24 August 2023: Prigozhin’s death and the social construction of reality
On 23 August, Russian officials claimed that Yevgeniy Prigozhin, owner of the Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner, had been killed in a plane crash near Tver. An old sociology maxim contends that, if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. In considering the consequences of Prigozhin’s death, what actually happened is probably less important than which narratives gain traction — something that is as relevant for the West as for Russia.
Let us start with what we know. On 23 August, a private jet travelling from Moscow to St Petersburg crashed near Kuzhenkino, Tver Oblast, killing everyone on board — seven passengers and three crew members. Russia’s aviation authority stated that those passengers included Prigozhin and Dmitriy Utkin, a senior Wagner commander , although as of the morning of 24 August, official comment or confirmation has been extremely limited.
The causes of the crash are unknown, but a number of theories are already doing the rounds. Indeed, the incident provides fertile soil for conspiracy theories. Among the possible options are that the crash was a simple accident, resulting from pilot error or technical malfunction; that it was a terrorist attack — one that may eventually be linked to Ukraine; that the Russian Defence Ministry or even Putin himself have secured their revenge for the semi-coup attempt led by Prigozhin in late June; and that Prigozhin has staged his own death so he can go and live a gentle life in anonymous retirement [3, 4, 5, 9, 10]. Russia’s Investigative Committee has opened an investigation and is reportedly treating the incident as suspicious, with pilot negligence or deliberate sabotage as potential causes [6, 10].
| The narratives that are embraced matter as much as the real causes|
Which of these theories is true? At the end of the day, as with many famous ‘accidents,’ we may never know with certainty. But the actual answer probably matters much less than which narrative gains traction. The aforementioned Thomas theorem — that “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” — holds that interpretations, and how they shape people’s responses, matter as much as any objective reality. Thus, which narrative people embrace, and the responses they subsequently adopt, may be more important than any facts.
For some people, this event will be interpreted through the lens of Putin’s revenge. Indeed, scanning English-language media, this appears to be the dominant narrative to emerge thus far. Here is a man who embarrassed and challenged Putin in a most public way, who has met the demise that many people predicted for him. The story will be transformed into a tired journalistic cliche, to be trotted out along with references to Putin’s KGB past and the dangers for his enemies of standing too close to open windows or drinking tea. US President Joe Biden has already embraced this version, commenting on the incident “there is not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind.” Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas have made comments of a similar nature, suggesting Prigozhin has paid the price for disloyalty . Score that as plus four for the image of Putin the All-Powerful, controlling everything that happens in the country. The narrative will reinforce the privileging of Putin as the unchallenged gravitational centre of Russian politics.
The Russian media reaction has been more divided, with a tendency to focus on the technical details and limited comments from officials on and off the record. Speculation over theories has been much more restrained. State media initially demonstrated the paralysis that is common when editors do not know which narrative line they are supposed to embrace . Yet, if members of the Russian elite accept the same framing as Western media and officials, then Prigozhin’s death will surely influence their future willingness to publicly challenge Putin — not that many have ever displayed much to start with.
Pro-Wagner actors, meanwhile, can now start the process of transforming Prigozhin into a symbol and a martyr. The Wagner-linked Telegram channel, Grey Zone, has, for example, already labelled Prigozhin a hero and pointed the finger at the Russian Defence Ministry and “traitors to Russia” . Those who embrace this narrative could bolster the perceived constituency for more hardline rhetoric and action.
| Beware the ‘Wagner is dead’ narrative|
One narrative that may emerge in the coming weeks and months is that ‘Wagner is dead.’ The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont has, for example, already asserted that “What is clear is that Wagner, as it was once constituted, is no more” . Because Prigozhin was seen by many as the personification of Wagner, and his Telegram outbursts provided such rich material for the media, I would expect to see many more takes of a similar nature emerge.
The collapse of the June ‘coup’ and the resulting brake on resource flows to the group were already likely to drive Wagner’s transformation. The proliferation of sanctions and the mooted proscription of the group as ‘terrorist’  incentivise name changes and organisational restructuring to evade them. Operationally, Wagner's involvement in Ukraine had already been significantly curtailed. With the group’s most prominent representative now dead, questions will naturally be asked about whether the group can survive, and the media spotlight will surely shift.
The ‘Wagner is dead’ narrative, however, should give cause for concern — not because the underlying premise is faulty, but because it will encourage misguided policy (in)action. There has always been a tendency to focus on Prigozhin at the expense of the underlying networks and structures that sustain him. Wagner has become the centre of attention, while the broader world of Russian PMCs has been almost entirely neglected. Yet the demise of Wagner would not neutralise the incentives that exist for state actors to employ PMCs, nor the lack of international legal frameworks to deal with the security and human rights threats that they often pose. It would be a mistake if policymakers determine that Wagner is dead and therefore conclude that the questions that Wagner has posed no longer require answers.
Note: This newsletter returns to your inbox a week earlier than planned, because Russia is never a great one for respecting schedules and holidays! The next newsletter will cover developments since the last issue and will also update on my plans for the newsletter.
1. The Guardian. 24 August 2023. At a glance: Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin ‘dead in plane crash’ – what we know so far. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/aug/24/at-a-glance-wagner-boss-yevgeny-prigozhin-dead-in-plane-crash-what-we-know-so-far.
2. Peter Beaumont. The Guardian. 24 August 2023. What next for the Wagner group after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s reported death? https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/aug/23/what-next-for-wagner-group-yevgeny-prigozhin-death.
3. The Guardian. 24 August 2023. Biden points finger at Putin as Prigozhin’s reported death seen as a warning to ‘elites’. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/aug/24/wagner-boss-yevgeny-prigozhin-reported-killed-death-russia-biden-suggests-putin.
4. Fontanka.ru. 23 August 2023. Эксперт назвал возможные причины крушения самолета под Тверью. Взрыв на борту не исключен. https://www.fontanka.ru/2023/08/23/72629768/.
5. Max Seddon, Polina Ivanova and Felicia Schwartz. Financial Times. 24 August 2023. Wagner boss Prigozhin was aboard crashed plane, say Russian officials. Print edition.
6. Nikolay Sergeyev, Sergey Mashkin, Oleg Rubnikovich and Andrey Vinokurov. Kommersant. 23 August 2023. «Вагнер» потерпел небоевое поражение. https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/6174110.
7.Sonya Mustayeva. Novaya Gazeta. 24 August 2023. «Среди обсуждаемых версий — инсценировка». https://novayagazeta.eu/articles/2023/08/24/sredi-obsuzhdaemykh-versii-instsenirovka.
8. Financial Times. 22 August 2023. UK to proscribe Wagner group within weeks, say government insiders. https://www.ft.com/content/2a40078d-b3b2-41ce-88f9-c792c24216db.
9. Nastoyashcheye Vremya. 24 August 2023. Если Евгений Пригожин мертв, что будет с ЧВК "Вагнер"? Объясняет журналист центра расследований "Досье”. https://www.currenttime.tv/a/prigozhin-mertv-chto-budet-chvk-vagner/32561988.html.
10. Andrey Pertsev. Meduza. 23 August 2023. ‘I had a feeling he’d come to a bad end’. https://meduza.io/en/feature/2023/08/23/i-had-a-feeling-he-d-come-to-a-bad-end.
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