Will Russia’s Putin benefit from Prigozhin’s presumed plane crash death?

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Portraits of Yevgeny Prigozhin (L) and Dmitry Utkin (R), a shadowy figure who managed Wagner's operations and allegedly served in Russian military intelligence, are seen at the makeshift memorial in front of the PMC Wagner office in Novosibirsk [Vladimir Nikolayev/AFP]

The Wagner Group leader was listed as a passenger of a plane that crashed on Wednesday, but his death remains unconfirmed by the Kremlin.

Kyiv, Ukraine – Yevgeny Prigozhin, the foul-mouthed chief of the Wagner private army who masterminded an aborted mutiny against the Kremlin, has not been officially pronounced dead.

Russian authorities have yet to confirm via a DNA test that the 62-year-old’s body was among the charred and mangled remnants of 10 people found in the debris of the private jet that crashed 350km (217 miles) northwest of Moscow late on Wednesday.

Prigozhin was, however, listed as one of the plane’s passengers – along with the company’s founder and neo-Nazi sympathiser Dmitry Utkin nicknamed Wagner.

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Few doubt Prigozhin’s presumed death, that took place exactly two months after the June 23 “justice march”, as he called it, of thousands of Wagner’s best fighters towards Moscow. The rebellion sowed panic in the Kremlin and reportedly forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to flee Moscow.

The uprising was triggered by a months-old conflict with Russia’s Ministry of Defence that delayed or sabotaged ammunition supplies to Wagner on the front lines of southeastern Ukraine.

The march stopped only 200km (124 miles) south of Moscow after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko promised Prigozhin and all of Wagner a safe haven in his forested ex-Soviet nation bordering Ukraine.

A top expert on Wagner is all but certain that Prigozhin is dead.

“I’ve heard from a source in Wagner close to him that it’s likely true,” John Lechner, an investigative reporter in the United States who is writing a book about Prigozhin summarising years of research, told Al Jazeera shortly after Russian media reported the plane crash.

Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify the claim.

Plane fragments
A cameraman films wreckage of the private jet linked to Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin near the crash site in the Tver region, Russia [Marina Lystseva/Reuters]

Dead or alive?

But those who doubt the demise cite Prigozhin’s penchant for disguises – and his chance to escape to the Central African Republic, Mali or other African nations where Wagner provides “security services” to local strongmen in exchange for a stake in mining and trading local natural resources.

Russian police discovered a stash of fake passports with Prigozhin’s mugshots and names of other people a day after the failed coup, and framed photos of him wearing wigs, glasses and beards were found in his St Petersburg mansion and immediately ridiculed in online memes.

“It’s nice and easy to fake one’s own death,” Ukrainian defence expert Maria Kucherenko, who authored a detailed report on Wagner, wrote on Facebook late Thursday.

But there are no chances of really faking Prigozhin’s death in Russia, given the scrutiny of officials and forensics experts investigating the crash, said another analyst.

“There could have been rumours [of fake death] had he done it in Africa, but not in Russia, where a DNA test will be quickly performed,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s University of Bremen told Al Jazeera.

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Plane downed?

The DNA tests will be scrupulously monitored by the Kremlin given that it is the main benefactor of Prigozhin’s death, Mitrokhin said.

“Judging by the sources, the plane was shot down. That’s what easy to believe. It is very beneficial for Russian authorities who can always shift the blame to an [air defence] lieutenant or major who made the mistake,” he said.

According to a cellphone video purportedly showing Prigozhin’s Legacy Embraer jet midair, it was falling, not gliding down, and apparently had only one engine running.

A plume of smoke that did not resemble exhaust was seen behind the plane, and its tail and one of the wings fell far apart from the fuselage, which may indicate that the crash was caused by an explosion, according to the photos and videos from the crash site.

In another amateur video showing the falling plane, witnesses say they had heard “two explosions”. Air defence forces routinely shoot at a plane twice to ensure it is hit.

A source in Russia’s main aviation oversight body told the Tsargrad television channel that the plane was “blown up”.

However, Flightradar 24, a Swedish aircraft tracker, said that the Brazilian-made jet went up to 8,500 metres (28,000 feet).

Very few air defence weapons can hit a plane that high – and the Kremlin allegedly used two S-300 missiles, the VChK-OGPU Telegram channel with links to Russian law enforcement agencies claimed.

Putin’s revenge?

Putin, a former KGB colonel who headed the FSB, the main KGB successor, in the late 1990s, is notoriously vindictive.

Kremlin critics cite the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an FSB expert on organised crime who accused Putin of profiting from drug trafficking and money laundering.

Litvinenko defected to the United Kingdom and died an agonising death in 2006 after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210, an extremely rare and expensive poison.

Putin called Litvinenko a “traitor”, and London said the Russian president “probably” sanctioned the assassination.

“Traitors” was the epithet Putin used in his televised address on the day of Prigozhin’s mutiny.

And even though the riot was called off and Wagner marched back to Russia-occupied areas in southeastern Ukraine, Putin’s reputation suffered greatly.

High treason charges against Wagner chief and officers who shot down several Russian aircraft during their march were dropped a day later.

What’s next for Wagner?

Unlike other Putin allies who prefer to keep a low profile, Prigozhin was a motormouth.

For months before the mutiny, he lambasted Russia’s top brass.

And after it, thousands of key Wagner fighters relocated to hastily built camps in Belarusian forests.

Some were spotted near the Suwalki Gap near the Polish-Lithuanian border that separates Belarus from Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic exclave.

Prigozhin visited Russia several times and even met with Putin, while Wagner’s recruitment centres continued to operate.

So, Putin may have followed the example of cinematic mafia boss Michael Corleone by serving his revenge cold, a Russian opposition activist said.

“Prigozhin was relocated from the country. Within two months, they redistributed his assets, checked all contact chains, and replaced everything in the system that needed replacement. And now just got rid of [Prigozhin and his top lieutenants],” Sergey Bizyukin told Al Jazeera.

“I don’t know whether [Prigozhin] had a chance to sit it all out in Belarus, but that was his only teeny-weeny chance” to survive, Bizyukin said.

But since Wagner proved to be so effective, it may continue to exist and operate in Ukraine and elsewhere – even if it’s not just “bled dry, but decapitated”, according to independent military analyst David Gendelman.

The plane crash reportedly wiped out Wagner’s top brass.

One of the killed passengers was Valery Chkalov, a key Prigozhin ally in charge of Wagner’s logistics in Ukraine, Syria and Africa. Others were key lieutenants Yevgeny Makaryan and Sergey Propustin.

But the company’s resources, including battle-tested fighters and smoothly functioning operations in Africa, are too valuable for the Kremlin to let Wagner disband, Gendelman said.

“So, they will most likely keep operating under new control affiliated somehow with Russia’s leadership. And, perhaps, such control has already been organised as part of preparation to behead the organisation,” he told Al Jazeera.

But Wagner’s – and Moscow’s – clout in Africa may eclipse because of the rising influence of China and other core members of the now-expanding BRICS bloc.

“Russia’s sway in Africa will weaken irrespective of personalities at the helm” of Wagner, Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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