It was only a matter of time before Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin would pay with his life for his mutiny against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his disastrous war in Ukraine.
Russian state-controlled media reported Wednesday that the bombastic 62-year-old oligarch-turned-warlord was listed on the flight manifest of a jet that fell from the sky half an hour after takeoff from Moscow and that all 10 people on board died in the fiery crash.
In keeping with the Kremlin’s strategically vague accounts of Prigozhin’s whereabouts, none of the official reports have confirmed that Prigozhin was on the plane, just that his name was on the passenger list. The name of Dmitri Utkin, Prigozhin’s deputy who led the June 23 Wagner rebellion that drove an armored column 500 miles toward the Kremlin from Rostov-on-Don, was also on the manifest.
Social media immediately shared a video of the doomed plane plummeting from the skies. The AP examined the video frame-by-frame and concluded the images of the jet’s fall from top cruising altitude were “consistent with some sort of explosion mid-flight,” the agency reported.
The TASS news agency quoted Rosaviatsia, Russia’s aviation administration, as confirming that Prigozhin was on the ill-fated plane. State media also reported that the Russian Investigative Committee had opened an investigation of the crash for its potential violation of air safety rules, although it was unclear who was under suspicion or what aviation safety measures might have been breached.
Putin also axed another top figure in the Kremlin military hierarchy on Wednesday, firing Russian air force chief Gen. Sergei Surovikin. The veteran of Kremlin military meddling in Syria and Africa, Surovikin was suspected of sympathizing with Prigozhin’s frustration over the Russian Defense Ministry’s inept direction of the war in Ukraine. Surovikin served as commander of the Russian “special military operation” for a few months before being replaced early this year in the commander’s role by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the Moscow-based Chief of the General Staff who was the target of Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny.
Pundits, from conspiracy theorists to prominent intelligence experts, speculated on everything from whether Prigozhin was actually on the plane to theories that the mercenary chief’s name has been adopted by various Wagner fighters to confuse any Kremlin effort to track the mutinous warlord’s movements.
The one point on which commentators converge is that the plane crash was no accident. Russian pro-war bloggers and Western think-tank scholars see the hand of a vengeful Putin behind the air disaster.
Keir Giles, a Russia expert with the British think-tank Chatham House, was quoted by the Associated Press as urging caution about reports of Prigozhin’s death.
“Multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeny Prigozhin as part of his efforts to obfuscate his travels,” Giles said. “Let’s not be surprised if he pops up shortly in a new video from Africa.”
Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe on the front line of the East-West confrontation, prefaced his cable news analysis of Prigozhin’s reported demise with the caveat that “if in fact he actually is dead, and I’m not convinced of that yet.”
Hodges said that destruction of a civilian aircraft with 10 people on board proved that “no serious person can think Ukraine can negotiate with Russia.”
“This should pour cold water on people thinking maybe somehow we can bring about and force a negotiated settlement” of the 18-month-old war in Ukraine as Putin has “zero credibility.”
“Prigozhin humiliated Putin with his mutiny. Everyone but Prigozhin seemed to understand that Putin would eventually seek revenge. Looks like he did so today. But if you have to kill your buddies, is that really a sign of strength?” former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul posted on his social media outlets.
Ardent Putin critic and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov tweeted a prediction that the Kremlin chief’s strike against the mutineer showed the internal disintegration of Russia’s criminal leadership.
“When a dictator is reduced to murdering members of his inner circle and fighting with and replacing his own generals, the situation is very dangerous. There is no trust among those who remain, and therefore no loyalty. The knives are out and must taste blood,” Kasparov tweeted.
Prigozhin had been a Putin ally for the past 20 years, sharing lucrative catering and import contracts with the Russian president in his early years in leadership. Prigozhin began training mercenaries for the Ukraine war when Putin first invaded the eastern provinces and seized Crimea in 2014. Like Putin, the Wagner chief founded his business empire in St. Petersburg where they grew up in tough slums of Russia’s second city.
Killing Prigozhin is seen by many analysts as a desperate move by Putin to remind critics that challenging his power or prosecution of the costly war in Ukraine ends with deadly retaliation. Near or far, opponents in Russia or in exile have been poisoned, fallen from upper-story windows, shot to death in the shadow of the Kremlin or jailed on trumped-up charges. Domestic political dissidents Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza have been sentenced to decades in punishment for criticism of Russia’s leader and his failed attempt to conquer Ukraine.
“In this war Russia had two notable commanders (both also war criminals). One was relieved of duty and the other attempted a coup and was then murdered,” Yale history professor Timothy Snyder tweeted of the elimination of Prigozhin and Surovikin. “Winning a war does not look like that.”