Exactly two months after his failed coup, Wagner mercenary group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin is believed to have died on Wednesday after his private jet crashed in flames on an internal flight within Russia.
Speculation is rife that Russian President Vladimir Putin — who is notoriously unforgiving of traitors and accused Prigozhin of “treason” in June — ordered the downing of the aircraft. It comes only a day after Russian media announced the firing of Sergei Surovikin, the former commander of Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine, who has not been seen in public since the aborted Wagner coup.
A former loyalist who was dubbed “Putin’s chef” for his role as a catering executive supplying the Kremlin, Prigozhin became embittered toward the Russian government’s handling of the war. In late June, his uprising commanded 24-hour global coverage after he seized the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and ordered a column of troops toward Moscow.
Putin himself appeared cheery on Wednesday evening after Russian media suggested Prigozhin was dead, opening remarks at an event commemorating the Battle of Kursk in World War II with a broad smile. “Devotion to the homeland and loyalty to the military oath is what unites all participants of the special military operation,” he said in his speech, referring to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Since the coup, Putin and Prigozhin appeared to have reached an uneasy truce until the crash. On Wednesday, Russia’s investigative committee said it had opened a criminal probe into the loss of a business jet en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg that crashed in the Tver region, with the loss of 10 people on board.
Russia’s aviation regulator, Rosaviatsii, also issued a statement confirming an investigation. “According to the list of passengers, the name and surname of Yevgeny Prigozhin is among them,” the agency said.
Wagner Orchestra, a Telegram channel, posted a photo of what appeared to be the burning wreckage of a plane, saying the Embraer Legacy 600 had been shot down by Russian air defenses.
The well-connected Russian Telegram channel VChK-OGPU reported that Dmitry Utkin, a central Wagner figure and its alleged founder, was also among the plane’s passengers. “Wagner has been decapitated,” the channel commented.
Former tycoon turned political dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote he had no sympathy for Prigozhin, but denounced what he described as “yet another extrajudicial killing.”
Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov tried to flip the blame onto Ukraine.
“Prigozhin is dead. No one believes that this is an accident,” he said on his Telegram channel. In a separate post, hinting at how Kremlin spin doctors might frame the plane crash in the hours and days to come, Markov said the “murder of Prigozhin and Utkin … is probably a terrorist attack by Ukraine ahead of Ukraine’s Independence Day.”
“All enemies of Russia are already rejoicing. The murder of Prigozhin is Ukraine’s main achievement this year,” Markov wrote.
Journalist Christo Grozev from the online investigative project Bellingcat dismissed speculation Ukraine could be behind the crash.
“If Ukraine had had the capacity to do something like this, it would have done it at a time when Prigozhin was one of its main enemies, when he stood at the head of one of the most efficient branches of Russia’s military,” Grozev told the Popular Politics YouTube channel run by allies of Alexei Navalny.
Instead, he said, he thought it more likely Prigozhin might have staged his own death.
“It fits his style,” Grozev said, pointing out Prigozhin had several doubles.
Still, he added the most credible scenario is that it concerns a “hit job personally ordered by Putin for humiliating him.”
Russia’s ‘open-windows’ policy
U.S. officials have been expecting Prigozhin’s demise given Putin’s history of dispensing with opponents. It has even been the source of some gallows humor. In July, at the Aspen Security Forum, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “If I were Mr. Prigozhin, I would remain very concerned. NATO has an open-door policy; Russia has an open-windows policy.”
U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said: “We have seen the reports. If confirmed, no one should be surprised. The disastrous war in Ukraine led to a private army marching on Moscow, and now — it would seem — to this.”
Senate Intel Chair Mark Warner said: “No one should mourn Prigozhin’s death, but this report, if confirmed, is another reminder of the brutality of the Putin regime, and why we must continue our support for Ukraine in its fight for freedom.”
Later, U.S. President Joe Biden commented on the news, telling reporters: “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.”
“If the news are confirmed, I would say it was always difficult to grasp Prigozhin could have believed he could survive after the June coup,” said a senior diplomat from Central Europe, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “Now, we do not know details, but this looks like most likely an obvious message from the regime, that anybody who challenges it, has to be eliminated.”
“What will be the consequences to the Wagner Group is to be seen, but most likely, under this brand or another, it will remain an instrument of the Kremlin.”
A second senior diplomat from Central Europe said: “I guess Prighozin was somewhat ‘in the air’ since the botched coup attempt, his chances for survival were minuscule. After the literal plane crash Putin is stronger in Moscow, Prighozin ‘deader’ north of Moscow.”
A diplomat from Western Europe, also granted anonymity to speak candidly, said: “I guess most of us shared the view that up to this point he was a dead man walking. Unlikely we’ll get the true cause of this crash. But we may add this to the list of unexplained deaths among those who somehow undermine Putin’s authority.”
Anniversary of uprising
The plane crash came two months to the day after Prigozhin, 62, launched his uprising. He led his mercenaries in an overnight raid, capturing the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don before breakfast time without a shot being fired.
Another detachment of Wagner men rolled northwards, coming to within 200km of Moscow by late afternoon — before Prigozhin abruptly ordered his men back to base.
The rebel warlord invoked the wrath of Putin, who on the morning of the uprising took to the national airwaves to denounce it as a stab in the back. And, although a compromise deal was brokered by Aleksander Lukashenko of Belarus to allow Prigozhin’s men to relocate to that country, the Wagner chief already appeared a marked man.
He disappeared for a time before appearing in a grainy night-time video addressing his men at a new base in Belarus, popped up on the sidelines of an Africa summit hosted by Putin in Saint Petersburg, and, only this week, appeared in a video apparently shot in Africa saying his mercenaries were enjoying the 50-degree heat.
Prigozhin started out as a small-time crook in Saint Petersburg where he spent several years in prison for robbery, theft and fraud. On emerging from jail, he opened a hot dog stand with his mother and, as he built up a restaurant business, fell in with Putin, who at the time was deputy mayor of Russia’s northern capital.
Prigozhin’s Concord catering business went on to win a string of government contracts — including to supply rations to the military. Gaining standing in Putin’s clannish network of influence and patronage, Prigozhin established the Wagner mercenary group at the time of Russia’s partial occupation of Ukraine in 2014. He only publicly admitted to leading Wagner last September, however, months after Putin’s full-scale invasion.
Soon after, he established himself as one of the most high-profile leaders of Russia’s war on Ukraine — touring prisons to recruit convicts and throwing his men into a successful but bloody attack on Bakhmut that delivered the only major battlefield victory of Russia’s winter offensive in Eastern Ukraine.
“A caterer should know that revenge is a dish best served cold,” said a U.S. official familiar with Russia policy.
Infuriated by a lack of logistical backup, Prigozhin soon fell out with Russia’s high command and defense ministry. He took to posting profanity-laden video rants on Telegram, the social media network widely followed in Russia.
In one, he stood before rows of dead Wagner men at night time, yelling “where’s the fucking ammunition?” at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff. Prigozhin’s rants left him looking dangerously isolated, as Putin stuck with his loyal, if incompetent, military leadership.
Maggie Miller contributed reporting.