Wagner Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, Mercenary Who Defied Putin, Is Presumed Dead

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who led a mutiny that posed the biggest threat to President Vladimir Putin’s almost quarter-century rule, is presumed dead.

(Bloomberg) — Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who led a mutiny that posed the biggest threat to President Vladimir Putin’s almost quarter-century rule, is presumed dead.

Russia’s aviation authority said he was in a deadly plane crash on Wednesday that killed all 10 aboard a flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

The crash took place exactly two months after Prigozhin’s rebellion, one that Putin denounced as “treason” only to quickly accept a deal that saw the mercenary boss agree to retreat to neighboring Belarus. Many Kremlin observers questioned the truce would ever last long given Putin’s track record. 

The Kremlin has repeatedly been accused of targeting its opponents for death, an allegation officials there deny.

“If Prigozhin was indeed killed in that crash, this means that Putin is a very cold-blooded player. He waited to sort out the situation with Prigozhin’s assets and when everything was in order and ready, made his final move,” said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian secret services. 

Politically Putin removed all critics of Russia’s performance in the war “and has shown everyone that he is in total control of the situation,” he said.

Wagner Chief Prigozhin Was in Deadly Jet Crash, Russia Says

Described as a one-time confidante who was living on borrowed time, Prigozhin openly defied the terms of the truce. Back in July, US President Joe Biden publicly said about the man dubbed Putin’s chef: “If I were he I’d be careful what I ate.”

Prigozhin was known for his catering companies’ contracts with the Kremlin and was not completely blind to the danger he was in. The 62-year-old typically used two aircraft for travel: one as a decoy, just in case. 

But even that extra layer of protection appears to have failed him after he challenged a Kremlin known for its merciless punishment of traitors and opponents. 

The US and Europe have accused Russia of using the nerve poison Novichok against a double agent in the UK who Putin called a “scumbag” and a “traitor,” as well as opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who is now in jail after surviving the attack.

Prigozhin Turns Forces Back in Deal With Kremlin to Drop Charges

Prigozhin’s uprising shook Putin’s image of complete control, already under stress as his invasion of Ukraine drags through its second year with no end in sight. The mercenary leader’s death, in circumstances that may never be fully explained, send a clear signal to Russia’s elite that Putin is still very much in charge.

Prigozhin’s own beginnings were humble, before he was able to leverage his Kremlin contracts into a lucrative catering business. He was born in Putin’s home city of St. Petersburg and was considered a close associate of the Russian leader for years.

A former convict who spent about a decade in prison in the 1980s for robbery, Prigozhin started his career as a hot dog seller. He then built up a restaurant and catering business in St. Petersburg in the 1990s and got to know Putin, who was deputy mayor of what was then a city plagued by crime.

Prigozhin’s wealth took off after his company, Concord Management and Consulting, won major government contracts including for schools and the military. His prominence increased in 2014 when his newly-formed Wagner Group, a private military company, helped to foment a Russia-backed uprising in eastern Ukraine. 

The following year, Wagner fighters played a key role on the ground in Syria, where Putin intervened with an air campaign to shore up President Bashar al-Assad.

Prigozhin’s infamy in the US was stoked by his indictment by federal authorities that accused him of operating a “troll farm” that took part in Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

He expanded his reach in support of Kremlin goals to a string of African countries stretching from Libya to the Central African Republic. He pioneered a business model based on providing security services to strongmen in return for access to mineral wealth.

After Putin invaded neighboring Ukraine in February 2022, Wagner again came to the aid of the Russian state by deploying tens of thousands of its combat-hardened veterans. Prigozhin was even allowed to recruit in prisons, offering amnesty to those who signed up.

But the onetime Putin protégé clashed increasingly with army chiefs, accusing them of failing to wage the invasion aggressively enough and depriving his fighters of supplies. His angry public outbursts delivered on social media won him a big following in Russia with nationalist feelings on the rise.

(Adds quotes in fifth, sixth paragraphs. A previous version of this story corrected the direction of the flight path)

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