Evguéni Prigojine, the boss of the Wagner Group who was on board the crashed plane in Russia on Wednesday, has been reported dead by Russian media.
While the circumstances of the crash remain uncertain, it is impossible to ignore the possibility of an assassination ordered by the Kremlin to punish the instigator of the attempted mutiny last June.
It happened exactly two months after the brief mutiny initiated by Evguéni Prigojine. The boss of the Wagner mercenary group was on board the private jet that crashed on Wednesday, August 23, in the Tver region, just over a hundred kilometers northwest of Moscow, confirmed Rosaviatsia, the Russian aviation agency.
She published a list of the ten passengers on the flight, which includes, in addition to Evguéni Prigojine, the names of Dmitry Outkine, often referred to as the co-founder of Wagner and number 2 in the organization, and other executives of the mercenary group.
After a night of speculation about the circumstances of the crash and the fate of the famous former associate of Vladimir Putin who had become a pariah after his mutiny attempt, most of the mystery remains Thursday morning.
The Kremlin has remained silent, refusing in particular to confirm the information from the Interfax news agency that the bodies of the ten passengers on the flight have been found.
Most commentators on Russian social networks and analysts interviewed by France 24 assume that the death of Evguéni Prigojine is the most likely scenario at this stage. The Wagner group also seems to assume this, as the windows of their headquarters in St. Petersburg were illuminated to form a cross.
“It’s a slightly more dramatic end than could be expected, but it’s not surprising either,” says Jeff Hawn, a specialist in security issues in Russia and external consultant for the New Line Institute, an American geopolitical research center.
Since his aborted march on Moscow on June 23, Evguéni Prigojine had appeared for many as a man on borrowed time. Nothing definitively indicates that he was targeted for an assassination ordered from the Kremlin.
Some pro-Putin Russian commentators have accused Ukraine of being responsible, while others have blamed the accident on a technical failure of the plane, according to The Moscow Times.
But several coincidences have not escaped observers. There is, of course, the highly symbolic timing of this crash, precisely two months after the thwarted mutiny. Moreover, “the plane was carrying both Evguéni Prigojine and Dmitry Outkine, which is very rare.
The two men hardly ever traveled together to avoid exactly this type of scenario,” says Stephen Hall, a political scientist specializing in Russia at the University of Bath in England.
The plane also crashed at the moment when Russian President Vladimir Putin was delivering a speech to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany, emphasizing the “loyalty” of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
Finally, Moscow also announced the dismissal of Evguéni Sourovikine from his position as commander-in-chief of the aerospace forces on the same day.
This highly feared and respected general had not appeared in public since the mutiny on June 23, and was suspected of being sympathetic to Evguéni Prigojine.
“This gives the impression that the Kremlin has decided to definitively turn the page on this mutiny,” summarizes Jenny Mathers, a Russia specialist at Aberystwyth University in Wales.
Among the myriad of scenarios circulating, “the most likely one remains an operation devised by the GRU [the military intelligence service],” says Jenny Mathers, who has worked on Russian intelligence services.
On the fateful day, Evguéni Prigojine “would have made a round trip to Mali because he had heard that the GRU was trying to remove the Wagner mercenaries from there to replace them with its own men.
It was a way for the GRU to force the Wagner command to move urgently, thus allowing the army to know precisely on which flight Evguéni Prigojine would be,” adds Stephen Hall.
In the hypothesis of a setup, the modus operandi was not chosen randomly. Downing an airplane “is a radical and very non-discreet solution. It clearly sends a signal to the Russian elite that Vladimir Putin will not tolerate any betrayal,” assures Stephen Hall.
It took two months to decapitate the Wagner group. “It may seem long when you know how much Vladimir Putin hates betrayal, but we must not forget that the Kremlin was caught off guard by the mutiny.
The security services probably had to take time to work out the details and ensure that they have control over all potential consequences of such an operation,” says Jenny Mathers.
According to Jeff Hawn, if the Kremlin delayed its reaction, it may be “because Vladimir Putin was not sure what fate to reserve for Evguéni Prigojine.” Indeed, according to this expert, “we must not forget that the Russian president had first assured him that nothing would happen to him if he chose exile in Belarus, and Vladimir Putin is considered someone who keeps his word.
” But the leader of the mercenaries then boasted that he could move freely in Russia and abroad as if nothing had happened, posting a photo of himself at the Russo-African summit in St.
Petersburg in July, and recording a video suggesting that he was in Africa a few days ago. This behavior may have eventually “convinced the master of the Kremlin to definitively seal the fate of the Wagner boss,” says Jeff Hawn.
Resolving the Prigojine problem became all the more urgent as the military situation in Ukraine is not improving for Russia. The Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense could no longer tolerate a free Evguéni Prigojine, as he “embodied an option in the face of the army’s strategy on the front that could unite those who had doubts,” explains Stephen Hall.
Therefore, it would be a way for the government to assert its authority and indicate that no variation will be tolerated from now on. But for Jeff Hawn, it is above all a “confession of weakness on the part of the Kremlin.
” Indeed, “Vladimir Putin has built his entire political persona around the idea that he has restored order in Russia. The least we can say is that the internal situation has become very chaotic and the government can no longer solve problems discreetly,” explains Jeff Hawn.
With the likely disappearance of Evguéni Prigojine and Dmitry Outkine, the future of the Wagner group is more than ever in question. “This organization is no longer useful as a political and military tool for Vladimir Putin, and it is likely to be forgotten,” says Stephen Hall. But it does not mean that the model – of mercenary groups at the service of Moscow – will disappear.