Aug 28, 2023

Yevgeny Prigozhin's death.

Yevgeny Prigozhin's death.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) with Vladimir Putin (left) in 2010, when Prigozhin was best known as a restauranteur.

Was it Putin? Plus, a reader question about the "worst case scenario" for pro-choice Americans.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

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Today, we are discussing the plane crash that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group leader. Plus, a reader questions about the "worst case scenario" for pro-choice Americans.

Friday's mailbag.

In Friday's subscribers only edition, I answered a slew of reader questions that I've received over the last couple of months. We touched on everything from the GOP debate to America's view of teachers to Trump's first impeachment to my workout routine. One reader asked what I'd do differently as a debate moderator, and my answer was the most commented-on portion of the piece. You can read the full edition here (Reminder: This is a free preview; if you're not yet a paying member, you'll be asked to become one — members get every Friday edition straight to their inbox).


Quick hits.

  1. Republicans in the House of Representatives announced an investigation into Fani Willis, the prosecutor in Fulton County, Georgia, alleging that her investigation is politically motivated. (The investigation)
  2. Former President Trump returned to X, formerly known as Twitter, for the first time since being suspended over two years ago to post an image of his mugshot. (The post)
  3. A gunman killed three black people in a Jacksonville, Florida, Dollar General store in what police are calling a racially motivated shooting. The 21-year-old shooter was white and had legally purchased his weapon. He also had been voluntarily committed to a hospital in 2017 and held for a mental examination after a domestic violence incident. The shooter died by suicide. (The shooting)
  4. Three U.S. Marines were killed and 20 others were injured after a military aircraft crashed on Australia's Melville Island. (The deaths)
  5. Donald Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows will appear in court today as his legal team attempts to move his case from a state courtroom to a federal one. (The test)

Today's topic.

Yevgeny Prigozhin's death. On Sunday, Russian authorities confirmed the death of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was on the passenger list of a plane that crashed in Russia on Wednesday. Foreign news agencies had struggled to confirm that he was on the plane and that all passengers aboard it had been killed, but those questions now appear to be resolved, after the Russian Investigative Committee performed genetic testing on 10 bodies recovered from the crash to confirm the passenger list.

Prigozhin, who led a group of mercenary soldiers during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, became a household name earlier this year after leading a day-long mutiny against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin had been an outspoken critic of Russia's military brass, and in a dramatic move on June 23 turned his troops around and marched toward Moscow.

He eventually negotiated a deal with Putin to leave Russia and move to Belarus without facing charges, an outcome that surprised the international community given Putin's low tolerance for dissent. Putin had called Prigozhin’s march treason and vowed to punish him, but ultimately appeared to let Prigozhin off the hook without any serious repercussions. Now, the timing and manner of Prigozhin's death immediately raised suspicions that he was killed at the direction of Putin, while others suggest he may have escaped death or wasn't actually on the plane.

Preliminary U.S. intelligence assessments determined that an internal explosion caused the plane to go down, though one official told Reuters the plane was shot down. The Kremlin called any notion it was behind the plane's crash a "complete lie." Putin also said the mercenary boss was "a person with a complicated fate" who "made some serious mistakes in life, but he also achieved necessary results."

Prigozhin’s second in command Dmitry Utkin and logistics mastermind Valery Chekalov were also aboard the plane, meaning three of Wagner’s most valuable leaders are now dead. The fate of the Wagner Group is unknown, and military experts are questioning whether it will continue to function.

Today, we're going to explore some reactions to Prigozhin's death, including commentary about whether Putin was really responsible. We'll share some opinions from the right, the left, international sources, and then my take.


Agreed.

  • Many across the left and right in America, and internationally, believe that Putin was likely behind Prigozhin's death.
  • Commentators all posit that Putin had the motivation to kill Prigozhin, though some feel Prigozhin’s death may backfire on him.
  • Many also agree that Putin has proven himself willing to kill dissenters and innocent people in order to maintain his stranglehold on power.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right view Putin as a killer and believe he was behind the plane's downing.
  • Some suggest this is another data point in a long history of Putin and Soviet leaders killing anyone who dares to challenge them.

The Washington Examiner editorial board called Putin a "calculating and remorseless killer."

The explosion was "deemed by Western intelligence services to be an assassination by Putin. He is certainly celebrating. Claiming ridiculously that he was briefed on the explosion only a day late, on Thursday, the Russian tyrant coldly observed that Prigozhin 'was a man of complex fate. And he made mistakes.'" Putin had good reason to want Prigozhin dead after his attempted coup, and his continued public appearances taunted Putin.

