A private jet crash in Russia has reportedly killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the controversial head of the Wagner mercenary group that has played a major role in the Ukraine war. Initial statements indicate all 10 people aboard were killed when the aircraft crashed en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Who Was Yevgeny Prigozhin?
62-year old Yevgeny Prigozhin led the shadowy Wagner Group private military company that deployed thousands of contract fighters to frontline battles in Ukraine.
Nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for his catering business that hosted dinners for Vladimir Putin, kept a low profile for years before emerging as a key figure in Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
His Wagner units served as “shock troops” spearheading assaults on Ukrainian cities . But frequently criticized Russia’s regular military leadership over strategy and claimed officials were trying to steal credit for Wagner’s gains.
Prigozhin’s Short-Lived Mutiny
In June, tensions boiled over when Prigozhin encouraged thousands of his Wagner mercenaries to march on Moscow and attempt to topple top defence officials. But the audacious rebellion fizzled out within days after Prigozhin obeyed apparent orders from Putin to stand down.
The aborted mutiny was seen as the biggest challenge to Putin’s authority since he assumed power.Prigozhin was expected to relocate to Belarus with some Wagner forces after cutting a deal to end the march on Moscow. But his fate and that of Wagner remained uncertain following the rebellion’s sudden demise in mid-June.
The Plane Crash
A private jet identified as belonging to the MNT-Aero firm crashed in a field midpoint between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russia’s aviation authority confirmed Prigozhin was one of 10 passengers killed in the accident.
Videos circulated online showed the aircraft’s wreckage engulfed in flames. Wagner-linked social media channels claimed Prigozhin perished due to the treacherous actions of Russia’s “traitors”.
Dmitry Utkin, who had helped Prigozhin manage Wagner’s Ukraine operations, was also named among the dead. So far, the bodies of 8 victims have been recovered from the crash site as per reports.
The same day, senior Russian general Sergei Surovikin was allegedly dismissed from his post as air force chief. Surovikin had ties to Prigozhin’s circle, and mysteriously vanished from public view after the attempted Wagner mutiny.
Reactions to Prigozhin’s Reported Death
While Putin gave a speech marking a World War 2 battle, he tellingly did not mention the plane crash. Kyiv reacted saying the incident was likely linked to schisms within Putin’s inner circle.
In the US, President Biden said he was “not surprised” by the news, observing that most things in Russia are connected to Putin’s desires. The White House had designated Wagner a transnational criminal organization months earlier.
If Prigozhin’s demise is officially confirmed, it will arouse deep suspicions given the timing. The crash comes just months after his unprecedented challenge to Russia’s military establishment on the Ukraine war’s direction.
The reports of Prigozhin’s death have been met with a mixture of reactions from both Russian and Western officials. Some have expressed skepticism about the reports, while others have refused to comment. Some Western officials have expressed cautious optimism about the reports, while others have warned that they could be part of a disinformation campaign. The Ukrainian government has welcomed the reports, while the US government has said that it is monitoring the situation.
He had receded from public sight following the botched Moscow march, though he remained active on Telegram. The investigation into how and why the aircraft went down will be closely tracked for any signs of foul play. For now, Wagner’s future seems uncertain with its swaggering chief potentially out of the picture.
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