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What Are Permissible Narratives About Yevgeny Prigozhin?

What Are Permissible Narratives About Yevgeny Prigozhin?
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By Darko Lazar

The late co-founder and public head of Russia’s Wagner private military company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, once spoke about a scene he witnessed in Libya.

He recalled how he and his commanders got lost in the Libyan desert and came across a destroyed military Jeep. The vehicle was carrying the skeletal remains of several people – one of them still clinching the steering wheel. Pieces of clothing were hanging off the decomposing remains and flapping in the hot desert wind.

Prigozhin was delighted. He imagined the military vehicle moving at high speed through the vast desert before being stopped in its tracks by what looked like a strike from Turkey’s Bayraktar combat drone. The Wagner boss thought it was a great way to die.

On August 23 of this year, Prigozhin got his own spectacular send-off when his private jet fell out of the sky over Russia's Tver region. Once the debris and the remains of all 10 people on board were cleared, a Wagner flag sporting a white skull was left waving over the empty crash site.

That snapshot is perhaps appropriate in describing what Prigozhin and his closest associates in what is now the world’s most efficient private army leave behind. This group of shadowy individuals, who played an unusually public role in the current clash of civilizations, are survived by Wagner or, at the very least, a new brand of Wagnerism, which is an important ingredient in Russia's transition to a wartime society.

But that publicity, along with Prigozhin’s appetite for the spotlight and perhaps even political ambitions, don’t answer many critical questions about the man, the mess in his head, or why he died.

Prigozhin isn’t an easy topic of discussion. There is plenty of ambiguity. The prospects for misinterpretation and misjudgment are almost guaranteed. That’s thanks in no small part to the fact that all sides in the current war between global superpowers prefer programmed interpretations of Prigozhin and his actions. 

The Western narrative is almost entirely moralistic and typical of the language used by the NATO propaganda machine against all foes: Prigozhin was a villain who was hired to kill by more powerful villains, by whom he was then killed. The stories where all of the roles are reserved strictly for the ‘bad guys’ pretty much write themselves.

Of course, even the most elementary, unbiased observation of the situation affirms that both Prigozhin’s short-lived rebellion against Russia’s military leadership in June and his subsequent demise are tactical and propaganda victories for NATO.

As such, the Western narrative is also fueling suspicions about the Russia’s government’s supposed involvement in Prigozhin’s death and painting it as:

A)           Revenge by President Vladimir Putin.

B)            Further proof that the Russian political system has been compromised and is on the verge of collapse.   

Meanwhile, the Russian narrative exists within the boundaries of legitimate national security concerns. While acknowledging Prigozhin’s achievements and certainly the ultimate sacrifice made by many Wagner fighters, Moscow needs to highlight his “mistakes” and avoid awkward discussions about how and with whose nod of approval Prigozhin managed to bring Russia to the brink of civil war.

Other features of this narrative include the dangers of rebelling against authority during wartime and revelations about Prigozhin enriching himself through state contracts [whether legally or illegally is still an open question].

Those who find it hard to operate within the margins established by permissible narratives, or those who may know more than is desirable, will remain silent for the time being.

Secrecy and vulnerabilities

The late Russian war correspondent Kirill Romanovsky passed away earlier this year after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Kirill was already ill when the Taliban rolled into Kabul in the summer of 2021, but he insisted on working. And so, he packed his bags and went to Afghanistan. At some point, his condition suddenly worsened.  

Prigozhin, who later referred to Kirill as a friend, sent his private jet to Kabul to pick up the reporter and bring him back to Russia. Presumably, this was the same plane that Prigozhin died on a few years later.

Some wondered how Prigozhin’s plane landed and took off from Taliban-controlled Kabul with such ease. Such arrangements are unlikely to be the result of Prigozhin’s business acumen or negotiating skills, but rather the work of intelligence operatives like Dmitry Utkin.

Utkin’s name was on the passenger list of Prigozhin’s last flight. Better known as Uncle Dimi among his men who had a great deal of respect for him and his unique talents, the 53-year-old was reportedly responsible for the overall command and combat training at Wagner.

Utkin, who was characterized as everything from temperamental and charismatic to gloomy and evil, acquired his special skills during two wars in Chechnya, and while serving as both a commander in a Spetsnaz special forces unit, as well as Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency [The Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU].

In fact, all of Wagner’s core members are believed to be linked to this intelligence outfit, with the GRU providing key elements for the private army’s infrastructure. The very nature of this characteristic heightens the sensitivities for the Russian state when dealing with the Prigozhin affair, and naturally limits the information being made available for public consumption. 

The plane crash, which just so happened to occur exactly two months after Prigozhin’s so-called rebellion, is being looked at by Russia’s Investigative Committee. The investigation is ongoing, but the Kremlin has already said that “deliberate wrongdoing” is among the possible causes of the crash.

Of course, even when the findings of that investigation are made public, the Prigozhin saga is unlikely to conclude with a mere ‘RIP’ and ‘the rest is history’.

Any potential vacuum of information will be utilized by the collective West to sow mistrust and doubt over whether the real reasons for the deaths of Wagner’s top brass will ever be identified.

Afterall, the West would have never missed the opportunity presented by Prigozhin’s public falling out with state organs. Some observers are of the opinion that his actions in June made Wagner’s leadership extremely vulnerable, requiring serious, structural counterintelligence protections to be put in place. Prigozhin wouldn’t accept, and Russia’s state security apparatus didn’t seem to bother convincing him otherwise.