"Nine other people were killed in the attack on Prigozhin's airplane. While most were Wagner employees, the victims included an experienced pilot with two children, a co-pilot, and a young flight attendant," the board noted. "The attack reeks of KGB willingness to destroy innocent lives in a semi-deniable killing of one target. Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the Soviet spy agency, likes to pay homage to the past in that way. It serves his purposes that his denials are recognizably skimpy. He wants it to be known that he will kill anyone who crosses him. "

In Fox News, Rebekah Koffler said this is "straight out of Putin's blood-spilling playbook."

"Regardless of a specific method, as a Russia watcher who spent my intelligence career investigating Russian intelligence tradecraft and analyzing President Vladimir Putin, my assessment is that Prigozhin’s death was likely a hit job orchestrated by the Russian state. It was probably authorized by Putin himself," Koffler said. Putin called Prigozhin's brief mutiny in June "treason," and "has always been unambiguous about treason and traitors, who, in his view, deserve severe punishment."

Putin has a long history of practicing "wet affairs," a doctrine of "targeted assassinations, bearing a codename that refers to the spilling of blood." Putin made the practice legal by approving a federal law that allows targeted assassinations as punishment for very broadly defined extremist activity. "Scores of Russian journalists and numerous political opposition leaders have been victims of 'wet affairs' because they criticized Putin or the Russian regime or exposed the corruption and other misdeeds of the Russian government."


What the left is saying.

  • While there are other potential culprits, many on the left also believe Putin directed the killing.
  • Others suggest this might speed up the peace process of the war.

In The New York Times, Serge Schmemann said Prigozhin committed the ultimate betrayal.

"There was no shortage of people who probably wished him dead, including those same Russian military leaders, or the Ukrainians, or the African and Syrian rebels savaged by his mercenaries," Schmemann said. "But as is so often the case with atrocities in Mr. Putin’s Russia, the plane crash was probably exactly what it appeared to be: the assassination of a nettlesome rival by the ruthless ruler. That may never be proved; Mr. Putin may choose to posthumously honor Mr. Prigozhin as a patriot, or at least to blame his death on his pet villains, Ukrainian 'fascists' and a deceitful and degenerate West. But for now, most observers believe the evidence, motive and means point to Mr. Putin.

"In the brutal logic of dictatorial rule, Mr. Putin would have had no choice. Though Mr. Prigozhin was careful to display total fealty to the president even when he ordered his forces on a 'march for justice' in June, it was an open rebellion against Mr. Putin’s rule, and the president’s first public reaction was to warn — without naming Mr. Prigozhin — that those who prepared the mutiny 'have betrayed Russia.' In Mr. Putin’s lexicon, that’s a death sentence. He is Russia... The seemingly unavoidable conclusion is that Mr. Prigozhin’s fate was sealed two months ago."

In The Daily Beast, Alexander Vindman said Prigozhin’s death weakens the nationalist wing who wanted a more aggressive war.

"The next few months following the Wagner insurrection and the elimination of Wagner and nationalist challengers will provide a window into whether the prospects to wind down the Russia-Ukraine war are viable without a decisive Ukrainian military victory," Vindman said. "At minimum, we will quickly learn if Wagner has the capacity to seek retribution against Putin and his allies. Moreover, the death of Prigozhin will suppress other Putin challengers, and warn those that do come against Putin that if you come at the king, you best not miss."

"If the conclusion of the intelligence community does confirm that Prigozhin was murdered by Putin, it would not mean a change in tactics, or a significant departure from Putin’s past precedents—after all, he has murdered many opponents in his more than two decades in power," Vindman said. "More important may be the implications of Prigozhin’s death for the Ukraine war. The reality might be that conditions have been set for more latitude for Putin to start negotiations and wind down the Russia-Ukraine conflict." The death of these hawk generals and nationalist firebrands "could open up the possibility of Russian negotiations to end the war later in the fall."


From abroad.

The Irish Times editorial board called it a "convenient plane crash for Putin," but questioned whether it would make him stronger.

"Few will have any doubt that the Russian president was responsible for the downing of the aircraft which has also conveniently wiped out the high command of Wagner," the board said. "The Russian president has serious form; eliminating opponents at home and abroad is more convenient than the complicated hassle of a trial and the expense of prolonged imprisonment. Above all it inspires fear in those who might also be tempted to take him on. Yet the assassination, if it was that, is not a sign of strength.

"It may temporarily consolidate Putin’s own position, but not that of the state itself, unable to manage criticism and correct failings in its dysfunctional apparatus. Putin looks increasingly isolated, dependent on a sycophantic, corrupt entourage. Shooting the messenger is a recipe for endless denialism and decay. It will certainly do nothing to correct the deficiencies in the Ukraine campaign to which Prigozhin pointed. It will also reinforce the growing perception of the Russian leadership’s indifference to mounting body counts," the board wrote.

In The New York Times, Tatiana Stanovaya said Putin had "every reason" to want Prigozhin dead.

