Prigozhin plane crash: What’s next after Wagner leader’s apparent demise?

While the circumstances surrounding the plane crash the U.S. assesses "likely" killed mercenary group leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin remain shrouded in mystery, Russia observers quickly concluded it was no accident, but rather an act of delayed vengeance orchestrated by the Kremlin.

But if Vladimir Putin did order Prigozhin's plane brought down as payback for directing a short-lived armed rebellion in June, questions about why the Russian president chose to act now and what exactly he hopes to accomplish still swirl.

The future of the Wagner Group, an influential paramilitary organization previously under Prigozhin's direction, is also unclear.

ABC News spoke to analysts to about Putin's potential strategy, as well as the impact Prigozhin's death could have on Russia and other countries around the world.

The leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen in an undisclosed location in a video published, Aug. 22, 2023.Handout/AFP via Getty Images

MORE: Russia-Ukraine live updates: Kremlin denies role in Prigozhin's presumed death

A clear message from the Kremlin?

After Prigozhin turned on Putin earlier this summer and directed his mercenary fighters to march toward Moscow, the former allies apparently struck a deal that quashed the mutiny and spared the Wagner leader from any immediate serious repercussions.

But for Catrina Doxsee, an associate director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, it was a question of not if but when Prigozhin would face the full force of Putin's wrath.

"Russia and Putin himself have a long history of eliminating their opponents and anyone who rises up against them or speaks out against them," she said. "It has been more or less unthinkable that Prigozhin would get out of this completely unscathed."

President Joe Biden also speculated that Putin may be culpable.

"There's not much that happens in Russia that Putin's not behind, but I don't know enough to know the answer," he said on Wednesday after hearing of Prigozhin's reported death

MORE: Wagner leader Prigozhin 'likely' killed in Russian plane crash, US says

In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's crash, some worried that the Kremlin might point the finger at the West — a misdirection tactic frequently used by Moscow.

But John Hardie, deputy director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Russia Program, says this may be one instance where Putin is okay with shouldering some of the blame.

"If you're Putin, you want to make a statement here — that's the point," he said.

Two American officials tell ABC News that preliminary intelligence indicates the plane was brought down by a bomb on board, but that no final conclusion has been made.

In public remarks on Friday, a spokesperson for the Kremlin denied any involvement in the crash, calling the allegations an "absolute lie."

Previously, Putin's enemies have been known to meet untimely — but quieter — ends. In recent months, many of his adversaries have died after allegedly falling out open windows. In years prior, inquires have uncovered plots to poison dissidents.

Doxsee says the explosive nature of Putin's purported revenge against Prigozhin amplifies the warning the Russian leader wants to send to any would-be challengers.

"He was killed aboard his private jet, something that all of these oligarchs regularly travel on," she said. "It's a clear message that if you are going to be the next Prigozhin, you can die just as easily."

In this pool photograph distributed by Sputnik agency, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting with Denis Pushilin, Moscow-appointed head of the Donetsk region of Ukraine, in Moscow, on Aug. 24, 2023.Mikhail Klimentyev/POOL via AFP via Getty Images

Strategic ambiguity

After staying mum through his first couple of public appearances following the plane crash, Putin finally spoke out on Thursday, expressing his "sincerest condolences" and promising to investigate.

"He was a man with a complex destiny," the Russian president said of Prigozhin, while also alluding to betrayal, saying he had "made serious mistakes in life."

Despite intending to quiet criticism and prevent any future uprisings, Doxsee argues that Putin likely would see the need to walk a fine line between overtly taking responsibility and crafting an overly obscure chain of cause and effect.

"I think the narrative is very important to Putin, and especially the ability to maintain this sense of plausible deniability — to keep up the appearance that this was a terrible accident," she said.

The reason for that, Doxsee says, is retaining order among the rank-and-file Wagner Group mercenaries who were deeply loyal to Prigozhin.

MORE: Russia-Ukraine live updates: Ukrainian forces land in Russia-occupied Crimea, official says

But despite some disquiet, Hardie says Moscow is unlikely to face any real backlash from the organization. At worst, he predicts Russia may have to contend with resentment and retention issues within the ranks.

"As much as there's this anger and resentment among the troops, I'm not sure what outlets they have to pull that together," Doxsee added.

This photograph posted on a Wagner linked Telegram channel @grey_zone on August 23, 2023 and which can not be independetly verified by the AFP, reportedly shows a the wreckage of burning plane near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region.Wagner linked Telegram channel @grey_zone/AFP via Getty Images

MORE: How Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin rose with Putin, then turned on him

A decapitated Wagner?

Along with Prigozhin, Wagner's co-founder Dmitry Utkin was also reportedly on the plane, compounding the crash's impact on the group's leadership.

While Hardie and Doxsee both say this might have furthered Putin's mission by clearing out the top brass of the organization in "one fell swoop," in order to continue reaping the benefits of Wagner's campaigns advancing Russian interests across the Middle East and Africa, the Kremlin will have to install workable replacements.

But Doxsee says that Putin likely used the weeks of what seemed like an uneasy peace between himself and Prigozhin to line up his next steps.

"I would speculate that part of the reason we saw him wait these two months for any consequence after the mutiny is because he was trying to get a handle on this network and making plans for its sustainability," she said.

If Putin did indeed order the assassination, Doxsee says it likely means Putin is certain that Wagner will march on without Prigozhin.

"I struggle to believe that Putin would have acted now if he didn't have confidence that whatever plan he has in place would be able to maintain [Wagner troops'] loyalty," she said.


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