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Prigozhin is dead. But Putin is now weaker.
Russia's dictator may have eliminated one threat to his power, but he just created fresh ones. And the cracks in his regime are starting to show.
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Yesterday evening, a private plane crashed in the Tver Oblast northwest of Moscow. Onboard, we’re told, were several seriously bad guys, including Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary leader of the notorious Wagner Group, which has committed countless war crimes. The world is better off without him.
Prigozhin led a failed coup/mutiny back in June, which I explained at the time in this piece. The final words of that article have now been validated: “I’m willing to make one concrete prediction: Yevgeny Prigozhin will not die of old age.”
While reports are unconfirmed, there are only two possibilities:
Putin killed Prigozhin (very likely)
This was, improbably, an accident.
Knowing the correct explanation doesn’t matter as much as you might think. And that’s because even if this was a freak accident—which would be one hell of a coincidence—everyone who matters in Russia will think that Putin killed him, so the net effect is likely to be the same: a weaker Putin, a more brittle regime, and a greater risk of Russian instability.
The Dictator Trap
Last year, writing in The Atlantic, I explained what I call “the dictator trap.” The core idea is that, in order to stay in power, despots must pursue strategies that ultimately ensure their eventual downfall.
For example, in order to ensure loyalty and stave off threats, dictators purge those who challenge them—even those who just openly disagree with their opinions. As a result of this strategy, they end up surrounded by yes-men and bobbleheads who tell them what they want to hear rather than what is true, and that leads to a greater risk of catastrophic miscalculation.
The case of Prigozhin illustrates another facet of the dictator trap nicely, because Putin found himself in a Catch-22. If he did nothing, and Prigozhin lived, that would guarantee that others would learn a dangerous lesson: that directly challenging Putin was a viable strategy, because he was so weak due to the war that he couldn’t afford to retaliate.
When dictators start to kill top-level insiders—even those who have challenged the dictator’s authority directly—an intensified paranoia sets in. And who could blame those in Putin’s inner circle for worrying after all of the “mysterious” deaths over the past two decades of Putin’s reign of terror? Some might contemplate whether they’d be better off living in a Russia without Putin, so long as they could define its terms. If insiders fear for their own safety, a palace coup becomes more likely. In that way, getting rid of Prigozhin just shifts and delays the threat.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone senior in the Kremlin. You’ve got a war that’s going terribly, an economy that’s being crippled by sanctions, a populous being kept loyal through propaganda that’s growing increasingly implausible, people are falling out of windows, and planes are falling out of the sky.
At some point, the impulse to develop an insurance policy for self-preservation is going to grow stronger. And in dictatorships, that impulse—when shared and coordinated between elites—leads to the downfall of dictatorships. Putin is therefore playing a dangerous game, because as soon as you start killing people who, until recently, were considered top-level loyalists, it becomes clear that anyone could be next. That focuses the minds of your other apparent loyalists.
Sending a Message
Unless Prigozhin died in a genuine freak accident (again, I find this highly unlikely), then Putin will have chosen a tactic that he’s now well-known for: murdering opponents in highly obvious ways—assassinating someone, then denying it with a smirk and a wink.
When these not-so-mysterious deaths happen, many people ask the same question: why not kill opponents in a more subtle way? Surely Prigozhin could have “tripped” and been hit by a bus, or had a heart attack, or died in a way that at least seemed more likely to be unrelated to political events.
This line of questioning reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of dictatorships.
Murdering rivals is most valuable if it sends a message, and that requires everyone assuming that you, the dictator, ordered it. When everyone thinks you did it, it serves an instrumental purpose: causing others to think twice before crossing you. It’s the equivalent of Putin sending the same message as Omar from The Wire: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
But there’s no free lunch in dictatorships, and sending that message comes with a cost. Specifically, it pushes the dictator further down into the dictator trap, because fear begins to overwhelm judgment, and insiders think only of self-preservation. That means dictators get told the truth even less often, which causes them to make decisions based on bad information, which leads to bad decisions, in a vicious cycle.
When democracies work as designed, political survival is tied to producing results for the good of the country. When dictatorships work as designed, political survival is tied to pleasing one man. That’s why democracies are stronger.
And that’s also why it’s clear, as I wrote yesterday, that Putin has—like so many dictators before him—made the classic error of autocracies:
wrongly conflating ruthless violence with strength. True strength—and lasting power—comes from regimes that are resilient. The apparent death of Yevgeny Prighozin instead reveals a brittle dictatorship with cracks and divisions that will continue to grow over time.
Nobody knows what will come next in Putin’s Russia. But anyone who thinks that killing a rival to reassert control is a show of strength, not weakness, is delusional. Strong leaders don’t need to kill their rivals, because they inspire loyalty instead.
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