, focusing on Russia and Ukraine. More about Paul Sonne
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