A startling development came out of Russia two weeks ago with the announcement that the leader and founder of the notorious Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died in a plane crash. BBC News reports that a private jet with Prigozhin on it crashed in the region of Tver shortly after taking off from Moscow. All 10 people on the flight, including the crew, are presumed dead.
In one of their few official statements on the incident, the Kremlin said that it was possible the private jet was downed on purpose, as reported by Reuters. Villagers near the site of the crash reported hearing a large boom before the plane fell out of the sky, indicating to many Western analysts and governments that the crash was not accidental. Those same Western analysts believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be behind the crash. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre suggested as much in a press conference, with Reuters stating she told reporters, “We all know that the Kremlin has a long history of killing opponents, it’s very clear what happened here.” The press secretary’s remarks were then followed by a comment from U.S. President Joe Biden where he stated “There is not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind,” as reported in Al Jazeera.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky echoed the words of Biden in a separate statement, saying “We have no connection to this. Everyone understands who does,” as reported by the Kyiv Independent. The outgoing Ukrainian Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said much to the same effect in an interview with the German newspaper Welt, adding “It’s the behavior of gangsters, and the Kremlin behaves like gangsters, like criminals.” Reznikov also commented in the same interview that he believed that Prigozhin’s death, along with the sheer amount of attrition over the past year, means The Wagner Group “no longer exists.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves behind a complicated legacy in Russia. To some Russians, he was a hero of the war in Ukraine and a brilliant commander. To others, Prigozhin was a foolish and incompetent former hot dog salesman, according to The Guardian, who attempted to challenge one of the most ruthless and powerful leaders of the 21st century. Western voices take a much less nuanced yet more universal viewpoint, portraying Prigozhin’s legacy through his biggest accomplishment: the formation and deployment of PMC Wagner Group. It is indisputable to argue that this private army, from the frontlines of the war in Ukraine to the short-lived rebellion against Moscow, has easily been the most influential Russian unit of the war. Leading this merciless group gave Prigozhin the notoriety that few Russian generals have been able to enjoy, but in the end, this surge of importance and reputation may have been his downfall.
It is now unclear how The Wagner Group will proceed after the death of their infamous leader. From reports of being absorbed into the regular Russian army, to being disbanded, to finding refuge in Belarus– the fate of Wagner is, ironically enough, in the same place Prigozhin’s was before his death; completely up in the air, with the decision lying at the fingertips of the same Russian President who likely gave the order to kill their leader.
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