Two months ago, Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin led his militia in a mutiny against the Russian regime. Now, Prigozhin is believed to have been involved in a fatal plane crash, Russian state media has reported.
The paramilitary leader’s death has not been officially confirmed, but Prigozhin was listed as a passenger on a private plane that crashed north of Moscow Wednesday, killing all 10 passengers aboard, according to media reports.
If Prigozhin is among the crash fatalities, it would be a dramatic — but not altogether surprising — development. In June, Prigozhin led his militia on a rapid march toward Moscow, a brazen challenge to Vladimir Putin’s regime. Prigozhin abruptly halted his revolt before reaching the capital, and the Kremlin later said Prigozhin had accepted a deal — apparently brokered by Belarus — to go into exile in Belarus. Few thought Prigozhin was about to enjoy a relaxing retirement in Minsk — or anywhere else, for that matter. As one Wagner watcher told Vox months before Prigozhin’s short-lived coup: “He knows that if the current regime or if his Wagner Group goes down, he goes down with them.”
An unlikely Putin rival may have just died in a plane crash, nothing to see here
When it comes to this crash, right now, the main sources of information are Russian authorities and state media — entities not exactly known for their transparency. These reports suggest that a plane, en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg, went down near the city of Tver. Prigozhin was on the passenger manifest, though it’s still unconfirmed whether he was actually on the flight. Some Telegram channels, including those tied to Wagner Group, have said it’s still not clear whether that was the case.
Russian media has reported that eight bodies have been recovered from the crash and that the plane carried three pilots and seven passengers. Russia’s aviation authorities have said they are “investigating the circumstances and causes of the accident,” according to the New York Times. Wagner-related Telegram channels have suggested that the plane could have been shot down, according to the Financial Times’s Max Seddon.
In a statement on the crash, White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said, “We have seen the reports. If confirmed, no one should be surprised. The disastrous war in Ukraine led to a private army marching on Moscow, and now — it would seem — to this.”
Putin does not let his rivals stick around. Prigozhin may be the latest victim.
Known as “Putin’s chef,” Prigozhin had long been something of a fixer for Putin’s regime. He rose from the criminal underworld in post-Soviet Russia, and that always made him a bit of an outsider among Russia’s elites. He wasn’t exactly in Putin’s inner circle, but he had the skills and connections to make himself useful and needed.
The same was true in his role as the head of the Wagner Group, a sort-of-private army that carried out the geopolitical aims of the Russian state, especially in places like Africa and the Middle East. In the past year, Wagner had been some of the more effective Russian fighters in Ukraine, eventually taking the eastern city of Bakhmut in a bloody, grinding, months-long battle. It was one of Russia’s rare victories from its winter counteroffensive, and Prigozhin had used his clout to intensify his criticism of Russia’s top military brass, posting scathing videos accusing generals of denying Wagner the ammunition and support needed to fight effectively.
Prigozhin’s attacks were so bold that Putin finally seemed to lose patience, and Russia put out a directive that the Russian military would formally integrate Wagner fighters by July. Prigozhin claimed he wanted to prevent this, and that’s why he staged his rebellion.
That revolt lasted about 24 hours, with Wagner fighters seizing military installations in Russia’s south and marching on Moscow. Then, just as abruptly, Prigozhin halted that movement, claiming this was all part of the plan. The Kremlin later said a deal had been reached whereby Prigozhin would avoid prosecution in exchange for going into exile in Belarus.
Following the revolt, Putin pretty much tried to go back to business as usual, albeit with a lot more public appearances. Prigozhin has not been widely seen in public since his June rebellion, with only vague or sketchy reports of his whereabouts. That includes a statement from the Kremlin in July that claimed that Putin met with Prigozhin shortly after the rebellion, at least one video that sounded like his voice greeting Wagner recruits in Belarus, and a photo posted in July apparently taken in St. Petersburg with an official from the Central African Republic. Just this week, a person who appeared to be Prigozhin spoke in a short video clip about Wagner’s operations in Africa — though the date and exact location of the video were unconfirmed. It was his first video since his rebellion, posted about a day before Wednesday’s plane crash.
The big question, of course, is whether this was an accident — and, though it’s still early, there are a fair number of reasons to suspect it wasn’t.
Prigozhin’s position was always dependent to a degree on Putin’s largesse, and staging a mutiny against the president put him, pretty unequivocally, in an extraordinarily precarious state. Prigozhin has always maintained that his revolt was not a coup attempt, but during his 24-hour rebellion in June, it looked at least possible that Putin could be overthrown, undermining his image as an infallible strongman.
Which always meant the idea that Putin would let Prigozhin — and his Wagner fighters — casually reconstitute in Belarus was very, very unlikely. Putin has been known to pursue his perceived enemies at home and abroad. His critics have been poisoned, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Opponents have fallen out of windows. Russia has also been suspected in plane crash assassination plots: Polish authorities allege the Kremlin was responsible for the fatal crash that killed Poland’s president in 2010. And it’s probably also worth mentioning Russia’s role in downing a civilian jet over Ukraine in 2014.
Whatever happened with this plane crash — and whether or not Prigozhin was on it and died in it Wednesday — the oligarch was never going to be the exception to the rule in Putin’s Russia.