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Russia expert says it would make sense that Putin was behind the death of Prigozhin

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We don't know what caused a private plane to crash in Russia yesterday, killing all 10 people on board. We do know that Yevgeny Prigozhin was on the flight manifest. He led a coup attempt against Russian President Vladimir Putin in June. And today, Putin expressed condolences to the families of those killed in the plane crash. He reminisced about his long acquaintance with the head of the Wagner mercenary group and referred to Prigozhin in the past tense.

So was this Putin's revenge against the man who threatened his power? Fiona Hill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and she has worked as a White House adviser on Russia. She's also written extensively about Putin. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

FIONA HILL: Thank you so much, Ari. Great to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with two very basic questions. Do you believe that Prigozhin is dead, and do you believe that Putin was behind it?

HILL: Well, I think on both of those scores, the answer would be yes right now. I think there was something of a question about that until Putin made the comments that you yourself have just relayed to the audience here. There was all kinds of speculation bouncing around the internet, you know, a lot of memes as well as, you know, more serious analysis about, you know, has he really gone? A lot of people wanting to kind of wait to comment until they had some sort of DNA evidence, for example. But, you know, here you have Putin, as you said, referring to him in the past tense, making some commentary on his past relationship with him. That's vintage Putin.

And then the second, you know, got to question, which I'm sure that most other commentators have also agreed in the affirmative with is, was Putin behind it? You know, absolutely. You know, you have to recall that two months ago, almost exactly to the moment that Prigozhin plummets from the sky in this plane, he was doing this crazy march towards Moscow and in the course of which he shot down a plane - his people shot down a plane with 13 Russian servicemen on. And, you know, within the Russian system, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and, you know, a certain amount of vengeance, you know, is baked in. So at this point, it wouldn't be just Putin and those immediate people around him who would want to see the demise of Yevgeny Prigozhin. It would also be want from the uniformed military - certainly from the air force - some kind of accounting for what he did then.

SHAPIRO: Not to make light of someone's death, but does this seem a little bit in-your-face and crass for a KGB guy who is known to serve his enemies Polonium-laced tea and help them out of open windows?

HILL: Well, this is the ultimate window, isn't it? It's the big window in the sky. So, you know, you can put that into that same category. And of course it's crass. It's, you know, deliberately showy. It's demonstrative. We also have to put this in the context of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny with Polonium in his underpants, which, you know, has an element of the absurd as well as the horrific about it. And, of course, you know, the brutal assassination of Boris Nemtsov on a bridge within sight to the Kremlin walls.

So, you know, this is par for the course, unfortunately, in Russia. Many people have referred repeatedly to sudden Russian death syndrome and all of these gruesome ways in which people meet their end at the hands of the state. And people related to it. It's meant to be like that, to get attention - everyone's attention at home and abroad - so that we're just all fully cognizant of what Russia is capable of, at least the people who are ruling Russia are capable of.

SHAPIRO: The coup attempt was seen as a serious blow to Putin's hold on power. Do you think this restores him to the former level of strength?

HILL: Well, look. It's something that people have been anticipating all along. And I think there has been a lot of caution from all kinds of people who watch events in Russia very closely, you know, basically warning, you know, for some time now, don't count Putin out. And this is his message to domestic critics, to all of the international community, don't count me out. And, you know, the fact that he waited, you know, for two months, you know - and I'm sure we'll find out more information about this as we go along - really emphasizes that. Again, this is what Putin is trying to project right now is a man who can do things on his own time scale.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Prigozhin had this massive private army at his disposal. And so what do you think the mercenaries of the Wagner Group do now?

HILL: You know, the Wagner Group has served many purposes in terms of its mercenary and mythical status and, you know, real things that they've done and then the propaganda and scare factor effects that have been surrounding it. And what I would imagine is it gets reconstituted in some form. So I would just say, you know, watch this space. And certainly, there will be a great desire of the state to pick up the very well-trained and experienced servicemen, the contact forces of the Wagner Group. In fact, that is one of the factors that already precipitated the whole debacle and spectacle of Prigozhin's putsch two months ago, was already the reports that the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry were trying to take all of the Wagner forces into the regular uniformed military.

SHAPIRO: And so do you think the Wagner Group gets reconstituted under the umbrella of the Russian armed forces or in a way that could continue to pose a threat to Putin?

HILL: Well, it won't be reconstitute in a way that poses a threat to Putin in terms of the plans of the Kremlin to reconstitute it. But we can be sure that there will be some reorganization and some way of trying to use the same off-the-books, although we now know that was completely on-the-books methods using mercenary fighters and more flexible forces in some way. So I think, you know, the Russians have seen that this is pretty effective and can be very efficient and, you know, kind of a totally different way of doing things. But there will probably be much more of a desire to have a tighter grip on future forces by the Central Defense Ministry and by people in the Kremlin, rather than giving them a basically a loose rein, a longer leash, as was the case with Wagner.

However, there may still be some threats to Putin from people associated with the Wagner Group. So I would also suggest that we watch very closely, you know, to see what happens next in terms of other assassinations, mysterious disappearances. We've heard about Sergei Surovikin, the general who was close to Prigozhin being demoted. Let's, you know, watch his fate. There could be a lot of clearing up here, which has happened again repeatedly over the last few decades under the Putin regime in Russia.

SHAPIRO: Clearing up - quite a euphemism. Fiona Hill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much.

HILL: No, thank you so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Tinbete Ermyas
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.