Stephen Bryen believes Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Russia’s Wagner group mercenary army, died in the wreckage of one of his private planes on August 23. Some early news reports noted speculation Prighozin might not have been aboard.
Bryen also strongly suspects that the plane was shot down, not felled by a bomb smuggled on board or mechanical accident. But he is not sure Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the spectacular assassination of his ally-turned-challenger.
A former senior Pentagon official and defense industry executive, Bryen thinks Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, had the means and motive to act with or without Putin’s prior endorsement.
Speaking to a Jewish Policy Center webinar August 24, the writer of Substack’s “Weapons and Strategy” column, whose work also appears in Asia Times, Newsweek, The Washington Times and elsewhere, said images of the private jet’s wreckage seemed to show shrapnel holes in the remains of one wing. “You wouldn’t get shrapnel from an explosion on the plane … you would get it from anti-aircraft missiles.”
Bryen said “the plane was flying at 28,000 feet and still climbing.” Only certain ground-to-air missiles like those of the Russian SS-20 system—not to mention fighter aircraft—would have been able to blast it out of the sky 100 miles northwest of Moscow. The regular Russian military possesses SS20s in the region of the crash. “The GRU has them too,” Bryen said.
“My speculation is that the GRU [Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation] wanted to take back control from Wagner,” he added. The mercenary group, active on the Kremlin’s behalf in Africa and Syria, took the lead from the regular army in the nine-month battle for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, Bryen said. While it lost many from its reported peak total of 50,000 troops, Wagner eventually drove back a larger Ukrainian force.
Prigozhin and Wagner embarrassed and undermined the regular military, and Putin, with a short-lived mutiny and abortive march on Moscow in June. In the aftermath, in exchange for giving Prigozhin and Wagner the choice of merging into the army or deploying to Belarus,
“Putin had promised to protect Prigozhin,” Bryen said. The two grew up in the same Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg) neighborhood. Bryen noted that the pair previously cooperated and Prighozin, once imprisoned for years as a thief, used a catering empire as a platform for a private army useful to Putin.
Bryen, who twice received the Pentagon’s highest civilian award, said former President Bill Clinton observed that “Putin keeps his promises. … So, if he promised to protect Prighozin, he probably tried to.” At the time of the plane crash, Putin had been in Kursk, celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s World War II victory over Nazi Germany in a battle there. “He was hustled back to Moscow … and beyond that we don’t know anything.”
The GRU “is much more powerful than the FSB [Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB intelligence/secret police],” he said. “It’s not like our DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency],” which is primarily analytical, Bryen noted. “GRU is analytical and operational. … Its special forces are big.”
Prigozhin’s elimination, along with his number two, Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian army officer and Wagner’s actual founding leader, helps restore Putin’s image that was tarnished by the mercenaries’ rebellion. “But if it’s true that it was not, he who ordered this … he has to watch his back,” Bryen said.
Meanwhile, Russia’s war against Ukraine may be tilting in its favor. Bryen said the Russian army has trained 250,000 to 350,000 reserves. “It now has approximately 100,000 [troops] in Ukraine” and, with Kyiv’s anticipated spring-summer offensive apparently failed, Bryen does not think Moscow needs Wagner mercenaries there.
The fighting “has cost Ukraine huge amounts of troops and equipment … including Western equipment.” Bryen thinks the war “is getting more and more difficult for Ukraine.” The longer it takes to negotiate a settlement, “the more territory Russia will take.” He believes talks will happen soon.
Bryen called the massive aid provided by the United States and NATO allies to Ukraine unprecedented in modern times and noted “some argue it leaves us naked elsewhere in the world” instead of by example strengthening U.S. deterrence against China, Iran, North Korean and others.
Tension between Poland and Belarus may be reduced with Wagner troops apparently out of the latter. Polish forces “are much better than Belarus’ troops,” Bryen said. In addition, “the Poles have their own ambitions, let’s be honest. … If for some reason the Ukrainian government collapses, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Poland take the Lviv region” from Ukraine “and the Russians not do much about it.”