"Whatever the truth, it’s clear that Mr. Putin had ample reason to wish for Mr. Prigozhin’s demise, and not just as a matter of rehabilitating his reputation. Mr. Putin believes fervently in a powerful state. Western audiences often downplay this fundamental conviction, emphasizing instead Mr. Putin’s personal interests and individual priorities," Stanovaya wrote. "It’s true, of course, that there’s a large dose of self-interest in the president’s conduct. But one of Mr. Putin’s gravest nightmares is the state becoming vulnerable, unable to address domestic challenges and on the brink of disintegration. That’s precisely what Mr. Prigozhin threatened. For that transgression, he may have paid with his life."

"It was a humiliating blow to Mr. Putin’s regime," Stanovaya added. "The pain came less from the betrayal by Mr. Prigozhin, who’d always been erratic, than from Mr. Putin’s personal responsibility for the disaster. On the state’s dime, the president had nurtured an entity that he didn’t keep in check. The mutiny, following Mr. Putin’s inability to manage the escalating tensions between the defense ministry and Wagner, was a direct result of this fundamental failure. The political toll was considerable."


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • The odds Putin wasn’t involved seem incredibly low.
  • This is a clear reminder of who, exactly, we are dealing with.
  • I don't think this will change the trajectory of the war, but it might change Putin's future.

I suppose there is a world in which the plane carrying Putin’s most confrontational military detractors just coincidentally blew up over Russia. 

There's enough data out there to explore this possibility. Aviation accidents are typically measured in the number of accidents per 100,000 flight hours. The odds of a private plane accident are about 1 in 100,000 hours, and more than four fifths of those accidents do not end in the loss of life. The odds of a commercial plane crash is about 1 in 16.7 million flights. Aviation databases didn't have much information on the odds of a large private plane spontaneously combusting in mid-air, killing everyone on board, but I presume it is much less frequent than either of these outcomes.

So, is it possible this was just an accident? Sure. It's possible. Is it remotely likely? No. It is not. 

And I suppose there are other potential culprits. Maybe Ukraine wanted Prigozhin dead. Maybe the United States did. Maybe one of his other numerous enemies did. But that’s pure conjecture, with unknown motivations and unknown means. I sincerely doubt any of them reached this far into Russia with this well orchestrated of a plan to kill Prigozhin, especially when we know of one person who had the most obvious motivation and necessary means to pull it off. 

Rather, I think this entire episode is a good reminder of who we are dealing with. While there are kernels of truth in arguments that seek to equate Russia’s behavior to that of the U.S., Putin is keen on reminding us what makes him different. Journalists in the U.S. don't mysteriously fall from buildings when they break a devastating story about the president. When a new up-and-coming anti-establishment candidate runs for office, they don't end up in jail for decades. And military generals don't die in plane explosions following public criticism of the armed forces or attempted mutiny.

Fundamentally, this kind of rule is exactly what the Ukrainian people want to avoid. This is the person they don't want to be their head of state. This is why they are fighting. This is why, if you view the proliferation of leaders like Vladmir Putin as a threat to the Western world and Europe, it's worth standing up to him.

In the short-term, I suppose Putin's apparent decision to assassinate Prigozhin will consolidate his power; but in the long-term it has just as much chance of fomenting more coups. In the Moscow Times, Ivan Fomin made a strong case that Putin has failed to neutralize "Prigozhinism" in the minds of Russia's people, and that Prigozhin's criticisms of Putin, Russian military leaders, and the war will persist. I think this is right. Prigozhin has been martyred, and while Putin may be safer from another mutiny for now, the seeds of doubt about his rule and this war have been planted.

Prigozhin is dead, as are some key Wagner leaders. Wagner’s future is uncertain, but I don't think there are many questions about who was behind this killing. Will it have a big impact on the war? Probably not. But it may have an impact on Putin's future, and it's a stark reminder to the world of how leaders like Putin stay in power — and what they are willing to do while desperately clinging to it.


Your questions, answered.

Q: There's lots of talk — I believe you've mentioned it — that if Republicans win the White House in '24, as well as have control of Congress, they'll try for a ban of abortion at the federal level. How likely is it they'd be able to get it done? Would they only need a slim majority in the House and Senate? And if they were able to do it, would it be constitutional? Would abortion protection laws like we have in New York be struck down? I guess what I'm asking is, for pro-choice people like me, what is the realistic worst case scenario?

— Michael from Fishkill, New York

Tangle: The possibility of Republicans instituting a federal abortion ban isn’t something I've dedicated a lot of space to in Tangle, and frankly, I don’t think it’s likely to happen. In fact, I consider a total ban on abortion at the federal level that challenges and contradicts laws in states like New York so unlikely that I wouldn't even consider it as the "pro-choice worst-case scenario."

