Yevgeny Prigozhin was a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin before staging a failed mutiny against the Russian defense ministry in June 2023.
Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is presumed dead after his plane crashed on Wednesday.His apparent death comes two months after he staged a failed mutiny against the Russian military.Security officials and Soviet experts believe Putin is likely behind Prigozhin’s death.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the bombastic Wagner Group leader who led a short-lived uprising against Russia’s defense ministry earlier this summer, is presumed dead after his business jet went down in a fiery crash outside of Moscow on Wednesday.
It was not immediately clear if Prigozhin was on the downed plane, though his name was on the flight manifest. Russian state media outlet TASS later appeared to confirm that Prigozhin and his second-in-command Dmitry Utkin, were among those dead, citing the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency.
Wagner-affiliated social media said Prigozhin was killed in the crash, blaming “traitors of Russia.” The Russian defense ministry did not immediately comment on the matter.
Even as the immediate chaos of the situation dissipates and official statements are issued, few are likely to ever learn the full scope of the saga due to Russia’s winding web of propaganda.
There is a chance this was an accident: but a warlord going rogue, stabbing his political benefactor in the back, so to speak, and then apparently dying in a freak plane crash seems like a bit of a stretch compared to some other alternatives.
Here are three possible explanations experts have put forward on what could have happened to Yevgeny Prigozhin based on what we know so far.
Putin ordered Prigozhin’s death
An assassination ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin represents the “best explanation” for Wednesday’s catastrophic plane crash, Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a historian of the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations, told Insider.
Putin, a notoriously unforgiving leader, had plenty of reasons to want Prigozhin dead after the mercenary leader led a mutiny against Russia’s defense ministry in June seeking to oust top-level officials after he spent months publicly criticizing the Russian military’s strategy in Ukraine. The uprising was short-lived but nonetheless represented the most prominent threat to Putin’s regime in decades.
“It’s no surprise that Putin would take his revenge,” Robert English, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Russia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, told Insider. “In fact, we Putin-watchers have been expecting it, and today it happened — on exactly the two-month anniversary of the Wagner mutiny.”
In the months since the attempted coup, international officials and academic experts alike have been predicting Prigozhin’s death. CIA Director Bill Burns suggested just last month that Prigozhin was living on borrowed time.
Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin in happier times — a 2010 tour of a school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg.
Alexey Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
“Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold,” Burns said at an annual security forum in Aspen. “In my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback so I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this.”
A seemingly uneasy truce emerged between Putin and Prigozhin after the uprising. Prigozhin was apparently exiled to Belarus for his role in the attempted coup, but seemed to spend much of the last two months traveling between St. Petersburg and Moscow, and even appeared to take a trip to Africa to visit his Wagner troops, Miles said.
Soon after the exile agreement was made public, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed he was the one who stopped Putin from “wiping out” Prigozhin immediately after the uprising, Reuters reported, indicating Putin’s desire for blood may have been brewing for months.
In the aftermath of the plane crash, an undated interview clip of Putin circulated on social media highlighting the president’s distaste for disloyalty such as Prigozhin’s revolt, which Putin expressly called a “betrayal.”
“Does one need to be able to forgive?” the interviewer asks Putin.
“Yes, but not everything,” the president replies.
“What can’t be forgiven?”
“Betrayal,” Putin says without hesitation.
“Does one need to be able to forgive?”
“Yes, but not everything.”
“What can’t be forgiven.”
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) August 23, 2023
The Russian president has a long history of making his enemies “disappear.” At least 14 individuals linked to Putin’s government have died under violent or mysterious circumstances since he took the presidency.
Following the Wednesday plane crash, US President Joe Biden suggested Putin could be behind the crash in comments to reporters.
“I’d be careful what I rode in,” he said. “There is not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind.”
Someone else ordered Prigozhin’s assassination
Up until his ill-fated uprising, Prigozhin remained a close ally of Putin. The mercenary leader’s grievances were exclusively directed at the Russian defense ministry — not the president himself.
It is not “inconceivable” that elements within the military who were on the receiving end of Prigozhin’s abuse could have taken action against the Wagner leader without Putin’s approval, Miles told Insider.
“It’s very hard at this early stage to put together an explanation for what we’ve seen that does not involve some state assets being used to knock this plane out of the sky,” Miles said. It’s unclear at this point what specifically caused the plane to crash, though some Wagner-affiliated social media channels suggested it was shot down.
It’s the military that has access to such capabilities, he said, adding that the level of command needed to launch such an attack within the Russian military is “very low.”
Founder of Wagner private mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Press service of “Concord”/Handout via REUTERS
This possibility could also account for Prigozhin’s two months of seeming freedom following the coup, Miles said.
Why allow Prigozhin to live for weeks, flaunting his apparent immunity, if there were top-level plans to kill him, Miles posited. An immediate strike against Prigozhin would have sent a louder message and illustrated the immediate consequences awaiting traitors.
“He was running around basically unmolested since the coup attempt,” Miles said of Prigozhin. It’s possible members of the defense sector found that reality unacceptable, especially after members of the Russian armed forces were killed in his mutiny, and “decided to take matters into their own hands.”
There is substantial evidence of dysfunction within the Russian government. Russia this week, for instance, fired Gen. Sergei Surovikin weeks after The New York Times reported he had advance knowledge of Prigozhin’s mutinous plans, posing questions of whether the mercenary leader had help from within the military.
English, however, rejected the idea that someone within Putin’s military would act without the president’s explicit permission. But in ruling out a Russian defense perpetrator, English raised another potential culprit.
“Who else might want Prigozhin dead and have the capability to carry it out? Of course, the Ukrainians!” he told Insider.
Both English and Miles noted the “unnecessarily dramatic” and “aggressively public” manner of the plane crash — a stark departure from the mysterious deaths of other Putin foes from poison and falls out of windows.
“If so, it’s a stroke of genius,” English said of Ukraine’s possible role in the incident. “Dramatically assassinate the killer of many Ukrainians. Pull off another brilliant strike inside Russia. Humiliate Putin. And all on the eve of Ukraine’s independence day.”
Prigozhin is not dead
The most conspiracy theory-driven possibility of all is that the mercenary leader is not dead, and yet a Prigozhin fake death plot cannot be entirely ruled out, given the Wagner leader’s affinity for disguises and doubles coupled with Russia’s less-than-trustworthy media landscape.
Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor of national security and international affairs at the University of New Haven, said in comments shared with Insider that it is “prudent to be skeptical” of Russian government updates on the situation given “how Byzantine Russian politics is.”
“People I know seriously argue it might not be the real Prigozhin,” Schmidt said.
In the early hours following the plane crash, some on social media considered the possibility that Prigozhin had somehow faked his death, perhaps sending a double in his place.
A Pentagon official told The New York Times in July that Prigozhin was known to have used body doubles in the past, and photos of Prigozhin donning bizarre disguises were circulated by pro-Kremlin Telegram channels following his failed mutiny.
But the likelihood that Prigozhin managed to escape death seems to have lessened in the hours since the crash as more information becomes available and people turn to the most probable perpetrator: Putin.