From Nemtsov to Prigozhin: The evolution of Putin’s hit list and what it means for Russia

The fiery demise of Yevgeny Prigozhin in a mysterious plane crash sent shockwaves across Russia and around the world. As head of the Wagner mercenary group and a vocal critic of Russia’s military leadership, Prigozhin had come to embody the nationalist fury over the flailing invasion of Ukraine.

His dramatic takedown reveals much about the pressure building inside Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and the regime’s trajectory going forward.

Just two months before his death, Prigozhin led an abortive mutiny, marching his forces to the outskirts of Moscow and threatening to oust the top brass overseeing the war effort. Putin denounced this act of “armed mutiny” in the harshest terms, yet he took weeks to respond. When revenge came, it was swift and severe.

This incident is not an isolated one, but part of a pattern that has been emerging in Putin’s Russia. Previously, the Kremlin’s wrath was directed at liberal opposition figures, as with the brazen murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015. Oligarchs who dared to oppose Putin or finance opposition were similarly targeted. These actions were aimed at suppressing dissent and consolidating power.

Now, the situation has evolved. Putin’s recent actions against generals, nationalists and even members of his team reveal a new level of paranoia. The arrest of key military figures and the elimination of Prigozhin, once considered a puppet, demonstrate that Putin now sees threats from within his own ranks.

With the organizers of the Wagner rebellion now eliminated, Putin is sending a chilling message. The Kremlin will ruthlessly purge any dissenters and rivals for power, no matter how influential. Having dealt with his over-ambitious mercenary chieftain, Putin is now moving to reshape the security services and military leadership to his liking. Generals deemed incompetent or disloyal are dismissed, with loyalty prioritized over competence in new appointees.

The plane crash makes clear that Putin sees threats looming not just from liberal opposition but also from ultra-nationalists and figures like Prigozhin with bases of support in Russian society. In today’s Kremlin, sycophancy is the price of survival.

These dynamics point to a bleak future for Putin’s regime and Russia overall. The space for dissent will only narrow further, into a neo-Stalinist totalitarian model requiring absolute allegiance. Tactical military decisions will increasingly reflect only Putin’s detached whims.

With generals now serving at his pleasure, Putin has removed the last potential check on disastrous battlefield strategies. The rebuilding of Russia’s battered military will fall to commanders chosen for fealty rather than merit. Fresh conscripts will be sacrificed in the thousands to redeem Putin’s fantasies of conquest.

Domestically, the elimination of Prigozhin leaves nationalist passions boiling with no outlet. Expect more repression as the Kremlin tries containing this anger over the failed Ukraine adventure. Any remaining rivals or critics among the elite will be incentivized to keep their heads down, entering a spiritual emigration evocative of the Soviet era.

The plane crash crystallized Russia’s accelerating transformation into an updated hermit kingdom on the North Korean model. Fear and paranoia will dominate the Kremlin halls and tactical decisions will be warped by a siege mentality as the regime turns inward. Those few advisers still allowed into Putin’s sanctum will compete in traditional displays of loyalty, unable to speak hard truths. In such an echo chamber, critical perspectives vanish.

The irony is that Putin’s increasing reliance on coercion and purges will only accelerate Russia’s decline. Prigozhin’s elimination removed a capable battlefield commander, and tightening the screws on a restive populace risks blowback. But an ex-KGB man knows no other model of control.

So Russia is condemned to follow this downward spiral, to become what Putin most fears — an international pariah, economically isolated and technologically stagnant. Prigozhin’s crash merely confirmed the inevitable plunge. The only question is how destructive the crash landing will be for its neighbors and the world.

Western governments and international organizations must recognize the shifting dynamics within the Kremlin and adapt their strategies accordingly. Sanctions and diplomatic pressure may need to be recalibrated to address the new threats emerging from Putin’s tightening grip on power.

Furthermore, the world must be prepared for the unpredictable actions of a leader who sees enemies everywhere, even among his closest allies. The murder of liberal opposition figures and the suppression of dissenting oligarchs were alarming enough, but the recent actions against military figures and nationalists mark a new and dangerous phase.

The lessons of history teach us that leaders consumed by paranoia and isolated from reality can make catastrophic decisions. The international community must be vigilant, unified and prepared to respond to a Russia that is increasingly unpredictable and potentially more dangerous.

Maksym Skrypchenko is president of the Transatlantic Dialogue Center.

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