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On a wing and a dare


WORLD Radio - On a wing and a dare

Wagner Group leaders’ death in a plane crash shows that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not tolerate disloyalty

An informal memorial for Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, in St. Petersburg, Russia Associated Press/Photo by Dmitri Lovetsky

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: It’s Thursday, August 31st, 2023. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Paul Butler.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up today: On a wing and a dare.

The Wagner Group is a mercenary force tens of thousands strong that does the bidding of some of the world’s most ruthless regimes—primarily Russia.

BUTLER: The group’s former leader was one of few in Russia willing to stand up to President Vladimir Putin and the nation’s Ministry of Defense. You’ll hear us refer to that as MOD. In June, Prigozhin marched forces out of Ukraine and across the Russian border. They headed toward Moscow to protest fighting conditions in Ukraine. Prigozhin and Putin worked out an apparent truce, but many wondered how long it would last.

BROWN: The answer to that came last week, when Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash in Russia that most experts agree was not an accident.

Here now is Mary Reichard interviewing John Hardie. He is a policy analyst on Russia at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

MARY REICHARD: John, welcome.

JOHN HARDIE, GUEST: Good to be with you.

REICHARD: John, let’s set the scene. Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin, and how did he rise to such a position of power?

HARDIE: Sure, so he's actually a former convict himself, so not only has he recruited thousands of convicts to fight in Ukraine, he is one himself. He rose in business with catering contracts for state entities, the Kremlin and M.O.D. Eventually was entrusted with the Wagner group. It was created by Russian military intelligence and MOD. So in that role he's done a variety of dirty work for the Kremlin. So social media troll farms are a good example. Your listeners may remember the 2016 presidential election where Russia interfered. His internet research agency was a key organization in that. He was a man who had a finger in a lot of pies. A lot of, as I said, during work through the Kremlin, I think over the course of the war in Ukraine, especially, he saw his star rise. And he had a really intense rivalry with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the Russian General Staff, and he's a person who seems to harbor grudges, and take these rivalries very seriously, just in personal terms. And I think eventually, he just sort of let those rivalries get the best of him and lead him to do something, meaning the mutiny. He really didn't think through the consequences. And ultimately, that led to his demise last week.

REICHARD: In the days since Prigozhin’s plane went down, President Biden and numerous commentators said it was inevitable. Why are they saying that?

HARDIE: Oh, I think if your listeners remember, after the mutiny, in June, there was sort of an uneasy agreement announced by the Kremlin, where Wagner fighters were supposed to go to Belarus, or they could be kind of demobilized and retire, or they could sign contracts with the MOD. You know, looking back in time, that deal didn't really seem tenable. In the long term, it didn't really address Wagner's future, or Prigozhin's role, and it just didn't seem likely that Prigozhin could be allowed to continue to exercise his role in. Wagner, so it's just my opinion, at the time, I thought the Kremlin would eventually try to sideline Prigozhin. Obviously, they ended up doing so by killing him. I think for Putin to allow Prigozhin to continue to live and especially to continue to exercise his role in Wagner sort of undermined his own image in his regime. And so Prigozhin just just had to go. Putin sort of alluded to this in his you might call it any eulogy for Prigozhin, saying he appreciated Prigozhin's achievements and contributions to Russia. But he made essentially choices that left Putin with no choice. I'm kind of reading between the lines of what Putin said, but I think that's the gist.

REICHARD: The Wagner group has troops in action across the globe—Ukraine, Belarus, and West Africa, to name a few places. What happens to those forces now that Prigozhin is dead?

HARDIE: Right, that really is the million dollar question. In the aftermath of the mutiny, it seems like the modus vivendi was Wagner would continue in Africa. It for now would not have a role in Ukraine. It would be allowed to continue its its work in Africa, which from the Russian state is very useful because it spreads Russian influence and interests on the cheap without the Russian MOD having to deploy troops there itself to do those roles. So I think that Wagner, in some form, or fashion will probably persist. But it does seem like since the mutiny happened, that Russian state has been trying to reassert its primacy place in Africa.

REICHARD: Prigozhin supported the war in Ukraine, but sharply criticized Putin’s leadership. Now, similar criticisms are coming from another former general, Igor Strelkov. He’s described Putin’s leadership style as, his words, “cowardly mediocrity.” And he’s in prison and ordered to stay there. That raises two questions: first, how strong is Putin’s real hold on power in Russia? And second, if Putin were somehow deposed, is there a chance an even more ruthless leader would take his place?

HARDIE: So this guy, Strelkov, it's his callsign, former FSB officer named Igor Girkin. He played a key role in in 2014, the initial unrest and invasion of Ukraine and has since become a sort of commentator and political activist far right political activists, ultra-patriotic, as he'd call it. He was imprisoned for for his comments against Putin in general. He's sort of a doom and gloom guy about the Russian war effort. There are others like him. I think his arrest does signal that the Kremlin is worried about not only potential liberal activists for like Navalny, who's been imprisoned, but also the threat from the right. I think for now, Putin's place seems fairly secure, although I think his credibility and his regime's credibility in general was weakened by its apparent helplessness in the face of the Wagner mutiny.

REICHARD: John, it’s great having you back on the program. Thank you so much!

HARDIE: Thank you.

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