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The crash site of a private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver Region. Ostorozhno Novosti via AP
Yevgeny Prigozhin

‘A murderer who won’t be missed’: Was the death of the Wagner leader inevitable?

US president Joe Biden had warned Yevgeny Prigozhin to be ‘careful’ of poisoning after his Wagner group staged a mutiny in Russia.

RUSSIAN MERCENARY CHIEF Yevgeny Prigozhin and top officers of his private Wagner military company are presumed dead in a plane crash that was widely seen as an assassination.

It comes two months after the Wagner group staged a mutiny that dented Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority.

Russia’s civil aviation agency said that Prigozhin and six top lieutenants were on a business jet that crashed yesterday, soon after taking off from Moscow, with a crew of three.

Rescuers quickly found all 10 bodies, and Russian media cited sources in Prigozhin’s Wagner company who confirmed his death.

US and other Western officials long expected Putin to go after Prigozhin, despite promising to drop charges in a deal that ended the June 23-24 mutiny.

embeddedb8429b15ec1240b28848596b438ddda6 A Russian serviceman inspects part of a crashed private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia.


On 23 June, Yevgeny Prigozhin led his forces in a short-lived rebellion against Russia’s top military brass.

It was a huge embarrassment for the Kremlin and its most serious security crisis in decades, as Prigozhin and his troops advanced toward Moscow after taking control of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

The Wagner fighters downed several military aircraft, killing more than a dozen Russian pilots, though the Kremlin denied any Russians had been killed.

Prigozhin attempted the mutiny after Russia president Vladimir Putin said members of Wanger must sign contracts with the Russian defence ministry.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described the mutiny as a “stab in the back” and vowed to punish dissenters.

embedded36eb14c3e9004f7798d11b2fabbf7b36 Yevgeny Prigozhin, top, serves food to then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at Prigozhin’s restaurant outside Moscow in 2011 (AP)

However, a deal was quickly struck the following day which saw Prigozhon exiled to neighbouring Belarus and a criminal case against him was dropped.

He was also quickly given back truckloads of cash, gold bars and other items that police seized on the day of the rebellion, feeding speculation that the Kremlin still needed Prigozhin despite the mutiny.

Under the terms of the deal, Wagner fighters who had not participated in the rebellion would be allowed to formally join the Russian army.

Meanwhile, Russia said the mutinous members of Wagner would not face criminal charges given their battlefield successes in eastern Ukraine.

Belarus tensions

In the immediate aftermath of the mutiny, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko said that he had ordered his army to be “combat ready” during the uprising in neighbouring Russia.

He then told state media that he urged Putin not to kill Prigozhin.

According to Belarus state media, Lukashenko told security officials: “I said to Putin: we could waste (Prigozhin), no problem. If not on the first try, then on the second. I told him: don’t do this.”

Speaking at the time, exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said that neither Lukashenko or Prigozhin could trust one another: “At any moment Lukashenko can betray Prigozhin, Prigozhin can betray Lukashenko.”

Almost two weeks after the deal was struck to send Prigozhin to Belarus, the Belarusian leader told reporters that the Wagner leader was still in Russia.

This prompted a Kremlin spokesperson to claim that it was “not following his movements”.

russian-president-vladimir-putin-meets-with-belarus-president-alexander-lukashenko-at-the-constantine-palace-where-they-discussed-the-use-and-arming-of-both-conventional-and-nuclear-warheads-onto-bela Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko at the Constantine Palace last summer. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

US president Joe Biden then claimed that Prigozhin should be “careful” of poisoning, telling a news conference in Finland on 13 July: “We’re not even sure where he is and what relationship he has.

“If I were he, I’d be careful what I ate. I’d keep my eye on my menu.”

On Monday of this week, after making few public appearances since the mutiny, Prigozhin appeared in a video that suggested he was in Africa.

Making Africa ‘freer’

The Wagner group maintains a strong military presence in Africa, where it has partnered with several nations, including Mali and the Central African Republic.

The video published on Monday shows Prigozhin holding an assault rifle, before panning around to reveal military vehicles parked on a large, desert-like plain.

