Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin was on board a plane that crashed northwest of Moscow Wednesday, according to Russian authorities, two months after he launched a mutiny against Russia’s military leadership.

Editor’s Note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-author of “Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin — who the Russian aviation agency confirmed was a passenger on board a plane that crashed on Wednesday evening — seemed to be living on borrowed time.

Daniel Treisman

Ever since June, when the warlord led his Wagner mercenaries in an uprising against his country’s military commanders, the Kremlin’s soft response had bewildered longtime Russia watchers.

Within the span of a few hours, Russian President Vladimir Putin switched from accusing Prigozhin of “treason,” and labeling his mutiny “a stab in the back of our troops and the people,” to allowing Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko to promise Prigozhin amnesty and a base for his fighters. To those familiar with Putin’s vindictive streak, something did not add up. (Others who challenged Putin have wound up poisonedimprisoned or falling out of windows).

The details of Wednesday’s plane crash are still murky. Video of the plane debris taken at the purported crash site in the western Tver region of Russia matches the plane registered to Prigozhin. Meanwhile, some are even speculating that the warlord might have faked his death in order to disappear. The true cause may not be known for some time, if ever.

In his first public comments on the plane crash, Putin expressed his condolences to the families of the victims on Thursday and called Prigozhin “a man of difficult fate” who had “made serious mistakes in life.”

Whatever official version is announced, many Russians are likely to believe Prigozhin’s demise was punishment for his disloyalty. To those who suspect foul play, the real puzzle will be why it took so long.

Putin’s tough image had taken a hit when he let the Wagner mutineers off with little more than a reprimand. Will the mercenary leader’s fiery end now restore the president’s reputation?

Perhaps. To some well-schooled observers, the delay made sense. In July, CIA Director William Burns told attendees at a national security conference, “I think Putin is someone who generally thinks revenge is a dish best served cold…”

Russian servicemen inspect a part of a crashed private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, reportedly died when a private jet he was said to be on crashed on Aug. 23, 2023, killing all 10 people on board. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

If Putin had a role in Prighozin’s fate — and that’s far from proven — there was an argument for carefully laying the groundwork before dealing with the Wagner leader himself. The Kremlin had three urgent tasks to complete before that.

First, Putin’s investigators would want to carefully assess the extent to which members of the armed forces and security services supported Prighozhin. Few local troops did anything to resist the mercenaries’ advance on Moscow.

Then, to avoid turning Prigozhin into a martyr, the Kremlin — if it were involved — would need to discredit and embarrass him, cutting into his popularity in right-wing nationalist circles, before acting to punish him.

Perhaps most important, Putin’s men needed to gather up the control networks of the Wagner operation in Africa. From Mali and the Central African Republic to Mozambique and Sudan, Prigozhin’s agents were providing security to dictators, guarding oil wells and diamond mines, and shaping public opinion through propaganda outlets. Russia’s covert presence in Africa — largely a Wagner venture — was one of Moscow’s few recent foreign policy successes. 

Yet, if the plan all along was to strip Prigozhin of his reputation, armed supporters, and African assets before holding him to account, the actual course of events still looks dysfunctional.

Investigations were started within the armed forces, and probably within the security forces as well. A few generals have been relieved of their commands. Even General Sergei Surovikin, aka “General Armageddon,” the commander of Russian aerospace forces, who was known to be on good terms with Prigozhin, was dismissed in recent days.

Still, there is little evidence of any systematic purge to root out those unhappy with the military leadership. In the midst of the ongoing war in Ukraine, such a purge would be dangerous. But so is not conducting one.

Although Surovikin disappeared from public view right after the mutiny, it took the Kremlin two months to make the actual announcement that he had been removed. And rather than bring in a loyal outsider, the authorities replaced Surovokin with his own chief of staff, Viktor Afzalov.

The effort to discredit Prigozhin got off to a colorful start with pictures of Prigozhin’s opulent St Petersburg mansion broadcast on state TV. Besides gold bars and millions of dollars worth of cash, the photographs showed a bizarre collection of wigs and other disguises that seemed better fitted to a ”two-bit criminal” than to a selfless patriot.

But that was it. Any effort to paint Prigozhin as wealthy and corrupt stopped almost immediately, and no new financial investigations were announced. Much of the money and weapons seized from his house by police were even reportedly returned to him, according to the Washington Post, citing an anonymous St. Petersburg businessman.

Get our free weekly newsletter

• Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
• Join us on Twitter and Facebook

As for unwinding Prigozhin’s control over his Africa networks, the warlord was even allowed to mingle with political and media contacts from the Sahel at the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July. And in what might have been the last straw for Putin, Prigozhin released a video on Monday of himself standing in what looked like an African desert, boasting of his men’s exploits. He claimed to be “making Africa even freer.” 

If the goal was to destroy Prigozhin systematically while taking over his assets, the results look mixed at best. It would not be surprising if many in the Kremlin felt frustrated at the mercenary leader’s seeming ability to wriggle free from any constraint. That was the context in which he apparently took his last flight on Wednesday.

This article has been updated to include Putin’s first public comments on the plane crash.