It is a terminally violent twist – perhaps to have been expected, but staggering nevertheless – to one of the most astonishing episodes in recent history. Yevgeny Prigozhin, who attempted a coup against Vladimir Putin, is reported to have been killed in a plane crash in Russia.
If the chief of the mercenary group, Wagner, was indeed among the ten passengers said to have died when the private jet went down in the Tver oblast near Moscow, then the immediate suspicion would be that this was assassination by the Kremlin.
In the course of 24 hours of armed mutiny, two months to the day ago, Putin had accused Prigozhin of treachery and then pardoned him. The two men even had tea together soon afterwards. Now, it seems, retribution may have come in the form of a dish served cold.
According to Rosavista, the Russian aviation authority, Prigozhin was one of the names on passenger manifest of the Embraer jet RA-02795. According to some reports, Dmitry Utkin, one of the founder members of the group whose call sign, Wagner, became its name, is also among the dead.
Officials in Moscow say that all the passengers, as well as the crew of three, have perished. A number of Wagner-linked social media channels claimed the jet had been shot down by the national air defence system. Others claimed there was a bomb on board.
The destruction of the plane took place 24 hours after the news came that General Sergei Surovoki, who had previously been in charge of the Ukraine mission, had been fired from his post as the head of country’s aerospace forces.
Surovokin, who earned the sobriquet "General Armageddon" for his brutal methods in the Syria conflict, was known to have good relations with Prigozhin and shared his antipathy towards some senior figures in the security hierarchy, including defence minister Sergei Shoigu, over the conduct of the Ukraine war.
There were claims following the Wagner mutiny that Surovikin had been detained for questioning about his possible complicity. The Kremlin denied this, maintaining the general was merely “ resting”.
A video had been posted of Prigozhin earlier in the week purporting to be of him in Africa declaring that Wagner was hard at work there and that made “Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa more free.” Africa, where Wagner has long acted as the Kremlin’s private army and established extensive lucrative networks, seemed to have been one place where the group and the Russian government could work together. Prigozhin had also appeared on the sidelines of a summit hosted for African leaders by Putin in St Petersburg. It was the first sighting of the Wagner boss since the mutiny.
It had been assumed that Prigozhin would be exiled to Belarus in the deal brokered by the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, to end Wagner’s march on Moscow, and his presence at the meeting was seen by some Kremlin watchers to indicate that he was too powerful to be sidelined.
If Prigozhin has been killed, then it would appear that was an image his enemies were prepared to publicise while plotting to remove him from the scene permanently.
Wagner had been heavily engaged in Ukraine, capturing the city of Bakhmut, more a symbolic than a strategic prize, after bloody siege and assaults lasting months,
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior advisor Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted regarding Prigozhin’s possible demise “…we have to wait for the fog of war to clear. However, it is clear that Putin does not forgive anyone for his own beastly fear - the very one that nullified him in June 2023 – and was waiting for the moment.”
Ukrainian forces are taking part in a prolonged counteroffensive to reclaim territory, including Bakhmut, in the Donbas. An infantry captain – talking about Prigozhin’s fate and a spate of recent Ukrainian drone attacks inside Russia – during a break in the town of Druzhkivka, mused: “Perhaps Russian air defence mistook his private plane for a large enemy drone. That would be a wonderful end for such a man, wouldn’t it?”