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The Consequences of Defying Putin

by Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon
August 27, 2023 01:10 PM

The crash of a plane that carried Yevgeny Prigozhin and his close Wagner Group associates brings to mind the 2010 crash of the Polish presidential plane in Smolensk, Russia, under similar circumstances.

Prigozhin was a significant political actor, advancing Russian interests internationally and especially in Ukraine, Africa, and the Middle East. Only two months ago, he engaged in a mutiny, protesting the incompetence and corruption of the Russian military. Thus, the death of the leadership of this political powerhouse amounts to the decapitation of an independent factor in Russian politics.

The Polish plane carried not only Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his closest political associates but also NATO-trained commanders of all Polish military services. This similarly amounted to a decapitation strike against the most Western-oriented elite in Poland.

Wagner Group associates claimed Prigozhin’s plane was downed by a missile. It is filmed falling down from the sky in a corkscrew, smoking and without a wing. The Polish plane, some independent experts claimed, was also downed by a missile or the onboard explosion. The presidential plane was directed to approach the Smolensk airport from the east over a forested swamp, though usually, it flew from the direction of western-situated Warsaw. Russian authorities later claimed that it hit a tree, yet when it fell on the swampy ground from a height of 70 meters, it shattered into 63,000 pieces, and the bodies of the passengers were also blown apart. Ominously, a Russian special forces plane flew over the Smolensk airport at virtually the same time.

The Russian government never returned the plane wreckage and black boxes to Poland and controlled the whole investigation, so it is difficult to counter the official finding that the crash was the fault of the “inexperienced” Polish military pilots and the weather. We will probably get a similar story with the investigation of the Prigozhin crash.

Most significantly, Prigozhin and Kaczynski were in the same political position at the time of their deaths. They publicly defied Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin criticized Putin’s closest associates and, indirectly, Putin himself, and he staged a march on Moscow that demonstrated the impotence of Russian special forces and his popularity with ordinary people.

Kaczynski, in the face of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, contacted the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine and flew to Tbilisi. He led a massive protest rally against the invasion and gave a memorable speech in which he said, “Today, Putin is invading Georgia. Tomorrow, it might be Ukraine. Day after tomorrow, he will go after the Baltics, and a time could come for the invasion of my own country, Poland.” His words are considered prophetic. In light of this demonstrated international support for Georgia, organized by Kaczynski, Russian troops stopped their march without taking Tbilisi, though they occupied large chunks of the country.

Thus, the defiance of Putin must be erased by violent death. Nobody is safe. This is a lesson for Western policymakers that Putin will stop at nothing to further his arbitrary rule. Any efforts to reach international agreements with him are only a temporary cover for the next stage of his attempts to gain control by any means. Many Western politicians are naive in thinking that they can convince him to abandon his worldview and strike pragmatic and sustainable “deals” benefiting the West.

In Poland, the crash of the presidential plane resulted in great political polarization between those who accepted the official cause of the crash and those who did not. The same will happen in Russia. It will lead to destabilization and increased efforts to take Putin’s place by his rivals. Further, Prigozhin’s surviving Wagner associates are vowing revenge. The political repercussions of these events will be significant and long-term.

Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon is a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington. She is a strategist, expert, and author on Eastern Europe, Russia, and U.S.-Eastern European relations.