Friday, December 29, 2023

Wagner Group: "How Putin’s Right-Hand Man Took Out Prigozhin"

From The Wall Street Journal, December 22:

Nikolai Patrushev, a top ally of the Russian leader for decades, put in motion the assassination of the mutinous chief of the Wagner mercenary group

On the tarmac of a Moscow airport in late August, Yevgeny Prigozhin waited on his Embraer Legacy 600 for a safety check to finish before it could take off. The mercenary army chief was headed home to St. Petersburg with nine others onboard. Through the delay, no one inside the cabin noticed the small explosive device slipped under the wing.

When the jet finally left, it climbed for about 30 minutes to 28,000 feet, before the wing blew apart, sending the aircraft spiraling to the ground. All 10 people were killed, including Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner paramilitary group.

The assassination of the warlord was two months in the making and approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s oldest ally and confidant, an ex-spy named Nikolai Patrushev, according to Western intelligence officials and a former Russian intelligence officer. The role of Patrushev as the driver of the plan to kill Prigozhin hasn’t been previously reported.  

The Kremlin has denied involvement in Prigozhin’s death, and Putin offered the closest thing to an official explanation for the plane’s fiery crash, suggesting a hand grenade had detonated onboard.

None of that was true. 

Hours after the incident, a European involved in intelligence gathering who maintained a backchannel of communication with the Kremlin and saw news of the crash asked an official there what had happened.

“He had to be removed,” the Kremlin official responded without hesitation.

Collision course
Patrushev had warned Putin for a long time that Moscow’s reliance on Wagner in Ukraine was giving Prigozhin too much political and military clout that was increasingly threatening the Kremlin.

With tens of thousands of troops and lucrative gold, timber and diamond operations in Africa, Prigozhin managed a multibillion-dollar empire overseas. But back in Russia and on the battlefield in Ukraine, his public confrontations with the military’s top brass over weapons and supplies had put him on a collision course with the Kremlin.

When that boiled over into an outright mutiny in late June against Russia’s military commanders—with an armed march on Moscow by some of Wagner’s 25,000 fighters and tanks—Patrushev stepped in to ward off the biggest challenge yet to Putin’s more than two-decade rule. He also saw an opportunity to eliminate Prigozhin for good.

In interviews with Western intelligence agencies, former U.S. and Russian security and intelligence officials, and former Kremlin officials, The Wall Street Journal unearthed new details about the mutiny and murder of Russia’s most powerful warlord and the previously unknown role of Patrushev in reasserting Putin’s authority over an increasingly unstable Russia.

Through the power of state-controlled media and his own persona, Putin has unsettled the West with his image as a determined adversary who rules Russia alone. In fact, he is kept in power by a vast bureaucracy that has proven durable through deepening hostilities with the West and rising domestic divisions over the botched invasion of Ukraine.

Controlling the levers of that machine is Patrushev. He has climbed to the top by interpreting Putin’s policies and carrying out his orders. Throughout Putin’s reign, he has expanded Russia’s security services and terrorized its enemies with assassinations at home and abroad. More recently his profile has grown, backing Russia’s invasion, and his son Dmitry, a former banker, has been appointed agriculture minister and is touted by some as a potential successor to Putin.

Patrushev’s handling of Prigozhin has helped Putin claim control ahead of the presidential elections next year.

Former colleagues of Patrushev describe him as a sober bureaucrat who, like Putin, spurns the media, relying on daily readouts about the world from Russia’s security services. Like Putin, he joined the spy services in the 1970s, and stuck with the service through the collapse of the Soviet Union when other officers flocked to more lucrative jobs in Russia’s nascent private sector. 

Patrushev, 72, sees Russia locked in a struggle with the U.S., which he has said wants to steal Russia’s oil and minerals. He salts conspiracy theories into speeches and interviews. Earlier this year, he told Russia’s Izvestia newspaper that the U.S. is plotting to take over Russia because a massive volcanic eruption in Wyoming could soon make it uninhabitable. 

His role in some of the darker chapters of Putin’s presidency underscores the often deadly consequences for anyone who falls afoul of the Kremlin.

Russian officials and Patrushev didn’t respond to requests for comment.

U.S. officials said soon after Prigozhin’s death that preliminary government assessments found the crash was the result of an assassination plot.

Rise of the spy
In photos of him and Putin, Patrushev is a figure in the background, mostly unnoticed in an unremarkable dark suit. Daily, he travels in a Russian-made Aurus limousine to his spartan office in the presidential administration complex, steps away from the Kremlin, said former Kremlin officials. His phone calls are usually encrypted....

....MUCH MORE, they go deep.