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Prigozhin’s Treason & the Price of Betrayal

Prigozhin was an insider, somebody who existed entirely within the system of power that Putin built.
Prigozhin was an insider, somebody who existed entirely within the system of power that Putin built. Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
August 23, 2023

Yevgeny Prigozhin, it seems, is dead. This afternoon, his Embraer jet, with ten passengers on board, fell vertically from the sky after witnesses reported hearing two explosions. With uncharacteristic swiftness for the Russian state bureaucracy, the Kremlin’s aviation agency announced that Prigozhin was listed on the flight manifest within the hour. Three hours later, as responders sorted through the burning, body-strewn debris just north of Moscow, Telegram channels associated with Prigozhin’s private military company confirmed his death. Exactly two months after the Wagner leader announced his “March of Fairness” on Moscow, in what was broadly interpreted as an attempted coup, Prigozhin finally met his end. 

His death was inevitable. At the Aspen Security Forum in July, C.I.A. Director Bill Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, was asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: Why, after marching on the capital and challenging the czar, was Prigozhin still alive? Why, unlike General Surovikin, rumored to be imprisoned since the mutiny, was Prigozhin still a free man? Burns responded that we’d get the answer soon enough. “Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback,” he said, “so if I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food-taster.”

And yet, it wasn’t the food or a window or even a bullet. Instead, Prigozhin was shot out of the sky, a spectacular touch by a man who clearly wanted to leave no doubt as to what had just happened and why. 

Even as we waited for confirmation, and rumors of a second Prigozhin plane swirled on Telegram, Russians understood exactly what the boss was trying to tell them. “It’s an absolutely clear signal to all the elites, really,” wrote the media personality Ksenia Sobchak, the untouchable daughter of Putin’s political mentor and former boss Anatoly Sobchak. “For everyone who had any kind of seditious thought, about the progress of the special military operation, and about anything at all.” Then, as someone who would know exactly how seriously Putin takes loyalty, she posted a clip from a 2018 interview with Putin, in which he is asked, “Do you know how to forgive?”

“Yes,” Putin says. “But not everything.”

“What is unforgivable?” the interviewer responds.

“Betrayal,” says Putin, his face turning dark. 

It’s not the first time Putin has voiced his opinion of betrayal. In 2010, when 10 Russian sleeper agents were uncovered by the F.B.I. and exchanged for four people the Kremlin had accused of spying, Putin blamed “betrayal” for the unmasking of the Russian “illegals.” “And traitors,” he warned at the time, “never end well.” Indeed, people he has seen as traitors—like former F.S.B. agents Alexander Litvinenko and Sergey Skripal—are now known in the West not for the fact that they defected, but for the punishments Putin meted out to them. Litvinenko and Skripal had been members of Putin’s own organization, the F.S.B., before they broke with it, an unforgivable act of betrayal. Litvinenko spent months dying of radiation poisoning, on camera, in a British hospital after his tea was spiked with radioactive Polonium. Skripal nearly died when he and his daughter, Yulia, were targeted with the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, England, in 2018. 

This was, by the way, Novichok’s international debut, two years before it was used on Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. But unlike Prigozhin, Navalny is not a traitor. He is competition, he is a pretender for political power, but he is an outsider to Putin’s system; it’s his very brand. Prigozhin, on the other hand, like Sobchak, was an insider, somebody who existed entirely within the system of power that Putin built. They are courtiers at Putin’s palace, obliged to live by his code of conduct, to comply with his standard of loyalty. 

These unwritten rules are called ponyatie, literally “understandings.” I remember riding the Acela with Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2014, just after he was released after 10 years in prison, having his fortune seized and his life broken. Even then, even after bearing the brunt of Putin’s punishment (he was his competition) and becoming Putin’s sworn enemy, Khodorkovsky clearly thought in these same terms as the Putin and his elite. He kept referring to ponyatie, how some things conformed to them and other things didn’t. I asked Khodorkovsky then: Where are these rules written and to whom do they apply? He looked at me and said, essentially, They are not written anywhere and whoever needs to know the rules already knows them. 

Meaning, the rules didn’t apply to you, Julia. They apply only to other people in that system. They apply to Litvinenko, to Sobchak, to Prigozhin. As members of the system, they fully know what kind of loyalty is expected of them, and what awaits them if the code is breached. It is also why, ironically, Prigozhin made such a fetish of punishing people he saw as traitors, meting out justice with his trademark sledgehammer to the heads of deserters. Prigozhin was fully on board with these ponyatie. Before he died by them, he had lived by them, too.

It’s strange, then, that Prigozhin didn’t flee or take steps to protect himself. After all, Putin made his intentions very clear on June 24, during his address to the nation as Prigozhin marched on Moscow. “Everyone who consciously took the path of betrayal, who prepared the armed mutiny,” Putin said, “will suffer inescapable punishment. They will answer before the law and before our people.” 

That was the moment that Prigozhin’s fate was decided, the moment that he became, in Putin’s eyes, a traitor. It was why, in announcing his putsch, Prigozhin made sure to clarify that he was not, in fact, a traitor. He had no issues, he claimed, with the czar, only with his corrupt and incompetent generals. He had no intent, he swore, to topple Putin from his throne. Perhaps, given what happened in the intervening two months, Prigozhin thought that he had successfully threaded that needle and convinced Putin that he was not, in fact, a traitor.

Now we know it had been useless. Everything that happened since June 24 had been a ruse, designed to dupe Prigozhin into relaxing, into believing that, perhaps, he was so very special, so absolutely indispensable, that maybe he wasn’t a traitor, and, if he was, the fate meted out to other traitors wouldn’t be his. Unlike his ally Surovikin, he was allowed to roam free, flying his jet back and forth between Moscow and St. Petersburg (what Belarusian exile!). He continued laying plans for reorienting Wagner to Africa, even as the G.R.U. was clearly squeezing him out. (Just yesterday, Prigozhin posted a video, summoning recruits—“strongmen”—to come join him on the continent.) My sources in Moscow began to speak of an African exile as Prigozhin’s likeliest punishment. He even got an audience with Putin inside the Kremlin for three hours. Who wouldn’t think that the danger had passed? 

But today, Putin made absolutely, unmistakably clear that no one had canceled the ponyatie, no one had annulled the verdict or suspended the sentence. A traitor, he had once said, meets one end: “in a ditch.” It’s just that there are many, many ways to land there.