Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led a brief armed rebellion against Russian forces earlier this year, was presumed dead on Wednesday after a plane crash north of Moscow that killed all 10 people on board Went.
Prigozhin was on the plane, according to Russia’s Civil Aviation Agency, which cited the airline. The accident immediately raised suspicion as the fate of the founder of the Wagner private military company has been the subject of intense speculation ever since he rebelled.
At the time, President Vladimir Putin called the rebellion treason and backstabbing and vowed revenge. But the charges against Prigozhin were soon dropped. Major Wagner, whose forces were some of the best fighting forces for Russia in Ukraine, was allowed to retreat to Belarus, while reportedly still visiting Russia from time to time.
The crash comes after Russian media reported that a top general linked to Prigozhin had been fired as air force commander.
A plane carrying three crew members and seven passengers on its way from Moscow to Saint Petersburg went down some 300 kilometers (185 miles) north of the capital, according to officials cited by Russia’s state news agency Tass. .
Russia’s civil aviation agency, Rosaviatsiya, immediately reported that he was on the plane and later said that, according to the airline, he was indeed on the plane.
Earlier, Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-appointed official in the partially occupied Zaporizhia region in Ukraine, said he spoke to Wagner commanders, who also confirmed that Prigozhin was aboard, as well as Dmitry Utkin, whose call sign was Wagner. became the name of the company.
US President Joe Biden said, I really don’t know what happened but I am not surprised.
Keir Giles, a Russia expert at international affairs think tank Chatham House, urged caution regarding reports of Prigozhin’s death. He said that several individuals had changed their names to Yevgeny Prigozhin in an effort to obscure his travels.
Flight tracking data reviewed by The Associated Press showed that a private jet that Prigozhin had previously used took off from Moscow on Wednesday evening and lost its transponder signal minutes later.
The signal suddenly stopped when the aircraft was at altitude and traveling at speed. In an image posted by a pro-Wagner social media account showing the burning wreckage, a partial tail number matching the jet previously used by Prigozhin can be seen.
Videos shared by the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Gray Zone showed a plane plummeting like a stone through a huge cloud of smoke, twisting wildly as it fell. This type of freefall can occur when an aircraft sustains serious damage, and frame-by-frame AP analysis of the two videos was consistent with an explosion of some sort in mid-flight. The photographs showed that a wing of the aircraft was missing.
Russia’s Investigative Committee opened an investigation into the crash on charges of air safety violations, as it usually does when they open such investigations. Interfax cited emergency officials as saying on Thursday morning that all 10 bodies had been recovered at the crash site and the search operation was over.
Even if confirmed, Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to have an impact on Russia’s war in Ukraine, where his forces have fought some of the fiercest fighting over the past 18 months.
His troops pulled back from frontline operations after capturing Bakhmut, a town in the eastern Donetsk region, in late May. Bakhmut was the subject of arguably the bloodiest fighting of the entire war, with Russian forces fighting to capture it for months.
After the uprising, Russian officials said that its fighters would only be able to return to Ukraine as part of the regular army.
This week, Prigozhin posted his first recruitment video since the uprising, saying that Wagner is conducting reconnaissance and search activities, and making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free. is making
Also this week, Russian media, citing unnamed sources, reported that General Sergei Surovikin had been dismissed as commander of Russia’s air force. Surovikin, who once led Russia’s operation in Ukraine, has not been seen in public since the uprising, when he recorded a video address urging Prigozhin’s forces to retreat.
As news of the crash was coming in, Putin praised Russia’s war heroes in Ukraine at an event commemorating the Battle of Kursk.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said on Telegram that regardless of the cause of the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of retaliation and retaliation by the Kremlin, and the Kremlin will not really stand by it. way of that.
“Prigozhin’s death should be a lesson for any potential followers, from Putin’s point of view, as well as for the security forces and the military,” Stanovaya said in a Telegram post. According to her, after the uprising, Prigozhin stopped being a partner of the authorities. Did it and could not get that status back under any circumstances.
He was also not forgiven, wrote Stanovaya. Prigozhin was needed to painlessly carry out Wagner’s dismantling in Russia for some time after the uprising. But on the whole, Prigozhin, alive, happy, full of strength and full of ideas, was, of course, the embodiment of Putin’s political disgrace, a walking source of threats to the authorities.
Stanovaya doesn’t expect much public outcry over Prigozhin’s death. He said that those who support him would be more intimidated than motivated to protest, while others would see this as a just consequence.
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