The death of mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, 62, head of the Wagner Group, was confirmed this Sunday (27) by genetic analysis, according to Russian authorities. He was on a plane that crashed near Moscow on Wednesday (23), exactly two months after leading a mutiny against Vladimir Putin’s military leadership.
According to the Russian Investigation Committee, after a molecular genetic analysis, the experts concluded that the DNA samples match those of the passengers who appeared on the boarding list. In addition to Prigojin, nine other people died, including Dmitri Utkin, 53, number two in the Wagner Group.
The Russian government has not said whether it intends to hold a funeral. When questioned on the subject on Friday (25), the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, declined to speak, limiting himself to saying that Putin’s agenda was “quite busy”.
The case adds to the list of deaths under suspicious or mysterious circumstances in Russia since the start of the Ukrainian War in February 2022. Generals and at least 12 prominent businessmen died in tragic circumstances. The deaths are attributed to illness, suicide or accidents, but, according to Kremlin critics, could be murders in disguise.
After the plane crash, Western politicians suggested, without providing evidence, that Putin ordered Prigojin’s death in revenge for the mutiny launched against Russian army leadership in June, in the biggest challenge to the president since he came to power in 1999. The mercenaries marched towards Moscow and only stopped after mediation by the dictator of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukachenko.
Putin wavered on the case, calling the mercenaries traitors at first and then pardoning them. No one was arrested or officially punished despite the deaths of 12 Russian soldiers in combat with the rebels, who shot down helicopters and a plane. Five days after the crisis, the Russian president met Prigojin to hear his reasons. Details of the episode, however, remain unclear.
After the riot, the Kremlin announced that the Wagner Group would no longer receive public funds and would not be able to work in Russia, but that it could keep its contracts in other countries. In a video released the day before the plane crash, Prigojin appeared to be in Africa and spoke of pride in taking Russia’s strength to the continent, although it was not possible to verify when the recording was made.
Last Friday, Peskov hit back at accusations that the Russian government planned the mercenary’s assassination, describing them as false. “There is a lot of speculation surrounding this plane crash and the tragic deaths of the passengers, including Prigojin. Of course, in the West, all speculation is presented from a well-known angle,” he said. “It’s all a lie […]. We need to base ourselves on facts. There are still not many facts. They need to be determined in the course of investigative actions.”
Earlier, on Thursday (24), Putin made a statement about the plane crash, during which he offered condolences and said that Prigojin had “committed serious mistakes”. Afterwards, the Kremlin published on its website an order for the mercenary fighters to sign an oath of loyalty to the Russian state.
Authorities in Russia have launched an investigation into the incident with the plane, but have not yet released any suspicions about the reasons for the sudden crash. The US government ruled out that the crash was caused by a missile launched from Russian territory. From the analysis of navigation data and a video showing part of the incident, however, experts point to a catastrophic event on board, which severely damaged the aircraft in flight.
The Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet that was transporting the mercenaries was flying normally from Moscow to Saint Petersburg until the final 32 seconds of the route, when the aircraft became unstable and crashed in the Tver region, 160 km northwest of the Russian capital.
The Legacy 600 is considered a very safe aircraft, and this was the first incident with deaths on board one of these models in more than 20 years of use and almost 300 units manufactured. Earlier, a jet purchased by Americans collided in the air with a Gol Boeing-737 in 2006, causing the commercial plane to crash and the death of 154 passengers — the Legacy managed to land.
The investigation of the crash could involve Embraer, which in any case had not provided service to the aircraft since it entered a US sanctions list in 2019. However, Russia has not yet made a communication, which should be customary, to the Brazilian government asking the assistance.
The Wagner Group had as many as 50,000 troops during the Ukrainian War, according to the organization’s leaders. The mercenaries were responsible for taking the city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, after bloody conflicts that lasted for months. Afterwards, the Ministry of Defense of Russia issued an order to frame the mercenary groups in the service of the country under its control. At the time, Wagner refused formal contracts and opened a new crisis with the portfolio commanded by Serguei Choigu.
Known as “Putin’s chef”, for having provided food services to the Russian government, Prigojin has commanded the Wagner Group since 2014. The organization acted in the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and began selling its services to several African countries and Syria. In 2022, in the Ukraine War, the group’s official contracts reached US$ 1 billion (R$ 4.87 in the current conversion), according to Putin.
Prigojin was known for his cruelty and his trademark was a sledgehammer used to execute enemies and deserters. He was also notable for his use of false documents and various disguises.
Wagner increased the contingent by employing convicts. The recruitment of detainees interested in pardons is criticized by human rights organizations, but it was essential to Moscow’s strategy in the war. The victories, however, came at a cost for President Putin, who saw the antagonism between his Defense leadership and the mercenary leader increasingly accentuate.
Prigojin said that the mercenaries were boycotted by the Russian military leadership and, frequently, released videos in which he made demands. In May, he released a recording in which he appears surrounded by corpses and warns of the casualties suffered by the group, which he defined as “meaningless” and “unjustified”. “Choigu! Gerasimov! Where’s the fucking ammunition?” he shouts, referring to Defense Minister Sergei Choigu and Chief of Staff Valeri Gerasimov. The crisis culminated in the June riot.
Questioned after the plane crash about the future of Wagner, which still has a series of contracts in Africa, Kremlin spokesman Peskov was concise. “I can’t tell you anything now, I don’t know,” he said.
2000’s – Prigojin’s company closes contracts to supply power to the Kremlin and the public network in Moscow; he becomes known as “Putin’s chef”.
2014 – Prigojin founds the mercenary group Wagner; organization operates in the annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
20.May.23 – The Wagner Group announces the capture of Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine that was the scene of the bloodiest battle since the war in Eastern Europe began;
23.jun.23 – Mercenary troops led by Prigojin march towards Moscow in a mutiny against the Russian military leadership; at least 12 Russian Army soldiers are killed;
24.jun.23 – Mercenaries retreat after mediation by Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko; Prigojin accepts an agreement to leave Russia and go into exile in the neighboring country;
23.Aug.23 – Prigojin’s executive jet crashes near Moscow; mercenary leader’s name was on the passenger list
27.Aug.23 – Russia confirms that genetic tests confirm Prigojin’s death in the plane crash;