The Russian aviation agency said Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, was on the plane that crashed near Moscow. The collapse comes two months after Prigozhin's attempted coup against the Kremlin. Amna Nawaz discussed the development with Angela Stent and Candace Rondeaux.
Now we return to our second main story, a plane crash in Russia that could have repercussions around the world.
Today the plane crashed on its way from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. Petersburg. The airline said it had the head of the infamous Wagner mercenary group on board.
Outside Moscow, a plane falls from the sky, the possible fiery fate of a former Kremlin soldier turned traitor. Evgeny Prigozhin rose from the St. Petersburg underground and became famous as Vladimir Putin's chef, thanks to catering contracts in the Kremlin. He helped launch the 2016 US disinformation campaign from this building in St. Petersburg.
And then Prigozhin's catering in the Kremlin turned violent. His paramilitary empire of the Wagner Group deployed thousands of mercenaries in a dozen countries to carry out the orders of the Kremlin. In Ukraine, Wagner helped Russia capture the center of Bakhmut in the longest and deadliest battle of the war.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group (via a translator):
Thanks to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin for giving us the great honor of defending our homeland.
But he also turned his anger on Russia. He questioned the aims of the war and blamed the military leaders by name for the deaths of their men.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (via vertaler):
We're 70 percent short of ammunition. Shoigu, Gerasimov, where's the ammunition?
And then his most infamous act, the attempted coup and the march on Moscow. It was interrupted, but Putin called it – I quote – “a stab in the back”.
Vladimir Putin, Russian President (via translator):
Excessive ambition and interests led to betrayal, betrayal of the country, its people and its cause.
Today, President Biden said he could not confirm Prigozhin's death, but suggested the coup attempt sealed his fate.
Joe Biden, President of the United States: I'm not exactly sure what happened, but I'm not surprised.
Do you believe that Putin is behind this, sir?
Little happens that Putin does not fall behind.
For more information on Prigogine and the plane crash, we have two views.
Angela Stent worked in the State Department during the Clinton administration and was the top US intelligence official for Russia during the George W. Bush administration. She is now a professor at Georgetown University. And her latest book is called "Putin's World". And Candace Rondeaux is a senior director at New America, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
She wrote extensively about the Wagner group and Prigogine.
Candace, so far we have Russian authorities, as well as some social media accounts associated with Wagner's group, saying that Prigozhin was on the ship and he was killed. Should we have reason to doubt these messages?
Candace Rondeaux, Senior Director, New America:
Well, there's always reason to wonder what comes out of the Kremlin.
We know that in previous situations Prigozhin was predicted to die in other plane crashes. We saw that a few years ago, in 2018-2019. The collapse of the Congo took place. But I think this time we see a reaction on Telegram from Prigozhin fans, Wagner fans, people close to him, who seem to confirm that he is indeed dead, and also the namesake of the Wagner group, Dmitry Utkin , is dead , along with several others who were very involved in the work.
Angela, you heard President Biden's comments. Also, CIA director Bill Burns recently said he would be surprised if Prigozhin escaped retaliation after that coup attempt.
Would Putin want Prigozhin dead? Do you believe he could be behind this if Prigozhin is dead?
Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies, Georgetown University: Oh, I think Putin would have reason enough to kill one Prigozhin.
After all, Prigozhin challenged the Kremlin. He disputed the course of the war. He had a populist message to the Russians: while their children and husbands die in Ukraine, the children of the elite enjoy themselves in the south of France.
So there were many challenges. And Putin must have been very angry in that short clip – the one we saw of his television appearance on the day of the coup. It could also be – and I think if it is – that it was an assassination attempt and the plane was shot down by the Russian air defense – and we don't know yet. That's a gamble.
It's also really about trying to stop other people in the elite, in the military, from challenging Putin again, just to make them understand what will happen to them if they do.
Candace, what about it? If it were some kind of murder, how would it be received and perceived in Russia? What is the message you want to send?
Well, the message is: mess around, you'll usually find out.
I think the timing is interesting. We recently heard that Sergei Surovikin, General Armageddon, as they call him, has been a strong supporter of Prigozhin since their days together in Syria; he was apparently demoted and put on house arrest.
I think there are other shoes to be dropped within the military in terms of retaliation, a number of different commanders that I think are likely to be dealt with or dealt with. So that will be very important to look at.
But in terms of what we're hearing from places like Belarus, where we know some of Wagner's contingents are still active, we're seeing reports of internet outages and also cell phone outages in that area.
And it actually suggests that there is some concern in the Kremlin that there could be some kind of retaliation or some kind of operational revenge plan that Prigozhin had in place in the event of his death.
Angela, until recently we have to remind people that the Wagner group, led by Prigozhin, played an absolutely key role in the Kremlin-Russia war in Ukraine.
If Prigozhin is dead, what impact would his death have on that war?
So I think we've already seen Wagner's troops withdraw from Ukraine.
For example, as your report shows, they played an important role in the capture of Bakhmut. But there are fewer. I don't think we really know the numbers. But I think it's very interesting that just Monday a video came out with Yevgeny Prigozhin, supposedly in Africa, saying that there's a Wagner recruitment going on and they want people to fight mainly in Africa, to join the coup to connect, people in Niger and similar matters.
So while Wagner will now be less important in Ukraine, for now it seems that he will continue to play a key role in other theaters around the world, especially in Africa.
Angela, what about those other surgeries?
As you know, the Wagner Group is not just the security arm of the Kremlin. It's also a business. They run mining operations in a number of countries. Is there anyone else who could take Prigogine's place?
Well, I mean, there must be other commanders in Wagner, including people in Africa.
There is no one who has the charisma he had as Wagner's leader. So in that sense whoever leads Wagner into the future - and, as you said, his right-hand man, Dmitri Utkin, was also killed - there will be no such person, much less someone who will try to stir things up. public criticism of the war.
And so I think that would be another impact of his death, that other people wouldn't criticize the war. And yet, as already mentioned, military bloggers and Prigozhin supporters will go into a furious frenzy criticizing the Kremlin in the coming weeks, maybe even months.
And so that could lead to greater instability, at least in the short term.
Candace, we have a minute and a half left, we need to think.
Prigogine is such a unique figure, isn't he? He went from catering in the Kremlin, through the disinformation force, to the head of this paramilitary empire. If he is dead – we must emphasize that this has not been confirmed by US officials – but how do you view his legacy, his influence on power and also Putin's agenda?
Well, I mean, his legacy is Putin's legacy.
They grew up almost at the same time. Only ten years pass. Both are born sons of Saint Petersburg and in a sense they have grown together into the people they are today, or at least they were today, in this mafia culture of the wild 1990s.
And if it weren't for that combination of interests in the 1990s and the overlapping of the Mafia and KGB, we might not be talking about Yevgeny Prigozhin today. But I think he left a huge legacy, a blot, certainly, on Russian – and Russian history, including Putin's legacy, and massive amounts of death and destruction and the loss of many innocent lives, including journalists and human rights activists who try to expose his wrongdoing and its wrongdoing.
So in a sense, that may well be a moment of closure and justice for those who suffered at his hands.
Candace Rondeaux and Angela Stent, thank you very much for participating.