Vladimir Putin (left) and Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) Photo: Government of the Russian federation /CC
Vladimir Putin (left) and Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) Photo: Government of the Russian federation /CC

Niall Mulholland, Committee for a Workers’ International

The death of the Russian warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin and other leaders of the Wagner group in an aircraft crash has intensified the tensions inside Vladimir Putin’s regime and the Russian state.

So far, it is not clear what caused the aircraft crash. US intelligence has said that it was not due to anti-aircraft gunfire from the ground, as first reported in the West, and asserted that it may have been due to a bomb on board the aircraft.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has denied any responsibility for the deaths of Prigozhin and the others on the plane.

While Prigozhin was the main fundraiser and public face of the Wagner group, its key military organiser was the Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin, a neo-Nazi sympathiser who sported SS tattoos on his shoulders. He was also killed in the plane crash.

Although Putin would appear the chief suspect to many people, sending a ‘message’ to the rival factions within the ruling capitalist elite that he is in control after taking retribution against Prigozhin for his armed revolt earlier this summer, the plane crash may have been due to the actions of other sections of the state, without Putin’s prior knowledge.

Certainly Prigozhin did not lack enemies. The Russian military high command, in particular, was incensed by Prigozhin’s many verbal tirades against their mishandling of the Ukraine war, which began with a failed attempted assault on Kyiv. And the deaths of dozens of Russian troops at the hands of Wagner forces, when they rebelled earlier this summer, was an unpardonable event that demanded revenge, in some military circles.

Some commentators in Russia and elsewhere have speculated that other ‘third parties’ may be responsible for Prigozhin’s death, including even western states.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the death of Prigozhin and key figures in his Wagner group has intensified the sense of internal crisis within the Putin administration and the military. However, in the short term, Putin’s position may have been strengthened by Prigozhin’s demise. In this way of thinking, Putin has sent a strong message to the various factions in the state and military that he is prepared to act with deadly decisiveness to impose his rule and the conduct of the war in Ukraine, and that no ‘betrayal’ will be tolerated.

Earlier on the day of the plane crash, it was reported that General Sergei Surovikin lost his post as air force chief. For several months, General Surovikin, who was known to have good relations with Prigozhin, was in charge of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but he has not been seen since the Wagner mutiny in June.

Ukraine war

Prigozhin was a key figure in the Ukraine war after his Wagner paramilitary force played a leading role in some of the fighting, including a months-long battle for the city of Bakhmut. He had risen from a criminal life in Saint Petersburg in his youth, serving time in prison in the 1990s for robbery, to building up a food business, and cultivating relations with the city’s mayor and later Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Like Putin, Prigozhin was a product of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, and the introduction of a form of gangster capitalism. Prigozhin grew very rich not just from his catering business but also by providing military forces for the Putin administration – a link denied officially by the Kremlin right up until the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

Prigozhin’s Wagner group has also intervened in the conflicts in Libya, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East and Africa, acting as an unofficial force for the Kremlin.

Often Prigozhin would spout populist, ‘anti-colonialist’ rhetoric to justify Wagner’s operations. While the Wagner group’s brutality is often cited by Western politicians and much of the mass media, they tend to be quiet about the huge growth of ‘military contractors’ in the West. These ‘privatised forces’ were used by the Western occupiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deployed since in other spheres of conflict around the world.

Prigozhin and Putin fell out spectacularly two months ago when Wagner staged a revolt against the Russian military generals and, de facto the Putin administration. Plans to merge the Wagner group with the regular Russian armed forces seemed to be the spark for the rebellion.

Prigozhin had played a useful rule for Putin, with his private army, made up of former regular Russian soldiers, mercenaries, and released prisoners, in the conflict in Ukraine. However, Prigozhin’s increasingly belligerent verbal sallies against the incompetence and corruption of the Russian army brass saw moves to bring Wagner into more direct army control. Prigozhin’s short-lived revolt was a humiliation for Putin, and exposed some of the weaknesses of the state and military. The Wagner forces were able to march largely unimpeded over significant territory.

After the intervention of the Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, a deal was made between Prigozhin and Putin, whereby the Wagner group would cease its attacks, and largely relocate to Georgia. However, Prigozhin continued to criss-cross Russia in his private jet and also made visits to Africa to further the interests of the Wagner group. Prigozhin’s links to several dictatorships in Africa, and access to precious minerals, enriched him and his acolytes further. It also proved a very lucrative channel for the Russian state and economy, helping to overcome the effects of the West’s economic sanctions, which were imposed after Russian troops went into Ukraine. However, Prigozhin’s flagrant actions may have proved too provocative for Putin or sections of the Russian state and military. Lukashenko said he had “categorically warned” both Prigozhin and Utkin that they were in danger.

Whether Putin was behind the assassination of Prigozhin or not, the plane crash adds a new twist to the problems facing the Kremlin. The Ukraine conflict is bogged down in the Donbas region, as the Ukraine forces, with Nato backing, unsuccessfully, so far, attempt to punch through Russian defences. The death toll on both sides is reportedly in the many tens of thousands.

Without its figurehead and some of its key personnel, the Kremlin may attempt to integrate the Wagner forces firmly into the Russian army. And the group may come under more direct Russian military command during its operations in parts of Africa.

Putin signed a decree last weekend, ordering all members of forces, like Wagner, to swear allegiance to Russia, which is a formal oath made by regular soldiers.

Whether the rank-and-file Wagner forces will attempt to resist such moves remains to be seen, as do the consequences in African states in which they operate.

The working class of Russia has nothing to gain from the internecine conflict taking place within the Russian state and military. While Prigozhin and Putin, and all the oligarchs, have been enriching themselves, the masses have gone through the deep trauma of so-called shock therapy capitalism. This led to a dramatic collapse of living standards in the 1990s, and the imposition of a series of conflicts, and the drawn-out war in Ukraine, which demands that they serve up their sons for the ‘meat grinder’.

A movement of working-class people is urgently needed in Russia to oppose the bloody military adventure, and also the rule of the oligarchs. The Russian working class has much more in common with the masses of Ukraine than it will ever have with Putin and thugs like Prigozhin. Similarly, the working class and young people of Ukraine have much more in common with their Russian counterparts than President Zelensky with his right-wing policies and the interests of Nato and western imperialism. Ukrainian working people and the Russian masses are small change to the reactionary elites of both countries.

Only a return to the ideas of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks – not their Stalinist caricature – can see a way out of poverty and war. Building independent political parties of the working class, with a socialist programme, can show the way forward to end wars and exploitation in the region by breaking with capitalism and creating a genuine workers’ democracy.