“The Wagner Group is conducting reconnaissance and search activities. Making Russia even greater on every continent – and Africa even freer,” Prigozhin said.

Wagner’s apparent activities in Africa come as tensions brew in Niger, which was rocked by a coup in July that saw its government deposed and a military junta installed.

A Russian organisation affiliated with Wagner shared a message apparently from Prigozhin, who said the events in Niger were part of the nation’s fight against “colonisers”.

Prigozhin’s overseas activities have reportedly irked Russia’s military leadership, who have sought to replace Wagner with Russian military personnel in Africa.

The Institute for the Study of War argued that Russian authorities probably moved to eliminate Prigozhin and his top associates as “the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organisation”.

‘Not much that Putin’s not behind’

Last month, Biden claimed that Prigozhin should be “careful” of poisoning.

After hearing reports of Prigozhin’s death in a jet crash yesterday, Biden remarked: “I don’t know for a fact what happened but I’m not surprised. There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”

Elsewhere, exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on social media: “The criminal Prigozhin won’t be missed in Belarus. He was a murderer and should be remembered as such.

“His death might dismantle Wagner’s presence in Belarus, reducing the threat to our nation and neighbours.”

Germany’s foreign minister meanwhile has said that the presumed death of Prigozhin follows a pattern of “unclarified” fatalities in Russia.

She added that it was no coincidence that focus has turned to the Kremlin for answers.

“It is no accident that the world immediately looks at the Kremlin when a disgraced former confidant of Putin suddenly, literally falls from the sky two months after he attempted a mutiny,” said Annalena Baerbock, referring to Putin.

“We know this pattern in Putin’s Russia:  deaths, dubious suicides, falls from windows, all which remain unclarified – that underlines a dictatorial power system that is built on violence.”

embedded466d057636e4407186b16cc6c5206975 A Russian serviceman inspects part of a crashed private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia.

While countless theories about the events swirled, most observers saw Prigozhin’s death as Putin’s punishment for the most serious challenge to his authority of his 23-year rule.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre, said on Telegram that “no matter what caused the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of vengeance and retribution” by the Kremlin, and “the Kremlin wouldn’t really stand in the way of that”.

“From Putin’s point of view, as well as the security forces and the military – Prigozhin’s death must be a lesson to any potential followers,” Stanovaya said in a Telegram post.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin supporters claimed on pro-Wagner messaging app channels that the plane was deliberately downed, including suggesting it could have been hit by an air defence missile or targeted by a bomb on board.

These claims could not be independently verified.

Numerous opponents and critics of Putin have been killed or gravely sickened in apparent assassination attempts.

Speaking to Latvian television, Nato Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence director Janis Sarts said that “the downing of the plane was certainly no mere coincidence”.

The crash came the same day that Russian media reported that General Sergei Surovikin, a former top commander in Ukraine who was reportedly linked to Prigozhin, was dismissed from his post as commander of Russia’s air force.

Gen Surovikin has not been seen in public since the mutiny, when he recorded a video address urging Prigozhin’s forces to pull back.

Putin appearance

Flight tracking data reviewed by The Associated Press showed a private jet that Prigozhin had used previously took off from Moscow yesterday evening, and its transponder signal disappeared minutes later.

Videos shared by the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone showed a plane dropping like a stone from a large cloud of smoke, twisting wildly as it fell, one of its wings missing.

A freefall like that occurs when an aircraft sustains severe damage, and a frame-by-frame AP analysis of two videos was consistent with some sort of explosion mid-flight.

Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to have an effect on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

His forces fought some of the fiercest battles over the last 18 months, but pulled back from the front line after capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut in late May.

As news of the crash was breaking, Putin projected calm, speaking at an event commemorating the Second World War Battle of Kursk and hailing the heroes of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Today, he addressed the Brics summit in Johannesburg via video link, talking about expanding co-operation between the group’s members.

He did not mention the crash and the Kremlin made no comment about it.

© AFP 2023 and with additional reporting from Press Association