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  • Writer's pictureIsa taranto

Coincidence or ploy? A plane crash seems to have killed one of Putin’s most prominent rivals

Putin’s opponents seem to be now falling from the sky, as exemplified by a tragedy that could very much be human-made. On the evening of Wednesday, the 23rd of August, a plane carrying seven high-echelon members of the infamous Russian mercenary group known as Wagner and three crew members crashed North of Moscow. The passenger list was disclosed by the Russian government and was later corroborated by “molecular genetic examinations” conducted on the bodies allegedly found at the scene, a spokesperson said on Sunday (27). The Russian Investigative Committee has yet to point to a cause for the crash.

Among the passengers was Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner and leader of the group who, until very recently, fervently defended the “making [of] Russia even greater on all continents and Africa even more free”, as reported by AP News.

Prigozhin has long been tied to Putin, first making his acquaintance as a caterer for a restaurant when the latter was only St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor, in the 1990s. ‘Putin’s Chef’, as he was later nicknamed, utilized this personal connection to leverage off of the politician’s astronomical rise to power and earn governmental contracts. He then expanded the business to include media and companies associated with meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, The Associated Press writes. He has registered the Wagner Group, founded in 2014, as a “private military company”, seeing as mercenary activities are theoretically prohibited in Russia.

The Group was first directly linked to the Russian government in 2014, suppressing a local revolt in Ukrainian territory in the wake of the annexation of Crimea. The use of private contractors such as this particular company is a strategy commonly employed by Moscow in order to guarantee their ability to deny involvement in the brutal repression of anti-Russian -- and anti-Putin -- movements. In this particular case, tensions that had begun to arise in neighboring areas would later fuel conflict escalation to the magnitude of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.

The Group has also been active in countries such as Syria, Lybia, the Central African Republic, and Mali, where they have been linked with what the European Union has described as “serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings”, as well as governmental destabilization.

The ties between Moscow and Prigozhin were the strongest once Russia invaded Ukraine, in February 2022. The Group was contracted by the government and its 5,000 members were sent to join the war. In a very short time, however, the group quintupled in size through recruitment in Russian prisons -- with the promise of liberty in exchange for military service; Prigozhin was filmed directly taking part in rallies, as reported by the BBC. The Wagner Group, therefore, expanded its power substantially and was crucial in the battle of Bakhmut, which resulted in the taking of the city by Russian forces in May 2023.

In June, however, perhaps Prigozhin's newly acquired influence went to his head. In a movement that shocked the international community, he mobilized his army, seized the city of Rostov-on-Don, and threatened to march to Moscow, supported by thousands of soldiers. It was a tense thirty-six hours that eventually reached an anticlimactic end. Prigozhin agreed to halt any further movements subject to Putin granting amnesty and his extradition to Belarus; the mercenaries in the Wagner Group were given the choice to either accompany their leader or join the Russian army. As of July 14th, the Pentagon reported there to be no more Wagner participation in the Russo-Ukrainian War.

But now, two months after the uprising, Prigozhin has fallen out of the sky. Putin was quick to deny growing suspicions of his involvement; he went as far as to recognize the passengers’ “significant contribution to the fighting in Ukraine”. The Kremlin specifically highlighted Prigozhin as a “talented man, talented businessman”, in a statement to national television. He also did refer to his former friend in the past tense before his death had been confirmed.

International reaction to the crash has been mostly condemning, but not surprised; this may be the newest addition to the long list of Putin critics who have suffered mysterious deaths -- including falling out of hotel and hospital windows, blunt force to the head, gunshot wounds, and poisonings.

“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised. There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind,” stated US President Joe Biden on the same day of the crash. The CIA Director and the US Secretary of State have also maintained similar opinions, highlighting the aforementioned striking of tragedy on opposers that is common in the Kremlin’s regime.

In the aftermath of the crash, Putin seems eager to maintain Russia’s presence in the African continent, a presence that Prigozhin helped build. He has repeatedly commented on the significance of that movement -- even while offering his condolences to the families of those who died in the crash -- and seems to be highlighting the importance of strengthening the ties built by Wagner officers in the region. The Kremlin seems to have navigated the loss of a ‘trusted ally’ while remaining quite unfazed.

Meanwhile, the international community is left with the certainty that Putin most definitely does not intend to change his authoritarian government style anytime soon. The very use of the Wagner Group, as well as many others, is a testament to the practice widely adopted in Moscow known as hybrid warfare -- that is, the ruling with a grip of steel but distributing responsibility for accountability to others.

Prigozhin’s tragic legacy is a testament to the futility of any and all allies. In Russia, no one is safe from Putin -- not even those who own a 25,000-member army, and especially not those who dare to go against his rule. Most of all, his death is a reminder of the lengths the Kremlin is willing to go to maintain power, a force forever resistant to change and terrified by anything capable of enervating his strength.

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