Yevgeny Prigozhin had become a thorn in the Kremlin’s side since its uprising last June. The uprising of Wagner’s mercenaries, although fleeting, represented the biggest challenge to the power of President Vladimir Putin since his accession to the presidency, more than two decades ago. For this reason, his death two months later, in a plane crash when he was flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, arouses suspicion among the international foreign ministries. He wouldn’t be the first annoying character for Moscow to leave this world under strange circumstances.
How did it happen?
On Wednesday afternoon, a private Embraer Legacy plane, which according to local media was part of the mercenary chief’s fleet, crashed in the Tver Oblast, some 300 kilometers north of Moscow, the city from which it had taken off to St. Petersburg. According to the Russian civil aviation agency Rosaviatsia, Prigozhin was on the passenger list. In total, ten people would have died. It is believed that along with the oligarch, Wagner’s number two, the neo-Nazi Dmitri Utkin, would also have died, so the leadership of the group would have been completely decapitated.
The Telegram channel Gray Zone, which the Wagner Group uses officially, assured yesterday that the residents of the accident site heard two impacts and saw two columns of steam before the collision of the device, which could suggest that the accident would have been caused.
The Russian emergency services have recovered the bodies in the accident area, but we will have to wait for the results of the DNA tests to confirm all the identities, since their bodies have been completely burned.
When was he last seen?
The tycoon had set his eyes on the African continent. On Tuesday, the first video of Yevgueni Prigozhin since the failed June riot came to light. Dressed in military uniform and carrying a heavy rifle, the mercenary leader suggested that he was in Africa to defend Russian interests. “The Wagner group makes Russia even bigger on all continents and Africa even freer,” Prigozhin said in the recording.
The future of the mercenary group was uncertain after the agreement mediated by Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko to put an end to the uprising. The ‘Wagnerites’, as well as their leader, had left Ukrainian soil, where until then they had become the main Russian shock force, to settle in camps in Belarus. However, Ukraine was not the only base of operations for the group, which also has men in various African countries and in Syria. On July 27, a photograph circulated of Prigozhin shaking hands with the representative of an African delegation in Saint Petersburg during a summit between Russia and African countries.
For the moment, the Kremlin is silent, but not the Western chancelleries, which do not hide their suspicions. One of the most explicit has been the US president, Joe Biden. “I don’t have specific information about what has happened, but it doesn’t surprise me,” he said in statements to the press. “There’s not much going on in Russia that Putin isn’t behind, but I don’t have enough information to know the answer,” he added. From the Ukraine, Mikhailo Podoliak, Zelensky’s adviser, wrote on the X network, formerly known as Twitter, that “it is obvious that Putin does not forgive anyone. He was waiting for this moment. It is also obvious that Prigozhin signed his death sentence at the moment when he believed Lukashenko’s ‘guarantees’ and Putin’s equally absurd ‘word of honour’”.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, one of the most critical voices against Moscow, assured CNN that “if confirmed, it shows that Putin eliminates his opponents and scares anyone with an opinion different from his.” From Paris, the spokesman for the French government, Olivier Veran, pointed out that “reasonable doubts can be had” about what happened.
Why would it have angered the Kremlin?
If until the start of the war with Ukraine one of Prigozhin’s main qualities had been his discretion, since the invasion he stood out for not hiding his criticism of the Russian military High Command, which he accused, between insults and expletives, of lack of efficiency. and depriving his mercenaries of ammunition and protection on the front line. He accused the Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the Chief of the General Staff, Valeri Guerasimov, two of the men closest to Putin, with names and surnames. And he claimed victories on the battlefield as his own, not those of the regular army, calling them into question and shaking the rigid military hierarchy.
But the final straw was the events of June 23 and 24, when Prigozhin called his mercenaries to rise up and effortlessly took over the million-population Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. From there, a Wagner tank column advanced for hours without being stopped towards Moscow and only withdrew, when there were a few hundred kilometers to go, at the order of its leader, who said he wanted to avoid bloodshed. The intervention of the Belarusian president Lukashenko, who until now was seen as nothing more than a vassal of Putin, had been necessary. In 23 years, the Russian leader has never been challenged in such a way, and weakness is not forgiven in the Russian power system.
The ‘general Armageddon’, dismissed
Coincidentally, the same day of the accident, the official Russian news agency, Ría Nóvosti, announced the dismissal of General Sergei Surovikin, disgraced on suspicion that he knew of Prigozhin’s intentions. Since then, he has remained out of the public eye and there has been speculation about his arrest. The Russian agency reported that the so-called general aramageddon for his role in the criminal bombings against the rebels in Syria, he was no longer head of the Russian Aerospace Forces.
Surovikin had been at the forefront of Russia’s strategy in Ukraine from October 2022 until January 2023, when he was replaced by Gerasimov after the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive at the end of the year. Nevertheless, Prigozhin had always praised him.