First, there's public opinion. According to Gallup, only 13% of people oppose abortion in all cases. 34% think abortion should be legal in all cases, another 13% say it should be legal in most, and 36% say it should be legal in only some. According to NBC, 91% of Americans think abortion should be allowed if the health of the mother is at risk, including 86% of Republicans. 86% of Americans think abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest, including 76% of Republicans.

Then there are the stances of Republican candidates, which are far from consistent. DeSantis instituted a ban on abortions after six weeks in Florida, but hasn't endorsed a similar federal ban. Scott has supported a federal 15-week ban. Ramaswamy and Haley are against abortion, but aren't endorsing federal bans (in the debates, Haley actually did a good job of speaking to how unrealistic a federal abortion ban is). Donald Trump has also been pretty non-committal.

So, what is the “pro-choice worst-case scenario” at the federal level? Well, the Supreme Court is already leaning towards a pro-life bias, so I think that box is already checked. Next would be a Republican president, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and I would say any majority in the House. At that point, Republicans could pretty much call their shot.

And of the shots that they could want to call, the one that I think would represent the "pro-choice worst-case scenario" is a total federal ban on any abortion after 12 weeks, with exceptions for cases when the health of the mother is at risk. I'm not a constitutional scholar by any means, but I think that would mean the following:

First, it would obviate laws that contradict it in any state, including in states like Illinois that have a right to abortion enshrined in their state constitutions. At the very least it would send those laws to immediate judicial challenges. Then I would expect constitutional challenges that the law violates the 10th amendment to start making their way through the courts, with a potential stay on the law's enforcement until the Supreme Court issues its ruling. While this court definitely leans conservative, it has also proven hard to predict. Even still, I would put the odds of such a law being upheld at over 50%.

All that said, I'd stress that I don't think that is a likely outcome. It's still a stretch to think Republicans will have the White House and a filibuster-proof Senate majority in 2024. And if they do, I think Republicans would most want to pass a 15-week ban on abortion with exceptions for protecting the health of the mother, as well as for cases of rape or incest.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

My home county of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is once again in the news as a bellwether county for the 2024 elections. An obscure contest for county commissioner is being closely watched by politicos for clues about where Democrats and Republicans stand heading into this presidential cycle. The local race is between two county commissioners sparring over book bans, crime, and democracy. Democrats won control of the county board of commissioners in 2019 for the first time since 1983. Now it's up for grabs again. “As Pennsylvania goes, so goes the presidential race in 2024. And as Bucks County goes, Pennsylvania will go. Everyone should care deeply about this,” said state Sen. Steve Santarsiero, the chair of the Bucks County Democratic Party. Politico has the story.


Numbers.

  • 20%. The percentage of respondents to a survey in Russia who sympathized with Prigozhin even after his mutiny failed.
  • 22%. The percentage of Russian respondents who can be considered core supporters of the war.
  • 14. The number of prominent critics and enemies Vladimir Putin is suspected of assassinating.
  • 22. The number of journalists who are believed to be imprisoned in Russia right now.
  • 72%. The percentage of Democrats who have a very unfavorable opinion of Russia, according to a 2022 Pew survey.
  • 67%. The percentage of Republicans who have a very unfavorable opinion of Russia, according to a 2022 Pew survey.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we didn't have a newsletter, but we just published a subscribers-only conversation with Noah Smith.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was Prigozhin's plane crash.
  • Don’t forget: We have a new YouTube video up
  • Haley to the Chief: 508 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking who won the first Republican debate, with a commanding 77% declaring Nikki Haley the victor. Second place was Vivek Ramaswamy with 14%, followed by Ron DeSantis with 4%, Chris Christie with 2%, Mike Pence with 2%, and Tim Scott with 1%. Doug Burgum received 1 vote and Asa Hutchinson received 0 votes. "The real winner, sadly, was Trump," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: When kids go back to school in different parts of the U.S.
  • Take the poll. How likely do you think it is that Vladimir Putin was responsible for the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Sarah Gad has come a long way. While in medical school in 2012, she suffered a car accident and then became addicted to the opioids she was prescribed. Over the next three years, she had seven non-violent felony drug convictions. While incarcerated, Gad met attorney Kathleen Zellner and began working at her law firm. Gad helped exonerate a client who had been wrongfully convicted of murder, and "found the work to be very rewarding." After being accepted to the University of Chicago Law School, Gad found herself before a Hennepin County, Minnesota, judge due to mandatory minimum sentencing for repeat drug offenders. The judge could have sent Gad to prison, but instead let her go to law school. She's been practicing since 2022, and has run into judges who are happy to see how far she has come. Gad "has transformed herself from a criminal defendant into a champion for the legally oppressed," Zellner told Fox 9. "All she needed was a second chance." Fox 9 has the story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.