Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin ally-turned-rival, presumed dead in plane crash

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian former convict and restaurateur who founded the Wagner mercenary army, is presumed dead after a plane he was reportedly traveling in crashed Wednesday in a field between Moscow and St. Petersburg, his hometown. 

Russia’s civil aviation agency said Prigozhin’s name was on the flight manifest of the Embraer private jet, along with three crew members and six other passengers, and Russia’s Russia’s Emergency Services said 10 bodies were recovered from the crash. Telegram channels linked to Wagner also said Prigozhin died in the crash. 

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Video of the plane spiraling down appears to show a wing missing and other signs of an explosion, and there is widespread speculation the jet was downed in retaliation for Wagner’s brief mutiny, which began two months to the day before the crash. The mutiny humiliated Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin’s former patron, and posed the biggest threat to his power in decades.  

Among the others presumed dead is Prigozhin’s top lieutenant, Wagner commander Dmitri Utkin. Utkin’s nom de guerre, Wagner — a reference of Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer — inspired the name for the mercenary army, The New York Times reported. 

“Prigozhin’s death sends an unnerving signal to the country’s elite which, according to insiders and Western intelligence assessments, has grown increasingly unhappy with Putin, his handling of the mutiny earlier this summer and his overall handling of the war” in Ukraine, The Wall Street Journal added. 

Wagner forces handed Putin his only military victory this year, the capture of Bakhmut, but that was quickly followed by Wagner’s withdrawal from Ukraine and march on Moscow. After the mutiny, which ended in a deal that sent Wagner forces into exile in Belarus, Prigozhin largely disappeared from view. Earlier this week, he posted his first recruitment video in months, purportedly from Africa, where Wagner was active.

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