Putin, Prigozhin And The Shadow Of Anastasia – OpEd


According to Mafia lore, notorious mob boss Albert Anastasia ordered the murder of informant Arnold Schuster in 1952 after watching an interview on television in which Schuster recounted how he had assisted police in identifying and capturing fugitive bank robber Willi ‘the Actor’ Sutton, a criminal unknown to Anastasia who had no links to his crew.

Legend also has it that he subsequently had the hitman who he had ordered to carry out the killing of Schuster murdered after he had carried out this deed. It seems the only reason he had this hitman killed was to ‘tie up loose ends’ and thereby ensure that authorities would not be able to trace Schuster’s murder back to him.

We will never be able to verify the facts of this story as Anastasia was himself brutally slain in a gangland shooting only a few short years later in 1957. In a grim twist of irony, one of the reasons cited for why he had to die was because he had ordered the killing of the hitman who murdered Arnold Schuster. By murdering a loyal soldier who had only been carrying out his orders, or so the accusers who decided on his fate charged, he had violated an important rule that leaders in shadowy, rigidly hierarchical organisations whose business is trade in the exercise of power are expected to abide: loyalty is never to be rewarded with deception and betrayal. In so doing, he had clearly shown that he was unhinged and seemingly out of control. Cynically speaking, the loose ends he sought to bind were not as tightly bound as he thought they were.

One was reminded of this tale and the insights it reveals into the code of behaviour which governs members of such organisations in the aftermath of the death of Wagner mercenary group head Yevgeny Prigozhin and other high-ranking leaders of the company in a mysterious plane crash last week. Details remain sketchy at this stage and investigations into the circumstances surrounding the crash are underway.

Despite this, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive and several theories have been churned up as to ‘why’ he died. The most common of these is that the crash which killed him was not accidental but deliberate. For obvious reasons, suspicion has fallen on President Putin. In terms of this hypothesis, President Putin ordered his assassination in retaliation for the short-lived coup attempt he (Mr Prigozhin) launched back in June. It is further opined that the killing of Mr Prigozhin was a vivid demonstration of power by President Putin that was meant to show that he would not tolerate any challenge to his rule. Although by no means a consensus, the general view is that the level of ruthlessness he displayed in carrying out this act of vengeance will serve to strengthen his rule.

Beliefs about President Putin’s culpability and the likely effect Mr Prigozhin’s murder will have on his grip on power, however, rest upon several untested assumptions and oversights that reveal much more about what critics believe about Russia and the workings of the Russian state than the actual circumstances surrounding the crash in which Mr Prigozhin was killed or the series of events leading up thereto suggest. Take, for instance, the presumption that the investigation into the crash that is being conducted by the relevant Russian authorities (the Investigative Committee of Russia in this case) will be a sham. While certainly not unheard for the deaths of high-profile political figures to be covered up by authorities in Russia, or any state (autocratic or otherwise) for that matter, by dismissing the outcome of any investigation as a foregone conclusion, those rushing to condemn Mr Putin lay claim to inside knowledge of the incompetence, corruption or both of investigators and their fealty to President Putin personally rather than the rule of law that few bar those in the innermost circles of power in Russia are likely to possess.

Ignored too is the fact that President Putin not only commented publicly on Mr Prigozhin’s death but also extended his personal condolences to his family. In stark contrast to the other times he has stood accused of being responsible for committing some or other heinous crime, he did not use the occasion when he made these remarks as an opportunity to defend his country or rail against those who have made these charges against him. This show of respect is not usually accorded members of the families of the seemingly countless critics and opponents of the Kremlin who have died under similarly mysterious circumstances throughout his reign.

Yet the greatest assumption that those who charge that President Putin had Mr Prigozhin killed subscribe to is that the ‘crime’ for which he was executed was insurrection and an attempt to overthrow the government through a coup d’état. This explanation, however reasonable it sounds or, daresay, regardless of the justification it provides, downplays the substantial political mileage that President Putin’s regime has been able to extract from this incident. Arguably, these benefits are potentially so significant as to offer sufficient grounds to cast doubt upon or at least cause one to question the standard narrative that Mr Prigozhin had ‘gone rogue’ and had carried out this treasonous act without President Putin’s knowledge if not tacit endorsement or even active involvement. Readers are referred to an earlier piece (Boyce, 2023) for a discussion of some of the potential benefits which a farcical incident along the lines of Mr Prigozhin’s coup attempt confers on President Putin.

Questioning the validity of this assumption is far from mere armchair speculation as it has a direct bearing on any assessment of the possible implications Mr Prigozhin’s death will have on Mr Putin’s regime. Without a clear understanding of what exactly happened two months ago and more information on Mr Prigozhin’s underlying motives for taking the actions he did, it is impossible to treat any exercise which speculates on the consequences which his supposed assassination allegedly on the orders of President Putin could have for President Putin’s regime as anything but a diversion at best or misinformation at worst.

To see why it matters, assume for the sake of argument that Mr Putin did in fact murder Mr Prigozhin as alleged and further, that Mr Prigozhin did really attempt to stage a coup back in June. In this case, Mr Prigozhin’s death is likely to be interpreted by those who know the rules of the game and play by them as a necessary, albeit not entirely pleasant, action that President Putin had to take to enforce discipline on a wayward underling who had stepped out of line. Crucially, his death is also likely to be accepted as such by members of the Wagner group or any other of his business associates who stand to lose by his death. If, on the other hand, President Putin did murder Mr Prigozhin but the operation he conducted in June was not a coup attempt but rather a false flag covert operation that was conducted with the foreknowledge of Mr Putin, however slight, if not at his behest, then President Putin’s decision to have him eliminated is nothing more than a sinister act dictated by the demands of political expediency and the need to tie up loose ends. This would make Mr Putin guilty in the eyes of his associates of the cardinal sin of rewarding loyalty with betrayal.

Since there exists ample indication that Mr Putin, a former intelligence operative, intimately understands this world and is deeply familiar with the mores that govern it, one will refrain from speculating on the fate that awaits him should this be found to be the case and resist the temptation to pronounce on whether this would signal the beginning of the demise of his regime. One can assert with confidence, however, that a revelation of this sort would dramatically affect the esteem and stature in which he is held across Africa, a continent filled with its fair share of ‘Big Men’ who sit at the head of vast patronage networks where greater amounts of tribute are paid to the stronger and more ruthless leaders who sit higher atop the hierarchy of power. Anecdotal evidence suggests that few of them are likely to be altogether squeamish about ordering the murder of rivals and using murder as a means to instil discipline. All, however, are likely to place a premium on personal loyalty and value it more highly than discipline. This is because the cost of ill-discipline is usually far less than the cost of disloyalty. Loyalty is also a far rarer commodity to come by as it must be cultivated and nurtured. Discipline, on the other hand, can be instilled through fear.

It is for this reason that one contends that, while Mr Prigozhin’s plane crashed over Russia, the political debris from the crash will scatter across a wide area of Africa, a continent where he had many friends and considerable business interests, should President Putin be found guilty of ordering his assassination and hints emerge that he might have had a greater inkling of Mr Prigozhin’s plans in June than appearances suggest.


Boyce, G. 2023. The Exile Of Prigozhin And His Fighters To A Potemkin Village In Belarus – OpEd. Eurasia Review, 2 July 2023. Web address: https://www.eurasiareview.com/02072023-the-exile-of-prigozhin-and-his-fighters-to-a-potemkin-village-in-belarus-oped/ Date accessed: 29 August 2023

Gerard Boyce

Gerard Boyce is an economist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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