Prigozhin, Wagner Leader, Believed to Be on Plane in Deadly Russia Crash

by Pelican Press
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Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group who staged an aborted mutiny against Russia’s military leadership in June, in one of the most dramatic challenges to President Vladimir V. Putin’s rule in decades, was listed as a passenger on a plane that crashed on Wednesday in Russia, killing everyone on board, the nation’s aviation authorities said.

Mr. Prigozhin’s fate was not immediately known. A passenger manifest released by the Russian authorities showed his name and that of Wagner’s top commander, Dmitri Utkin, among the seven passengers and three crew members. And Grey Zone, a Telegram account associated with the Wagner group, said that Mr. Prigozhin had been killed. But there was no official confirmation of his death from Wagner or the Russian authorities.

Russia’s aviation authority offered no comment on the reason for the crash, and announced that it had created a special commission to investigate “the circumstances and causes of the accident.”

Mr. Prigozhin, a catering entrepreneur turned outspoken tycoon who built the private Wagner paramilitary force that has fought on Russia’s behalf in Ukraine and across Africa, instigated the rebellion with his Wagner forces after railing for months in audio and video clips against Russia’s military leaders.

He complained publicly and profanely that they were incompetents and back-stabbers, and that Wagner deserved credit for battlefield successes in Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine. In launching the mutiny, he insisted, however, that he was not aiming at Mr. Putin, but rather at the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, and Russia’s top uniformed military officers, who he said were bungling the war.

In a stunning move, Wagner’s fighters took over the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and began a march on Moscow in June, riveting the world. But just as abruptly as it started, the mutiny was called off by Mr. Prigozhin, who agreed to withdraw from Rostov-on-Don under a deal that would supposedly drop any charges and allow Mr. Prigozhin and fighters loyal to him to decamp for neighboring Belarus.

The Kremlin launched what many analysts considered a low-key crackdown in response to the mutiny. But many observers speculated that Mr. Prigozhin’s betrayal was tantamount to a death sentence.

American officials said they could not confirm Mr. Prigozhin had been killed in the plane crash, or why the jet went down.

When asked if he thought Mr. Putin was behind the plane crash, President Biden responded: “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind. But I don’t know enough to know the answer.”

The plane crash happened only hours after Russian state media reported a separate, public blow against another figure suspected of being connected to the mutiny: Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a former commander who helped shore up Russia’s defenses in Ukraine, was removed from his post as the chief of Russia’s Air Force.

Analysts have described General Surovikin — called “General Armageddon” for his ruthless tactics — as a brutally effective leader in a Russian military that even many cheerleaders of the war have described as riddled with incompetence. But his links to Mr. Prigozhin appeared to precipitate his fall from grace.

American officials said the general had advance knowledge of the Wagner rebellion, and he has not been seen in public since the mutiny. The Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported on Wednesday that he “is now on a short vacation.”

Col. Gen. Viktor Afzalov, chief of the Air Force’s general staff, was named the acting commander, it reported.

Even after the mutiny, Mr. Prigozhin, 62, seemed to move about freely in recent weeks, and even met with Mr. Putin at the Kremlin on June 29. On Monday, Mr. Prigozhin released a brief video message online, hinting that he was in Africa, even though the video recording’s timing and location were unclear. Dressed in fatigues and holding an assault rifle, he said that Wagner was “making Russia even greater, on all continents, and Africa even more free.”

Despite the uncertainty around the plane crash and Mr. Prigozhin’s fate, U.S. intelligence agencies said they had been surprised that Mr. Putin had not yet taken action against the Wagner leader after his mutiny.

In July, William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, said that a “complicated dance” with Mr. Putin had developed. Mr. Prigozhin traveled between Russia and Belarus, where President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko had offered Mr. Prigozhin and his fighters refuge, and other locations. But Mr. Burns predicted that Mr. Putin would move against Mr. Prigozhin.

“Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold,” Mr. Burns said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado last month. “So he’s going to try to settle the situation to the extent he can. But, again, in my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback. So I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this.”

The plane that listed Mr. Prigozhin as a passenger on Wednesday left Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport about 6 p.m. local time, bound for St. Petersburg. It went down less than 100 miles to the northwest, near the city of Tver. RIA Novosti posted an unconfirmed video, widely shared on social media, that purports to show the plane tumbling from the sky, smoke billowing.

Video shared on the Telegram messaging app appeared to show the aircraft burning on the ground. The paint and a partial registration number, RA-02795, visible on the aircraft in the video, an Embraer Legacy 600 business jet, align with a jet that Mr. Prigozhin is known to use.

Ten bodies were recovered at the crash site, RIA Novosti reported, citing Russian Emergency Services officials. The state television channel Rossiya-24 cited the authorities as saying that seven passengers and three crew members had been on the plane.

Mr. Putin did not comment immediately on the crash. Around the time the news broke, Russian television broadcast live footage of his appearance in the Kursk region to honor the 80th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.

“I heartily congratulate all citizens of Russia on this event,” Mr. Putin said while standing onstage in front of an orchestra.

Officials in Ukraine, which has suffered steep losses of life and has seen villages, towns and cities devastated by Mr. Putin’s 18-month war, were also cautious about saying exactly what had happened. But Andriy Yermak, the head of the president’s office, posted what appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to the crash on his Telegram account: an audio link to the song “Highway to Hell.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council, Adrienne Watson, said that if Mr. Prigozhin’s death was confirmed, “no one should be surprised.” She added, “The disastrous war in Ukraine led to a private army marching on Moscow, and now, it would seem, to this.”

Some Russian bloggers and other pro-Moscow voices warned against concluding that Mr. Prigozhin was dead, much less that he had been killed deliberately. The pro-war Russian military blog Arkhangel Spetsnaz urged its more than 900,000 followers on Telegram to “leave all conjectures and investigations for later.” The post added, “The enemy takes advantage of every destabilizing situation.”

But Grey Zone, the blog close to the Wagner group, reported that Mr. Prigozhin and Mr. Utkin, his top commander, had been killed.

Mr. Prigozhin “died as a result of the actions of traitors of Russia,” a post by Grey Zone said. “But even in hell, he will be the best!”

Reporting was contributed by Valerie Hopkins, Paul Sonne, Riley Mellen, Eric Schmitt, Erica L. Green, Julian E. Barnes and Cassandra Vinograd.

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