By: Lucy Panicacci
On Aug. 23, Yevgeny Prigozhin — leader of the Russian military group Wagner — along with Wagner’s founder Dmitri Utkin and top Wagner lieutenants died in a suspicious plane crash. After their business jet crashed in a field while heading to St. Petersburg, Russian authorities confirmed Prigozhin’s death through genetic tests the following Sunday. Following his insurrection against Putin in June and the recording of a video assuring his well-being a few days before the crash, Prigozhin’s sudden death sparked concern and raised suspicion.
Prigozhin was one of the main leaders of Wagner, a private military organization made up of tens of thousands of former professional soldiers and recruited Russian prisoners. The army operates in 10 different countries, building an African business empire. In 2022, Wagner joined the Russian invasion of Ukraine, playing an important role in aiding Russia by, for instance, taking the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. As a result of Prigozhin’s success, he started to gain popularity among the Russian people. In June, a Russian independent polling agency, Levada Center, reported his approval rating as 60 percent.
With his rising popularity, Prigozhin began to speak out against the Russian government, criticizing top Russian officials. He accused the Russian Defense Ministry of withholding artillery ammunition during the Battle of Bakhmut, stating, “Five times more guys died than should have.” This outspoken criticism of the Russian government and increasing popularity threatened Putin’s authority.
Aimed at Wagner and other private military groups, the Defense Ministry ordered that all “volunteer groups” would be required to sign contracts to join the official Russian military by Jul. 1. Refusing to join the Russian army, Prigozhin launched an uprising against Russia on Jun. 24, which he labeled as a “march for justice.” Wagner forces shot down Russian helicopters and a command aircraft as they advanced toward Moscow. However, Prigozhin quickly called off the attack, fearing Putin’s possible retaliation. Nonetheless, the insurrection humiliated Putin.
Following Prigozhin’s death, the Kremlin denied any involvement. The Kremlin downplayed the importance of Wagner in June, citing that Russia does not approve any privately owned military companies. To prevent a display of public support, the Kremlin denied a state funeral, opting for a secretive ceremony on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.
With the death of Prigozhin and its founder Utkin, the future of Wagner is uncertain. A Wagner volunteer known by his call sign Adzhit promises that the loss will not affect Wagner, stating, “If you know the internal structure of Wagner, you can understand one thing: The loss of one, two, or three will not affect the effectiveness of this formation in any way.” A member of the Russian Parliament, Aleksandr Borodai, believes that Wagner soldiers will continue to fight without their leaders by diverting to other volunteer groups or joining the official Russian military. Borodai said, “There are many of them. It’s a big flow. The flow didn’t start yesterday, and it won’t end tomorrow. People are coming in, they will continue to fight, they have experience.”
(Sources: The Guardian, The New Yorker, NY Times)