Putin’s Message: Things Are Still Under [My] Control

August 25, 2023
Putin with Russian flag in the background

(Photo illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who was head of the mercenary Wagner Group that fought on behalf of Russia in its war with Ukraine, then led an ill-fated rebellion against Russian leader Vladimir Putin in June, is among the dead after a civilian aircraft crash last week.

While neither Russia nor Putin claimed they caused the crash, a number of foreign affairs experts say this has the earmarks of a classic Russian reprisal.

To learn more, UVA Today talked with Paul B. Stephan, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and the John C. Jeffries Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law at the UVA School of Law. Stephan is an expert on international dispute resolution and comparative law, with an emphasis on Soviet and post-Soviet legal systems. His current research focuses on the legal issues related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Q. Why is it a reasonable assumption that this was not accidental?

A. The expressive value of his death was too important to the powers-that-be. We have reports of witnesses who heard an explosion. An accident can never be ruled out, but this happened on the two-month anniversary of Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, the day after there is an official statement on the reassignment of the general who was thought to be a principal Prigozhin backer within the regular military. The general pattern, not just with Putin, but historically, is you aren’t fit to be the leader if you can’t dispose of your enemies in an expressive way. There’s no proof, but the circumstances suggest that it’s more likely than not.

The Lab Our Nation Turns To For Saving Lives On The Road, to be great and good in all we do
The Lab Our Nation Turns To For Saving Lives On The Road, to be great and good in all we do

Q. Who else was on the plane?

A. Six Wagner Group colleagues, including Prigozhin’s principal military deputy Dimitri Utkin, and three crew. Press reports say it was a plane belonging to Wagner Group that Prigozhin used as his personal plane. There were apparently two planes and all the big shots were on the manifest for this one. The second one ultimately landed somewhere.

Q. What happens with the Wagner group now?

A. No one really knows for sure. The way Prigozhin operated, he was not a hands-on manager, nor a military leader. He was a guy who basically provided a kind of insurance policy to people. He would provide them protection from state interference. The Russians have this word, “krysha,” which means roof. A roof protects you from the elements. And the elements are a capricious and dangerous state. He was a guy sitting back at the front office, making arrangements for their supply logistics, provided by the Russian state mostly. So depending on who, besides Utkin, was on the plane, it might be that the actual operational leaders of the group are gone.

The Wagner mercenaries in Africa are still there. Presumably the structures running them on a day-to-day basis are in place. But will they continue to get Russian support, including supplies? Who will be the line of communication between the people in Chad and Moscow? We don’t know, so it’s possible it all falls apart. There are reports the Wagner people fighting in Ukraine have basically decamped to Belarus. Presumably there are some officers who were there, trying to keep things together, but are they in a position quickly to organize and be resupplied and be an effective fighting force? I don’t know. I doubt they know, either. Maybe they’re just all off the board.

Q. What does this mean for the war in Ukraine?

A. It’s not clear to me. It seems the order two months ago to integrate into the formal Russian forces wrote off Wagner’s people as an independent actor. A lot of what they were doing was serving as punishment brigades, where they’d be bodies put into highly risky places, where it was being shelled or there were lots of mines or both. It looks to me like the Russian forces are pretty much in a stationary defensive position, where they’re holding off Ukrainian attackers, and not so much marching into territory that previously has been controlled by the Ukrainians. It’s not clear, under these conditions, what value the Wagner people have.

Q. If Putin is behind this, why take such a dramatic step?

A. The expressive value of this was important to communicate to people. Putin is going to be a traditional Russian leader and he will settle scores when you don’t expect it. He probably had to sign off on this operation, but I doubt that he micromanaged it.

"Putin is going to be a traditional Russian leader and he will settle scores when you don’t expect it." --Paul B. Stephan, the John C. Jeffries Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law

Q. Who are the people to whom he is sending this message?

A. Everybody. Anyone who would think about pushing back, shirking, being trouble. I envision the great masses of Russians, the middle in Russia opinion, being totally not thrilled with what’s going on in Ukraine, but not driven to a point where it’s worth it to actively resist, given that there are not informal, safe political feedback mechanisms. And particularly no one wants to be the first in a mob when it turns out there’s no one behind them. You have a small, populist, nationalist contingent, maybe 10% to 15% of the population, but I don’t think they really represent the significant masses of the people. I think the real goal is just having the message out to the population that, this isn’t great, but we have things under control. And “under control” would mean someone who behaved in such a way as Prigozhin did - very publicly, militarily, violently defying the regime, shooting down helicopters from the Russian army - would be dealt with in a definitive way.

Q. What affect does this have on Russian public opinion of Putin?

A. I think that at least short term, it stabilizes it. The issue with Putin in terms of the public is, is he your best alternative? Not whether you like it, but, given the other alternatives, is he your best alternative? And the guy who disposes of his enemies cruelly and dramatically may be a feature, not a bug, given that you’re not in a society where you can count on the legal system.

Stephan Paul Portrait
Paul B. Stephan said Vladimir Putin is a traditional Russian leader who will settle scores when you don’t expect it. (Contributed photo)

The issue then becomes, is it a sign of desperation and weakness? I don’t know. Only the future can reveal that, but I am inclined to regard it as a symptom of a situation that no one wants to be in. And given that he’s very personally and publicly responsible for this situation, he’s on the hook. But it’s not like there is any alternative that’s been stood up as a substitute for him.

Q. Does Putin have a succession strategy?

A. I think his succession strategy is not to have one. Leonid Brezhnev, when he was the head of the General Secretary for 18 years, had a strategy of “I don’t have to be competent, I just have to be better than the alternative.” And the way he did that is to have no plausible alternatives around him. With Putin, there’s absolutely no one who sticks out as a plausible successor.

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