A portrait of the owner of private military company Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, lies at an informal street memorial near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday, August 26, 2023.
MOSCOW – Russia’s investigative committee announced on Sunday that it had confirmed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder and leader of the Wagner mercenary group, which led a short-lived armed insurgency against the Russian military, was killed in a plane crash.
Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said in a statement that forensic and genetic testing had identified all ten bodies recovered from the crash site on Wednesday and the results “consistent with the plane’s manifest.” The statement gave no details as to what might have caused the crash.
The Russian Civil Aviation Authority said earlier this week that 62-year-old Prigozhin and some of his top lieutenants were on the list of passengers and crew on board the plane. All seven passengers and three crew members died when the plane fell from the sky halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Prigozhin’s hometown.
Two months ago, Prigozhin launched a days-long mutiny against the Russian military, leading his mercenaries from Ukraine to Moscow. President Vladimir Putin described the act as “treason” and announced that those involved would be punished.
Instead, the Kremlin quickly struck a deal with Prigozhin to end the armed insurgency, saying he could walk free without charge and settle in Belarus. However, the question remains whether Prigozhin would ultimately receive compensation for the brief uprising that posed the greatest challenge to Putin’s authority during his 23-year rule.
A preliminary assessment by US intelligence found that a deliberate explosion had caused the plane to crash. When suspicions grew that the Russian president was the initiator of an assassination attempt, the Kremlin dismissed this as a “complete lie”.
One of the Western officials describing the initial assessment said it found that Prigozhin was “very likely” to have been targeted and that a blast was consistent with Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics.” .
Prigozhin’s deputy, Dmitry Utkin, and Wagner’s logistics mastermind, Valery Chekalov, also died in the crash. It was long believed that Utkin founded Wagner and christened the group with his pseudonym.
The fate of Wagner, who until recently played a prominent role in the Russian campaign in Ukraine and was involved in several countries in Africa and the Middle East, remains uncertain.
After the mutiny, the Kremlin said Prigozhin would be exiled to Belarus, and his fighters were offered three options: follow him there, withdraw, or join the regular army of Russia and return to Ukraine, where Wagner mercenaries worked alongside Russian troops had fought.
Several thousand Wagner mercenaries decided to move to Belarus, where a camp was set up for them southeast of the capital, Minsk.