Why did Putin let Prigozhin go?

The same government that has been slaughtering Ukrainian civilians for more than a year because it claims Nato bad guys are too close to its borders, on Saturday allowed its own renegade mercenary boss to shoot down military helicopters and kill several soldiers, according to state media, before ending up in all Silence Killed Towards a New Life in Belarus.

The Kremlin even publicly guaranteed that Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin had “word” from President Vladimir Putin that he could safely leave the country – after criminal charges against him were conveniently dropped.

Why is Prigozhin so untouchable? Or is the Kremlin simply waiting to be less public with him?

It’s hard to imagine that the former hot dog vendor would escape unscathed after humiliating the Russian leader in full view of the world. The chaotic spectacle of Prigozhin’s armed uprising and the ease with which he and his Wagnerian mercenaries appeared to seize control of Rostov shattered Putin’s carefully cultivated image as a strong leader. Hours after Putin vowed to take “brutal” action against the coup organizers, they walked away. And in another blow to Putin, crowds of supporters of Rostov were filmed cheering and shaking hands with the Wagner militants.

That may have played a role in the decision to let the whole thing rest. Prigozhin has garnered considerable support among pro-war advocates in recent months, and has gained traction among ordinary Russians by positioning himself as an anti-elitist crusader (warning: he’s not). His frequent criticism of the country’s military leadership has also earned him praise for his “honesty” from some Russians who previously had no idea who he was.

An unnamed source close to the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces was quoted as saying Saturday by independent Russian news agency iStories that Putin had ordered the security services to “liquidate” Prigozhin to avoid engaging in skirmishes in Russian cities.

“Putin doesn’t need a big shootout, so the main task is to eliminate Prigozhin and tear off the backbone of Wagner, which promises amnesty [to Wagner fighters] for this shame,” the source said.

It’s not clear if the security services made any attempt to take down Prigozhin during the brief takeover, but eventually he was allowed to leave and even happily posed for photos as he left Rostov. It may be that Moscow realized that if Prigozhin went out in glory in the midst of his rebellion, he could become a martyr.

Several Russian officers anonymously interviewed by the Moscow Times also said most troops were simply unwilling to face off against Wagner fighters to protect cities from a takeover. “The mood is that no one will die for Moscow. Everyone understands that this is not about protection from the enemy, but dirty internal skirmishes. There’s no point in dying for it,” one officer said.

Others said they actually supported Prigozhin: “That’s why almost all roads are open to them.” [Wagner] For the same reason, they managed to take Rostov-on-Don within hours without a single shot.”


A fighter from the private mercenary group Wagner walks past a tank on a street near a local circus in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.


But Prigozhin also appears to have invested in some powerful figures, including Yuri Kovalchuk, a close friend of Putin and a billionaire who is considered one of Russia’s most influential figures. Independent media outlet Meduza last November quoted a source close to the Kremlin as calling Prigozhin a “tool” of Yuri Kovalchuk and his brother Mikhail. According to the Kovalchuk brothers, together with Prigozhin they created a “patriotic” and “anti-elitist” political movement that could eventually develop into a party.

Prigozhin also reportedly met with Rosneft boss Igor Sechin last March, and the Wagner boss is said to have agreed with the Putin ally to sponsor some of his projects.

It’s not clear what exactly he’ll be doing in Belarus or how long he’ll stay there (if he actually moves there). As of Saturday night, the mercenary boss was silent on social media and Russian prosecutors had already blocked him on the popular networking site VK.

For his part, Putin had apparently retreated to his bunker after the whole dizzying saga, with his spokesman confirming to reporters that the Russian leader had absolutely nothing to say: “No, no. We told you everything we wanted and could tell you.”

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