Nonzero Newsletter
Robert Wright's Nonzero
Prigozhin post-mortem (Robert Wright & Nikita Petrov)

Prigozhin post-mortem (Robert Wright & Nikita Petrov)

A Russian discusses the Wagner chief’s decline and fall

Seems like only last week I was saying there wouldn’t be a Nonzero Newsletter sent out today, owing to the end-of-summer quasi-vacation granted to hard-working NZN staffers. And it’s true that the Earthling, the weekend edition of NZN, is skipping this week and next. However, yesterday I had a conversation that was so timely and interesting that I figured I’d share some transcript excerpts—below—with NZN subscribers.

The conversation is with Nikita Petrov, who left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine but is monitoring the Russian zeitgeist (and publishing his newsletter Psychopolitica) from Armenia. The subject of the conversation is Yevgeny Prigozhin, long-time leader of the mercenary Wagner Group.

This June, you might remember, Prigozhin staged a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership. So when his plane blew up a couple of days ago, pretty much everyone suspected Putin’s handiwork. (Although, as Nikita explains, according to a conspiracy theory circulating in Russia, there’s less to Prigozhin’s apparent death than meets the eye.)

Paid subscribers can listen to the full conversation via the audio player above or via their NZN member podcast feed. (To set up that feed, if you’re a paid subscriber and haven’t done that already, click “Listen on” in the audio player and follow the directions.) 

Hope you enjoy the excerpts below. More of the conversation will be available in the public podcast we post next week, though the Overtime segment—the final 40 minutes or so—will remain exclusive to paid subscribers.


Bob: We’re taping this on the day after a plane went down that apparently included Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, along with his top commander, the guy from whom the Wagner Group got its name—“Wagner” was his call sign. 

Nikita: Yep.

Bob: And I actually haven't even looked at the news this morning, but it didn't seem to me there was that much doubt, even though they hadn't identified bodies or anything. I assume no one's doubting that he's— 

Nikita: Well, there are two main theories that I've been hearing. One is the straightforward one: Prigozhin and the top command are dead, and Putin is behind it. 

The other version is: This is Prigozhin’s disappearance. He’s somewhere on an island right now drinking a martini, and this is his way out of the business. Normally I would say there's no reason whatsoever to contemplate that approach. But since this is Prigozhin, and we've seen like six fake passports of his with toupees and beards and whatnot. And generally, he’s, you know, a peculiar character, he's fighting in Africa, and then he's in Ukraine, and he also has a catering business, and a troll farm. I think that's not a zero-chance probability, but I don't think it's a high-chance probability either.

Bob: On the other hand, Russia has always been a hotbed for this kind of theorizing, right? 

Nikita: Yes. Yes. It’s a normal thing for Russians. Whatever happens, there's always a conspiracy theory right away.

Bob: So there’s a pretty high false positive rate on conspiracy theories in Russia—and increasingly in America. Maybe this can bring the two nations together, that we have this in common.

Nikita: I think there is some overlap. I mean, before the war, there were tribes within Russia and the US who were growing closer together, like the QAnon people. And even with the war—

Bob: That kind of makes sense actually. Go ahead.

Nikita: I was surprised. About a month and a half ago, RFK [Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.] got into that scandal because he said something about Covid, and the way his words were interpreted was that there is a chance that it was designed by the Chinese in a lab and it targets certain groups more than others.

Bob: Right. 

Nikita: And he started talking about bioweapons and whatnot. I think he talked about biolabs in Ukraine. 

Bob: Yeah. That's a thing. That’s a talking point.

Nikita: Until then, I was not aware that anybody in the West thinks that. But it was a big part of the Russian propaganda, some versions of which are very strange. On the one hand, according to Russian state propaganda, the Russians and Ukrainians are really the same people, but also, there are biolabs in Ukraine that were designing viruses that would target specifically Russians.

Bob: It’s a very discerning virus! It picks up on the most subtle differences in DNA. 

. . .

Bob: But, on Prigozhin, tell me… presumably the [staged disappearance] theory is that he actually feared something like this happening for real, right? I mean, he didn't feel safe in this world. 

Nikita: Either that, or another version of the same theory would be that he made a deal with Putin, that this is how I’m gonna go out. 

Bob: Oh, and then you [Putin] will look like you were the tough guy and did crack down. 

Nikita: That's right. And I’ll [Prigozhin] get my pension and I’m fine. 

Bob: I've got a feeling he doesn't need a pension. I forget how much cash was found in his apartment, but I suspect that he's got stashes in various places. 

Nikita: [laughter] That’s right.  

Bob: So anyway, your sense is, not that you're in Russia, but your sense is that this will be a minority interpretation anyway, that he's not actually dead?

Nikita: From what I've heard so far, most people say there's also this possibility, but it's probably a low possibility. So, I haven't met a true believer in this theory so far. I mean, it's been a day—it's been less than a day. But it's brought up and discussed as a low probability option. 

And we will never know, I suppose, because the bodies are burned. We’re not going to see a picture of Prigozhin that we can recognize. And the people who will tell us (and they might have already; I saw some reports that sounded more official than what I saw last evening, saying yes, this is Prigozhin and Utkin and the other passengers who were supposed to be on the plane) the people who are going to tell us this are the authorities, which if they are the ones who decided to do this staged disappearance, you know, you're not supposed to trust them.

Bob: Right. 

Nikita: But I don't think it matters, frankly. I think that’s the low probability version, and I don't think it matters, because both options lead to Prigozhin not being here anymore. If he lives a private life on an island somewhere—

Bob: He seems out of the picture. And everyone else will act on the assumption that Putin did it.

Nikita: That's right. 

Bob: Is your sense that among those Russians who do believe Prigozhin’s dead, overwhelmingly the assumption is Putin decided to take him out? 

