Did Putin Kill Yevgeni Prigozhin?

On August 23, 2023, Yevgeni Prigozhin’s plane crashed, ending the life of the leader of the Wagner private military group. Since then, little effort or ink has been spent on who is responsible for his murder. The West’s intrigue and attention was held as long as the story supported the narrative of a crumbling Putin regime. When that narrative turned out to be fiction and fantasy, Western media lost interest.

The lack of urgency to place blame may be the product of the reality that everyone who might blame benefited. But that everyone benefited also makes it hard to determine the murderer: motivation is spread evenly.

Russian President Vladimir Putin might have wanted him dead because Prigozhin betrayed Putin and mutinied. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or then Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov might have wanted him dead because Prigozhin was pushing for their removal. Ukraine might have wanted him dead for his key role in the battle for Bakhmut. Poland might have wanted him dead because he was massing forces on their border. The United States or Ukraine might have wanted him dead to destabilize Russia by rekindling the struggle between Moscow, the Ministry of Defense, and now angry and vengeful Wagner forces. Even forces in Niger – whose coup government had just requested Wagner’s help and whom Prigozhin had just praised – or parties with an interest in Niger, or an interest in arresting Russia’s influence in Africa, might have wanted to put an end to his recent campaign to recruit mercenary soldiers to Africa.

At a recent question and answer period at the Valdai International Discussion Club, the question of how Russia deals with private military companies came up. At the end of his reply, Putin provided an update on the investigation into Prigozhin’s death. “I know,” he said, “the question is probably hanging in the air.” (Whether the pun is present in Russian, I do not know.)

“We know about the plane crash,” Putin said. “The head of the Investigative Committee reported to me about it just the other day: fragments of hand grenades were found in the bodies of those killed in the plane crash. There was no external impact on the plane,” shooting down one U.S. theory.

Putin then cryptically added that, “no examination was carried out on the presence of alcohol or drugs in the victims’ blood, although we know that after the well-known events, the FSB discovered… five kilograms of cocaine at the St. Petersburg office of the company [Wagner]. But I repeat once again: in my opinion, such an examination should have been carried out, but it was not.”

Though Russia is still investigating the causes and culprits of the crash – “the investigation is not over,” Putin said – for most officials and commentators in the political West, there was enough evidence in Prigozhin’s late June rebellion. Putin kills those who oppose him, the case goes. Prigozhin opposed him; therefore, Putin killed Prigozhin.

And maybe he did. A “knowledgeable U.S. intelligence official” told the very well informed and reliable investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that “Putin did it” because Prigozhin and his Wagner Group were antagonizing the borders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. Putin did not want “to give NATO further cause to shelve its growing doubts about the endless financing of [Ukraine President Volodymyr] Zelensky.” Putin may also have wanted to remove a risk of drawing NATO into the war.

But though Putin may have done it, the case, as presented, is not so open and shut. It rests on the premise that Putin kills those who oppose him. But the late Stephen Cohen, who was professor emeritus of politics and director of Russian Studies at Princeton, dismissed that premise in a single sentence, declaring it the easiest accusation against Putin to refute “because there is no actual evidence…to support it.”

Other experts, to varying and nuanced degrees, agree. In his biography of Putin, Philip Short concedes that by not punishing people who arranged killings, Putin may have “allowed a climate to develop” in which powerful people could order killings. But, he adds, “contrary to widespread belief in the West,” Putin “did not” authorize the killings. Professor Emeritus of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent Richard Sakwa agrees. He told me in a personal correspondence that the “Putin killing meme is misleading, with questionable evidence about whether he specifically gave the relevant order.”

Short says that “once the fog of conspiracy theories cleared,” responsibility for some of the most cited killings, including the murders of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former first deputy Prime Minister and Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, were “traced back to the entourage of Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.” Short calls the evidence massed against Putin for the murder of Nemtsov “entirely circumstantial.”

Of the long list of “high-profile” killings in Russia, Short concludes that “with the exception of Litvinenko, none had been killed at Putin’s behest.” Short argues that in a list of ten suspicious deaths of Putin critics compiled by The Washington Post in 2017, “only the death of Alexandr Litvinenko can be laid firmly at Putin’s door. All the others appear to have been killed for reasons unconnected with the Kremlin.”

Cohen argued that, despite the verdict that Putin was “probably” responsible for Litvinenko, “there is still no conclusive proof” even for that one death. Litvinenko is said to have accused Putin in a deathbed letter. But Sakwa says that Litvinenko initially blamed Mario Scaramella, who had met Litvinenko at a sushi restaurant on the day that Litvinenko was poisoned but had “skipped” eating. It was Litvinenko’s friend, the biologist Alex Goldfarb, who wrote the deathbed letter. He says that Litvinenko dictated the letter, which was released posthumously, to him. But Sakwa told me that Goldfarb privately told him “who he suspects of ordering the killing, and it was not Putin.”

Of the two cases that cemented Putin’s reputation as a murderous thug in Western media, Politkovskaya and Litvinenko, Cohen said, “Not a shred of actual proof points to Putin in either case.” He added, “Putin had no possible motive” for the killing of the spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom and plenty of motive at the time not to. Short agrees that “The Kremlin had nothing to gain from his death and relations with the West, already dire, would get even worse if Russia were shown to be involved.” He says “there was nothing to suggest that Putin had ordered the attack or even that he had approved of it.” Sakwa agrees that “there are all sorts of inconsistencies in the Skripal case – capped by the mystery of why they have been disappeared and are not allowed to give their version of events.”

Cohen also pointed out that, as of 2018, the same number of journalists had been murdered during the Putin years as during the Yeltsin years, suggesting that the problem may be more systemic than personal.

If Putin is guilty of ordering the death of Yevgeni Prigozhin, a stronger case will have to be made than Putin’s alleged past of eliminating his opponents, a past for which there is little proof: that is, if anyone in the political West cares anymore who killed Yevgeni Prigozhin.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.