Wed. Sep 27th, 2023

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RIGA, Latvia — Two months to the day since he launched an audacious problem to Russian President Vladmir Putin’s rule, Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin was on the passenger record of a aircraft that crashed northwest of Moscow, killing all 10 folks aboard, in keeping with Russian aviation authorities.

It was not instantly clear whether or not Prigozhin, who led the short-lived mutiny in June, was on the Embraer enterprise jet when it went down within the Tver area, however Rosaviatsiya, the nation’s air transport company, mentioned his identify was on the flight manifest.

“An investigation has been launched into the crash of the Embraer plane,” the company mentioned in a press release. “In keeping with the record of passengers, amongst them is the identify and surname of Yevgeniy Prigozhin.”

There was no affirmation of his dying Wednesday from Russian or U.S. officers, or from Prigozhin’s press service, which has not posted on-line since June. One Telegram channel related to the Wagner Group urged towards publishing “unverified knowledge and messages” about Prigozhin’s destiny.

However later Wednesday, Gray Zone, one other Wagner-linked Telegram channel, posted an obituary: “The top of the Wagner Group, Hero of Russia, a real patriot of his Motherland – Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin died because of the actions of traitors to Russia,” the submit learn. “However even in Hell he would be the greatest! Glory to Russia!”

If confirmed, Prigozhin’s dying would cap a meteoric rise and fall for a convict turned restaurateur turned warlord. He used his mercenary military to develop Russian affect in Africa and the Center East and got here to Putin’s rescue throughout his stalled invasion of Ukraine, solely to insurgent towards the nation’s army management and be branded an enemy of the state.

On June 23, Prigozhin launched what he known as “the march of justice” — pulling his mercenary fighters from the entrance traces in Ukraine and sending them towards the Russian capital. The insurrection despatched shock waves by way of Russia’s elite and posed an unprecedented problem to Putin’s authority.

President Biden speculated in July that Prigozhin could possibly be a goal of assassination, like quite a lot of Russian dissidents and journalists previously, together with opposition chief Alexei Navalny, who survived a poisoning in 2020.

“I’d watch out what I ate. I’d maintain my eye on my menu,” Biden mentioned final month. His feedback have been echoed by CIA Director William J. Burns on the Aspen Safety Discussion board: “Putin is somebody who usually thinks that revenge is a dish greatest served chilly. So he’s going to attempt to settle the state of affairs to the extent he can,” Burns mentioned. “In my expertise, Putin is the last word apostle of payback.”

On Wednesday, as reviews of Prigozhin’s dying circulated, Biden instructed journalists: “I don’t know for a truth what occurred, however I’m not stunned.”

Requested if Putin could possibly be behind the crash, Biden mentioned, “There’s not a lot that occurs in Russia that Putin’s not behind. However I don’t know sufficient to know the reply.”

Eyewitnesses on Wednesday reported listening to two explosions earlier than the aircraft tumbled from the sky and burst into flames in a area, Russian media reported. There have been seven passengers and three crew members on board, aviation officers mentioned, together with Dmitry Utkin, Prigozhin’s second-in-command. The aircraft was flying from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport to St. Petersburg, which is Prigozhin’s hometown and the positioning of Wagner’s former headquarters.

No less than two Wagner-affiliated planes have been within the air close to Moscow on Wednesday night, in keeping with Gray Zone, including to the confusion over who was killed.

A foul-mouthed, larger-than-life determine identified for his ghoulish humorousness and on-line media empire, Prigozhin was in style amongst rank-and-file troopers and hard-line pro-war figures.

He recruited 1000’s of prisoners for the struggle in Ukraine — inviting murderers and thieves to struggle in trade for pardons — throwing them into battle in a tactic generally known as the “meat grinder.” Wave upon wave of ex-convicts have been unleashed in near-suicidal assaults on the entrance traces of Bakhmut and different Ukrainian cities; anybody who fled can be shot by Wagner commanders, Prigozhin warned.

Earlier than his downfall, he earned a fame as a truth-teller, chopping by way of the triumphal tone of state media to element the ugly actuality of Russia’s army failures. In Might, in his most brazen public stunt, Prigozhin posed in a area piled excessive with useless mercenaries and shouted obscenities at Protection Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the overall employees of Russia’s army, blaming them for “ravenous” Wagner forces of ammunition.

