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Hear why someone left a sledgehammer at a Prigozhin memorial
03:05 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The wreckage of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Embraer private jet has been cleared from the crash site, and the flight recorders have been recovered, but the metaphorical smoke has yet to clear in Moscow after the presumed death of the Wagner mercenary boss.

We still do not know what brought down Prigozhin’s Embraer Legacy 600 – expert analysis points to the possibility of an explosion – and we may never know. To use an inexact term, the biggest black box in this aviation catastrophe is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparatus of state, which is not known for its transparency.

That in turn points to a much bigger question: How will the Russian landscape change after the exit of the man who presented the most serious challenge to Putin’s rule in over two decades?

Putin has offered his own hot take, obliquely referencing Prigozhin’s contributions to the war on Ukraine.

“I knew Prigozhin for a very long time, since the early ’90s,” Putin said Thursday. “He was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results needed both for himself and when I asked him about it - for a common cause, as in these last months. He was a talented man, a talented businessman.”

But the real message Putin was sending, after waiting a full day after the crash, appeared directed toward Russia’s elite: mistakes can be fatal.

The Kremlin has vehemently denied speculation that the Russian state might have been involved in the crash.

“All this is an absolute lie,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Now, of course, there is a lot of speculation around this catastrophe and the tragic death of the passengers of the plane, including Yevgeny Prigozhin.”

But not everyone is likely to be persuaded. Back in July, following Prigozhin’s abortive mutiny, US President Joe Biden joked at a press conference that if he were Prigozhin, “I’d be careful what I eat, keep my eye on my menu.”

Firefighters work amid the wreckage on August 23 following the crash of Prigozhin's private jet.

Jokes aside, Biden was making a serious point. The march on Moscow by Prigozhin’s men was a direct threat to the state and a personal affront to Putin, who has long cultivated a tsar-like image of masterliness and near-infallibility.

So, who would dare stick their head over the parapet now? Any aspiring Prigozhins — and there seem to be none on the immediate horizon — are likely to be mindful of crossing real or perceived red lines.

It’s worth remembering that Prigozhin never had particularly high name recognition in Russia, at least certainly not before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But the Wagner group’s successes on the battlefield raised his public profile, and Russian state television heaped praise on his Wagner fighters for capturing the shattered eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

That changed in late June after Wagner’s march on Moscow raised the unsettling possibility of civil war in Russia. Prigozhin may have cast the mercenary rebellion as a “protest,” but the uprising seriously dented his prestige. The independent pollster Levada-Center conducted a survey in July that found that Prigozhin’s public approval had plummeted after the abortive uprising.

But that doesn’t mean Prigozhin had no loyal constituencies. The Wagner group’s actions were followed closely by a coterie of nationalistic bloggers, and Prigozhin — who recruited fighters from Russian prisons and used the same salty language as convicts — appeared to have commanded the respect of many of his fighters.