opinion | Putin had every reason to make Prigozhin disappear

This trade lasted for years. But the war in Ukraine upset the balance. Sensing an opportunity to advance his career, Mr. Prigozhin began challenging the military leadership. When the conflict between the two became untenable, Putin’s bias was clear: he clearly sided with the army. In January he has stressed that the war should be conducted in accordance with the strategy of the General Staff, a clear indication that Wagner should be subordinated. By June, all Wagner fighters wishing to remain in Ukraine were expected to formalize contracts with the Defense Ministry and accept oversight from its generals. It turned out to be the final straw that broke the camel’s back. A rebellion soon followed.

It was a humiliating blow to Mr Putin’s regime. The pain stemmed less from the betrayal of the ever-unpredictable Mr. Prigozhin than from Mr. Putin’s personal responsibility for the disaster. At the expense of the state, the President had promoted a company that he had no control over. The mutiny that followed Putin’s inability to manage the escalating tensions between the Defense Department and Wagner was a direct result of this fundamental failure.

The political toll was considerable. In the aftermath, Mr. Putin found himself giving in to Mr. Prigozhin, endangering his own stature, and enduring public outrage. He now faced a thorny dilemma: how to disband a private army without provoking political backlash or violence? After the uprising, the Kremlin’s main concern was to neutralize Wagner politically and militarily in order to restore the stability of the state.

The first step was to play for time. As part of the agreement that crushed the mutiny, Mr. Prigozhin secured his freedom and Wagner members were protected from being charged for their participation, amazingly allowing them to travel freely as if nothing had happened. In retrospect, this approach seems logical: Putin wanted to placate Mr. Prigozhin and make him feel that he was irreplaceable and enjoyed the protection of the state.

This was crucial in ensuring Mr. Prigozhin’s withdrawal from Russia. That allowed it the clamping on some of its Russian assets and the expropriation back of access to lucrative contracts (although his business didn’t collapse complete). More importantly, Mr. Prigozhin’s departure was a prelude to Wagner’s dissolution. The most dedicated Wagner troops, a contingent of about 5,000 men, were forced to relocate to Belarus under a new, loyal and compliant leader Andrei Troshev; the group’s heavy artillery was returned to the Ministry of Defense; and those who hesitated were forced to either join the military or return home. In Africa and Syria, the Wagner forces are under close supervision with a plan to gradually integrate their projects into the security services and the Ministry of Defense.

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