Nikita: Yes. Yes. 

Bob: I can't even come up with another theory. Has it been confirmed that there was an anti-aircraft missile fired at the plane, or is that still—

Nikita: No, I think they are saying now that there was an explosive in the chassis, the wheel of the plane. And they say they have a suspect, Prigozhin’s private pilot, who was supposed to be on the flight maybe, or at least was able to access the plane. And he’s MIA somewhere. Some friend of his said that he's trekking in Siberia, or something along those lines. So, they have a suspect and a theory. It doesn't go further than that guy so far, like, why would his pilot do this? But I think that might become the official narrative. This is what I'm seeing this morning.

Bob: So is it confirmed that the pilot was not on the plane, the regular pilot? 

Nikita: I think. He was called Prigozhin’s private pilot.  I'm not sure he was supposed to be on this plane. He just flew with Prigozhin before, so they are singling him out as a suspect. 

Bob: I see. Do you think Putin would go to the trouble to frame somebody, and do the whole court proceeding, and put them in prison? I mean, it's weird, because presumably Putin wants a certain crowd to know he did it, including possibly much of the world, right? He wants some people to think, yeah, Putin cracked down, let's don't plot any mutinies anytime soon. I mean, that's the thing about this. It's so blatant, right? 

With most of the past assassinations attributed to Putin, there wasn't rock solid evidence. And in fact, I would run into smart people who paid attention, and I'd say, what do you think the chances are that this guy was taken out by Putin? They'd say, well, probably, or 90 per cent or 95 per cent. I don't think you're going to hear many people as low as 95 per cent on this one. It seems like this time, it’s a more unabashed assassination.

Nikita: I think that's true. But also, nobody tried to, you know, take his private army and march on Moscow before. 

Bob: Right, right. Absolutely. You know, right after this happened, right after the mutiny, and after the deal was negotiated, American Russia hawks like Michael McFaul said, see, all this stuff about how Putin if you corner him is dangerous, is wrong. We don't need to worry about pushing them out of Crimea and back into Russia and even, what is happening now, attacks on Russian territory. McFaul said, this just shows he'll fold; it's a bluff.  What McFaul said is that he capitulated. And first of all, I pointed out, he did not capitulate. He didn't meet Prigozhin’s demands. That's capitulation, if you do fire Shoigu and Gerasimov, the two military chiefs he wanted fired. 

And I'd be interested in your take on this. Leave aside the fact that apparently, ultimately, Prigozhin paid the ultimate price. I thought, given the situation Putin was in, he didn't handle it that badly. I mean, you’ve got 5,000 troops marching to Moscow. Things could get seriously out of hand, even if you're confident you can put it down. These people are considered war heroes by a lot of Russians, right? They're the guys who did Bakhmut. They have a base. And after Wagner had shot down the planes, to get out of it with no further bloodshed… 

Leaving aside the fact that ultimately Putin had it both ways, he finessed it without a big confrontation and got Prigozhin killed, what did you think after the event?

Nikita: Well, first of all, during the event itself, and the few days after, the prevalent feeling among all the Russians I know, whether inside or outside Russia, was just how bizarre this whole thing is. Especially as the events were unfolding, like, he started to march, you start to get these audio messages, you get updates in Telegram from Prigozhin himself.

For a while, it wasn't clear whether this is actually happening or not. He’s saying that they're marching on Rostov and it’s like, is he? I haven't seen any pictures. It's just Prigozhin saying that, and he's known for playing games. And then suddenly there are tanks in Rostov.

And then he's saying he's marching on Moscow. My brother was in Moscow at the time, and he went into the streets, and he said it was a weird, weird feeling, having been there for a long time, that the cops and the people are on the same side, because the cops in Moscow and people in Moscow were expecting this army to show up. And the cops seemed nervous and unsure what to do.

. . .

Nikita: So the prevalent feeling from this whole experience was just: This is bizarre and weird. When the analysis started to come in three days, four days after the thing, I had the feeling that maybe this is us trying to pretend that we understand what is going on. Because these past couple of days, nobody knew what was happening. Every theory was thrown out there, whether it's staged, whether it's real. You've heard these, you know, Prigozhin agreed with Putin that he's going to do this thing to find the people who are actually not loyal enough. There was all of this, and nobody had a good theory because the straightforward one seemed also too weird.

Bob: Yeah.

Nikita: But now in the aftermath, I agree with you that Putin did not lose control. And now, the Russian word they use is signal. This is a strong signal that he's sending that if you try to do this, you're going to blow up.

But I think a lot of people did feel as this was happening, surely, that this is not the behavior of a strong leader, because he was nowhere to be found. The day of, Peskov, his spokesperson, said that Putin knows about the situation. But that was all. And then in the morning, he [Putin] made this speech. And during the day, as this was happening, there weren't a lot of people who really jumped in front of the situation and said, I support the president of my country and this is mutiny. They started saying that as the situation progressed and it became more clear that this is what you're supposed to be doing.

. . .


(Overtime segment available to paid subscribers below the paywall.)

0:13 Nikita’s life as an expatriate
4:50 Theories among Russians about Prigozhin’s death
17:01 Putin’s handling of the Wagner mutiny, reassessed
25:18 Did Prigozhin lose his mind?
35:08 How worried should Putin be about Prigozhin’s supporters?
42:47 Russians’ evolving views of the invasion
50:22 Is Putin feeling heat from the nationalist right? Robert Wright (, The Evolution of God, Nonzero, Why Buddhism Is True) and Nikita Petrov ( Recorded August 24, 2023.

Comments on BhTV:

This post is for paid subscribers

Nonzero Newsletter
Robert Wright's Nonzero
Conversations with a series of people who have nothing in common except that program host Robert Wright is curious about what they’re thinking.