“We’re 70 % in need of ammunition, Shoigu, Gerasimov, the place the f— is the ammunition?” he screamed.

“You, scum, sit in costly golf equipment, your children are having fun with life, filming YouTube movies, you assume you might be masters of life and you’ve got the appropriate to get rid of their life,” he added, pointing to the corpses that surrounded him.

Even so, he appeared to stay on the appropriate facet of Putin, his longtime ally and benefactor, till embarking on his transient however momentous mutiny, which noticed his forces occupy a army headquarters in southern Russia.

Putin appeared paralyzed throughout the first hours of the insurrection and, to the shock of many in Russia, in the end agreed to a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko permitting Prigozhin to name off his forces in trade for amnesty and the power to relocate his fighters to Belarus.

Recounting the story of the negotiations later, Lukashenko mentioned Prigozhin was involved that Putin would “whack” him.

Russian safety companies dropped fees towards Prigozhin, and he returned to Russia shortly after to fulfill with Putin and to gather money and weapons. He was later noticed in St. Petersburg throughout a Russia-Africa summit however had largely disappeared from public view within the weeks since.

Within the aftermath of the insurrection, some high-ranking Russian generals complained brazenly concerning the failings of the Protection Ministry, a rare breach of army self-discipline in a rustic the place public dissent has been all however crushed.

Putin has since taken steps to tighten his management, showing in public with Shoigu and Gerasimov, a transparent message that any future criticism of the army wouldn’t be tolerated.

Janis Garisons, the state secretary of the Latvian Protection Ministry, mentioned that if the Kremlin have been certainly concerned within the crash, it might be a sign that “Putin’s regime is steady and is strengthening itself,” although he emphasised that he didn’t but have data confirming that Prigozhin was on the aircraft.

Consultants, too, urged warning. Prigozhin was identified to have quite a few passports and physique doubles who traveled below his identify.

“Till we all know for sure it’s the appropriate Prigozhin, let’s not be stunned if he pops up shortly in a brand new video from Africa,” mentioned Keir Giles, Russia analyst on the London-based Chatham Home assume tank.

“We’re unlikely ever to know the true reason for the crash.” he added, as a result of “there isn’t any probability of any investigation that will probably be both clear or dependable.”

Professional-Kremlin figures on Wednesday have been fast to dismiss hypothesis that Prigozhin might have been assassinated by Russian authorities, they usually sought to shift the blame to Ukraine.

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political marketing consultant, mentioned that if Prigozhin had been killed, it was most likely “a direct assault organized by Ukraine.”

“The Russians might have killed him,” he mentioned. “But when the order was given to liquidate Prigozhin, then they might have killed him on his personal, and never killed harmless folks. … If Putin needed to, he would have simply had him arrested, and that will be it.”

A lot of generals perceived as near Prigozhin or crucial of Shoigu have been dismissed or sidelined, together with Gen. Sergei Surovikin, generally known as “Normal Armageddon” for his ruthlessness on the battlefield. State media reported his dismissal as air power chief on Wednesday after months of rumors about his whereabouts. Prigozhin steadily praised Surovikin as one in every of Russia’s most competent generals.

One other officer, Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th Mixed Arms Military, a power famend in Russia for its roles within the Ukraine and Chechen wars, was fired final month after accusing Russia’s high brass of “treacherously and vilely decapitating the military on the most troublesome and tense second.”

Earlier this week, Prigozhin launched his first video handle because the mutiny, asserting that Wagner was shifting its focus again to Africa and recruiting skilled troopers for brand new operations. Filmed in an unknown desert location, Prigozhin wore camouflage and held a rifle, vowing to make Russia “even higher on all continents and Africa extra free.”

On Wednesday, because the hour grew late, mourners started to put flowers outdoors Wagner’s former headquarters in St. Petersburg.

Roman Saponkov, a Russian pro-war blogger, wrote that an assassination of Prigozhin would have “catastrophic penalties,” because the mercenary boss was nonetheless extremely regarded by front-line troops in Ukraine.

“The individuals who gave the order don’t perceive the temper within the military and the morale in any respect,” he wrote on Telegram.

Ebel reported from London. Catherine Belton in London, Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Evan Hill in New York, and Michael Birnbaum and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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