Ukraine at D+547: Russia works on a plane crash narrative.
N2K logoAug 25, 2023

The world looks at the crash of the Wagner Group boss's business jet and sees the hand of President Putin. Russian state mouthpieces see the work of the Anglo-Saxons (with "Anglo-Saxon" interpreted expansively).

Ukraine at D+547: Russia works on a plane crash narrative.

Al Jazeera reports that Ukrainian officials say their forces have made incremental but significant advances in the vicinity of Bakhmut and Melitopol, and Russian missile strikes injured seven in the city of Dnipro. Ukrainian authorities also claim to have conducted a successful "special operation"--evidently an amphibious raid--into Russian-occupied Crimea. It's apparently this raid that destroyed the S-400 air defense battery this week.

Notes on the destruction of Mr. Prigozhin's Embraer.

A preliminary US intelligence assessment, anonymous sources tell the AP, attributes the destruction of Yevgenyi Prigozhin's aircraft to "an intentional explosion." Defense Department spokesman, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, said that reports that a missile knocked the plane down were inaccurate, but declined to offer any more information. US sources do think the explosion is consistent with President Putin's record of killing opponents.

The Guardian reports that Russian officials have denounced Western conclusions that President Putin ordered the killings as "an absolute lie," and that they've also refused to officially, definitively, confirm Mr. Prigozhin's death, although apparently a funeral is planned for the Wagner Group boss. For his part, President Putin said, speaking of Mr. Prigozhin in the past tense, "I want to express my most sincere condolences to the families of all the victims. It's always a tragedy, I had known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the start of the 90s. He was a man with a difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life."

The UK's Ministry of Defense addressed the implications of Mr. Prigozhin's death in its morning report. "On 23 August 2023, exactly two months after the Wagner Group’s mutiny, a Wagner-associated Embraer business jet crashed near Tver, between Moscow and St Petersburg. The Russian authorities claim 10 people on board died, including Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin. There is not yet definitive proof that Prigozhin was onboard and he is known to exercise exceptional security measures. However, it is highly likely that he is indeed dead. The demise of Prigozhin would almost certainly have a deeply destabilising effect on the Wagner Group. His personal attributes of hyper-activity, exceptional audacity, a drive for results and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor. Wagner’s leadership vacuum would be compounded by the reports that founder and field commander Dimitry Utkin and logistics chief Valery Chekalov also died."

The Institute for the Study of War offers this assessment of the late Mr. Prigozhin's PMC: "The Wagner Group will likely no longer exist as a quasi-independent parallel military structure following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s almost certain assassination of Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin, and reported Wagner logistics and security head Valery Chekalov on August 23."

Who benefits from the crash?

So who took down Mr. Prigozhin's Embraer, and why? The theories now in circulation within Russia hold either that (1) the Anglo-Saxons did it, by placing a bomb on board, or (2) the Ukrainians did it, also with a bomb (really the same theory as the first, since in the ultras' view the Ukrainians are just the local manifestation of Anglo-Saxonia), or (3) it was the weather. As he so often does, state television presenter Vladimir Solovyov serves up all three theories piping hot, with a little assist from Evgeny Tishkovets, the patriotic blinky who serves as his show's weatherman.

Vladimir Rudolfovich begins by asking cui bono, that is, who stood to gain from Mr. Prigozhin's death? “Prigozhin and Wagner did not present any threat to the Kremlin! None at all... They presented a colossal threat for the European countries! I’m trying to figure out who might have benefited from it. The very last person it would benefit is Putin!,” Solovyov insisted, going on to cite President Putin's reputation for probity in further support of this view. “Putin gave a word, he forgave all of them... Putin was never known not to keep his word! He is a man of his reputation… all about the laws.” He added a disavowal of any gangsterism. “We’re not a gang! We are not the mafia! This is not Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather. We are a nation of laws!”

So who does benefit? “The Anglo-Saxons are undoubtedly behind this crime!” ("Anglo-Saxons" is here interpreted expansively, since it includes France, Poland, the Baltic states and NATO countries, but perhaps these are to be regarded as mere hangers-on.) “This does not benefit Russia at all!”

Also, the Ukrainians did it, as part of their celebrations of their Independence Day yesterday. “For Ukraine, this is a major celebration! Yesterday, the Ukrainian segment of the Internet exploded in total happiness! For them, Prigozhin is target number one!”

This position represents a change of editorial stance on Mr. Solovyov's part. On Tuesday he was demanding accountability for the pilots' lives lost to Wagnerite fire during the march on Moscow. “15 pilots have perished during a mutiny! Who answered for them? No one!” Presumably Mr. Prigozhin should have been answerable.

Why would a ruler seek the death of a mercenary captain?

In Chapter 12 of The Prince, Machiavelli expressed a very low opinion of hired soldiers. "Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you. They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe."

Machiavelli is too hard on the mercenaries. History, especially recent history, has shown that mercenaries are all too willing to kill, and to risk death in the process. They do it, not out of patriotic zeal or righteous commitment, but out of a kind of darkly romanticized notion of manhood: stick by your buddies and show those goons on the other side what you're made of. (They also often exhibit a high degree of self-confidence and a belief in their luck that can approach the superstitious.) In Russia's war against Ukraine (and also, let us not forget, in the sad wars that persist in Africa) where there are plenty of defenseless civilians to prey upon and terrorize, they do just fine. And their dank romanticism fits nicely into the strange, hot nihilism that seems to animate so much of contemporary Russian political and historical thought.

But Machiavelli is on much firmer ground in his strictures against mercenary leaders. "The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way." President Putin gets this. At least, he does now.

A new hacktivist group emerges, and takes a particular interest in NATO members.

CyberScoop reports being in touch with a hacktivist group that's calling itself "KittenSec." KittenSec says they're a new outfit, "although," CyberScoop writes, "they acknowledged connections to other hacktivist groups, including ThreatSec and GhostSec." GhostSec is known for an online campaign against Islamist activity it began in the wake of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. (It's also known to have acted against Russian targets during the present war. It styles itself as an opponent of oppression. ThreatSec positions itself in much the same way.)

KittenSec says it's an opponent of corruption. Its first target set, hit at the end of July, was Romanian. Since then it's been active against targets in Greece, France, Chile, Panama, and Italy, but it disclaims any political allegiance and says its operations have nothing to do with Russia's war against Ukraine. The operation against Romania, the group told CyberScoop, “has nothing to do with the war between Russia and Ukraine,” but it is “retaliation against the countries of NATO for their attacks on human rights.” KittenSec doesn't appear to be financially motivated. Many hacktivist groups are fronts for state intelligence services, and KittenSec's particular animus against NATO suggests the possibility of a Russian connection, although that remains a matter of circumstantial speculation.