Yevgeny Prigozhin is like a cat with nine lives. Just when you think he is dead or is a spent force, he seems to be able to cash in on life and somehow reenters the fray. Once again, we are left wondering whether the man we once described as “The Man Who Would be Putin’s King” is dead or alive. News seems to point to being deceased, but the jury is still out. You just never know with Russian propaganda – disinformation is sown at every opportunity.

Prigozhin, aged 62, is alleged to have been on the private Embraer business jet that crashed – more likely shot down, north of Moscow on Wednesday. His name was on the passenger manifest and yet, like so many things in Russia, that could have been a cover story.

Prigozhin was known to use body doubles using passports in his name to mask his movements inside and outside of Russia. Adding to the mystery of whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former chef is really dead was a second plane purported to be carrying Wagner Group associates flying in the same vicinity.

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That plane later landed in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. It is still not known who was onboard that aircraft.

Karma would certainly lend credence to Prigozhin’s demise. It was two months to the day of his failed munity in Rostov-on-Don and aborted march to Moscow – and Putin, with a Wagner-like operatic orchestra behind him, was smiling and beaming as the news broke while at a concert in Kursk.

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Putin, certainly, had a lot of reasons to dispose of his one-time close ally and to do so in the most public and emphatic of ways. Prigozhin’s uprising significantly undermined and risked Russia’s military position just as Kyiv’s long anticipated summer counteroffensive was getting started.

But why try now? Short answer – he least expected it.

If – operative word “if” – Russian state-controlled media is to be believed, Prigozhin, in exchange for his life, was serving as a “useful idiot” as penitence.

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First in Belarus to antagonize Poland, and then in the Sahel just days ago in support of Moscow’s efforts to solidify its positions in Burkina Faso, Mali and in the now rebel-controlled country of Niger.

Putin also allowed Prigozhin to take on a starring role during the Russia-Africa Summit that took place in St. Petersburg wherein he was spotted shaking hands with Ambassador Freddy Mapouka, a presidential advisor in the Central African Republic (CAR)” and other African dignitaries and officials.

In that vein, given Russia’s ongoing and widespread disinformation war against the West in Africa to create instability and to topple democratically elected governments, relegating Prigozhin to the continent as a neutered ambassador made sense.

After all, Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries are chiefly responsible for fomenting instability, committing atrocities, toppling democratic governments and absconding with Africa’s natural resources.

Several days ago, that seemed like Putin’s plan. Further, Putin had appeared to put the funding in place for Prigozhin to pull it off. In early August, the Kremlin had rewarded the Wagner Group with new state contracts worth approximately $21 million a month.

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Prigozhin was then filmed touting how the Wagner Group was “making Russia greater on all continents and Africa even freer.” Plus, as an implied rebuke to the United States given its joint air bases with Nigeria inside of Niger tasked with fighting Islamic terrorism threatening the Sahel, Prigozhin bragged “We make life nightmare for ISIS, al-Qaeda” and that the Wagner Group “bring[s] justice and happiness to the African peoples.”

Yet herein may lie the rub and possibly why the business jet belonging to Prigozhin was brought down over the skies of Moscow – and possibly according to U.S. intelligence officials by an onboard bomb versus a surface to air missile.

Russia, after all, is at its rotten core a Mafia state with an intelligence service and military attached. Prigozhin, possibly went a bridge too far trying to reinsert himself into Africa and in doing so once again crossed paths with a dangerous enemy: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Ten days ago, according to Anton Gerashchenko, a Ukrainian government official, unnamed Russian media sources reported that “Shoigu will be allocated nearly 400 billion rubles (about $4 billion) for his African project to replace Wagner PM.” If accurate, Shoigu may have decided Prigozhin’s humiliation of him culminating at Rostov-on-Don was one too many.

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In mafia terms, perhaps this all came down to a classic turf war and it had reached the point where one of Putin’s capos had to die and that it was Shoigu who decided that he could not wait for St. Valentine’s Day to come around to decapitate Prigozhin and his top Wagner Group officials – including Dmitry Utkin who was reportedly on board as well.

Yet, nothing happens in Russia without Putin’s blessing.

If Shoigu arranged the hit, Putin surely knew it was coming and had signed off. For Putin, letting Shoigu pull the trigger would have accomplished three things. Plausible deniability, revenge for Prigozhin’s mutiny against his regime and setting up his defense minister as the fall guy should public outrage for Prigozhin’s apparent assassination turn against the Kremlin.

If it was a hit, then Putin was unable to forgive Prigozhin’s betrayal. His usefulness to the regime had expired, and Shoigu offered the ends, ways and means.

Essentially, just another day in the life of Putin’s Murder Inc. as we termed it in an interview in The Sun, and as we forewarned last December in The Hill, that Prigozhin might well become an unintended threat that eventually would have to be dealt with one way or another.

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As we said then, Putin views his oligarchs as “combination locks” to his vaults – and if Prigozhin did indeed die, then the Russian president simply felt it was time to change the code.

For now, Putin is being non-committal and stopped short of declaring Prigozhin confirmed as dead. In his first post-crash public comments on the man known as “Putin’s chef,” he called him a “talented man” and spoke of him in the “past tense.”

Then, after offering condolences to Prigozhin’s family, Putin pulled out a verbal sledgehammer of his own saying, “He was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results needed both for himself and when I asked him about it – for a common cause, as in these last months.”

Putin masterfully added another layer of doubt to those who want to believe he did not authorize the hit. As Wagner PMC members consider a second ‘march of justice’ on Moscow, he will need that degree of separation.

If Prigozhin is dead, then his tenth life will have to come in the afterlife if he is to yet haunt Putin and Shoigu. In terms of the latter, Shoigu would be wise to watch his own back if Putin finds himself needing to blame him for Prigozhin’s death. In the mafia world, the assassin often becomes the next victim – dead men tell no tales.

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While it is likely Prigozhin is dead, it is also wise to never take anything at face value in Putin’s Russia. If Prigozhin is alive in Azerbaijan or somewhere else, his ninth life is more than likely on life support.

Copyright 2023. All rights reserved. Mark C. Toth and Jonathan E. Sweet.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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