By Mark Trevelyan
LONDON (Reuters) -The presumed death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a fiery plane crash leaves Russian President Vladimir Putin stronger in the short term, removing a powerful figure who had defied his authority and threatened to make him look weak.
But it also deprives him of a forceful and astute player who had proved his utility to the Kremlin by sending his fighters into some of the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war and advancing Russian interests across Africa.
After 24 hours of silence, Putin paid "sincere condolences" to the families of all 10 people on the plane that crashed north of Moscow, and praised Prigozhin as a "talented businessman". It is not yet clear what caused the plane to drop from the sky.
He promised a full investigation, but its outcome is unlikely to shake a widespread belief that Prigozhin was killed as an act of vengeance for staging a mutiny in late June.
The United States is looking at a number of theories over what brought down the plane, including a surface-to-air missile hitting it, U.S. officials told Reuters.
Analysts said the assumption of Kremlin involvement may actually suit Putin's purpose.
"Whatever the reasons for the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of retribution and reprisal, and the Kremlin will not particularly interfere with this," Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik consultancy, said.
"From the point of view of Putin, as well as many among the security forces and the military, Prigozhin's death should be a lesson to any potential followers."
The crash came two months to the day after Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries staged a mutiny in which they took control of a southern city and advanced towards Moscow, shooting down a number of Russian air force planes and killing their pilots.
Putin, who has spoken in the past of his hatred of traitors, described it at the time as a "stab in the back".
Since the mutiny, Prigozhin had halted a running feud with the defence establishment but otherwise continued his operations, appearing to move freely in and out of Russia despite a deal with the Kremlin under which he was meant to leave for Belarus.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter now designated a "foreign agent" by Russia, said Prigozhin had wrongly assumed he was indispensable to Putin because of the scale and importance of his activities.
These included extensive operations in Africa, where Wagner has expanded its mercenary services in countries such as Mali and the Central African Republic in exchange for gold- and diamond-mining concessions.
While portraying it as a purely private commercial operation, the Kremlin has used Wagner to expand Russian influence on the continent in competition with Western powers such as France and the United States.
Prigozhin "assumed that Putin would not want to risk all this", Gallyamov said. "(He) underestimated how important it was for Putin to send a signal to all potential rebels: guys, don't think you can do this and then remain alive."
'GAME OF THRONES'
But the death of Prigozhin, if confirmed, is not without cost to Putin.
Analysts said it opens up the prospect of a messy struggle for control of Wagner's huge business empire, and a possible split between pragmatists willing to integrate with the defence ministry and an aggrieved ultranationalist faction which is already venting its anger on social media channels.
"I think it's possible that in many ways it will become kind of a headless 'Game of Thrones' or 'Sopranos' type of environment where we have competing smaller factions and smaller splinters of Wagner," said Andrew Borene, executive director of threat intelligence firm Flashpoint and a former U.S. intelligence official.
"In the long-term I think it's a strategic loss (to Russia)," he said.
Samuel Ramani, an analyst at London's RUSI think-tank and author of the book "Russia in Africa" said the loss of Prigozhin's extensive network would be a downside for Putin.
"He loses many of the personal contacts that Prigozhin has managed to cultivate on that continent, including the kind of contacts that would be necessary to export gold and diamonds out of sanctioned countries such as Mali and the Central African Republic," Ramani said in a telephone interview.
The plane crash happened on the same day that Russian state media reported the removal of Sergei Surovikin, the former commander of Russia's war effort in Ukraine, as head of the Russian air force. Widespread but unconfirmed reports said Surovikin had been placed under investigation for possible complicity in Prigozhin's mutiny.
The downfall of both men - widely seen as two of Russia's most effective operators in a war where it has seen many embarrassing failures - could hamper Moscow's ability to mount sustainable offensive operations in the next year, Ramani said.
If Putin was responsible for Prigozhin's death, he said, it demonstrated he was willing to engage in brutal repression of any kind of dissent.
"But it also shows a vulnerability too because he needs to use force now to repress these ultranationalists who he previously was able to co-opt and pacify by including them in his coalition. And that doesn't speak well to Putin's sustainability beyond 2024."
Robert Horvath, a Russia specialist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, said Putin's position remained fragile.
"The problem with killing Prigozhin is that it risks provoking acts of revenge from the tens of thousands of Wagner mercenaries - some battle-hardened veterans, some convicted criminals - who have fought under the Wagner banner," he said.
"It also risks drawing fresh attention to Prigozhin's populist campaign, his condemnation of the regime's justification for the war, and of the vast gulf separating the frivolous children of the ruling elite from those of ordinary people, who were returning from Ukraine in coffins."
(Reporting by Mark TrevelyanEditing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Heavens)