Russia Confirms Wagner Chief Prigozhin’s Death After DNA Tests

From a Washington Post story by Robyn Dixon and Mary Ilyushina headlined “Russia confirms Wagner chief Prigozhin’s death after DNA tests”:

Russian investigators confirmed Sunday that Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin and top leaders of the group were killed when his plane crashed in the Tver region of Russia, announcing the results of DNA testing on the bodies of victims.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said it was continuing its investigation into the causes of the crash, although Western analysts believe the true cause may never be known because of Russia’s opaque and often politicized investigations system.

All 10 people onboard, including Wagner military commander Dmitry Utkin, were killed in the crash on Wednesday. The U.S. intelligence community is examining the possibility an explosion brought down the plane, with many in Russia’s elite convinced Prigozhin’s presumed death was an assassination ordered by the Kremlin.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday dismissed rampant speculation of Kremlin involvement in the crash as punishment of Prigozhin for the rebellion as “all lies.”

President Vladimir Putin spoke of Prigozhin in the past tense, calling him a “talented” man who “achieved the necessary results,” but “made mistakes.” Other prominent Russian politicians and writers followed his lead, praising Prigozhin as a tough fighter and extolling Wagner, which is seen as Russia’s most ruthless and successful assault force in the Ukraine war.

The group’s future is in doubt after the demise of Prigozhin and its top leaders, with its operations likely to be taken over by Kremlin-friendly figures, likely to be given far less latitude than Prigozhin was allowed in aggressively expanding Wagner’s commercial, geopolitical, and military power.

Wagner achieved Russia’s only substantial military gain this year, helping capture the eastern Ukrainian city in May, albeit at a massive cost in Russian casualties — many of them convicts recruited from prisons and sent to the frontline. The minority who survived were pardoned by Putin, and in turn, strongly supported Prigozhin for enabling them to redeem themselves as Russian “heroes” by fighting in Ukraine.

State Duma lawmaker Vitaly Milonov called for Prigozhin’s funeral and burial to be held in war-torn Bakhmut, a tactic that would prevent the thousands of Wagner members and their families from paying tribute, and would ensure his grave does not turn into a popular shrine for hardline pro-war nationalists. But such a move would also make it dangerous for Prigozhin’s own family to attend the funeral and visit the grave.

Russian analysts have predicted that the funerals of Prigozhin and Utkin could see an outpouring of support and potentially anger, in what could prove an awkward moment for Putin, who called the Wagner leader a “traitor” during the rebellion – before offering Prigozhin and his fighters a deal in return for calling off the mutiny.

Thousands of Wagner fighters moved to Belarus after the rebellion in June and Prigozhin was preparing to expand his operations in Africa, while some signed contacts with the Ministry of Defense and others went home. Most of the convicts were let go, after reaching their required six months of service on the battlefield.

After the deal, Peskov said that Prigozhin’s security had been guaranteed by Putin’s word, and the Wagner boss continued to travel freely in Russia and to Africa, disposing of some assets and preparing to expand his African operations. Some analysts predicted that his death was only a matter of time, given his many powerful enemies.

Russia’s elite, meanwhile, has been cowed by what many of them believe was a hit ordered directly or indirectly by the Kremlin, and analysts agreed that Russia experts agreed that Prigozhin’s death will stamp out any remaining impulse among Russia’s elite to speak out against the war or challenge Putin.

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga Latvia contributed to this report.

Robyn Dixon is a foreign correspondent on her third stint in Russia, after almost a decade reporting there beginning in the early 1990s. In November 2019 she joined The Washington Post as Moscow bureau chief.

Mary Ilyushina, a reporter on the Foreign Desk of The Washington Post, covers Russia and the region. She began her career in independent Russian media before joining CNN’s Moscow bureau as a field producer in 2017. She has been with The Post since 2021. She speaks Russian, English, Ukrainian and Arabic.

Also see this Washington Post obit by Brian Murphy headlined “From convict to restaurateur, then Russia’s brutal enforcer”:

Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a onetime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who amassed oligarchic wealth by building a mercenary army that served the Russian state, only to gamble it all with a stunning but short-lived mutiny in June amid the war in Ukraine, died Aug. 23 in a plane crash northwest of Moscow, according to Russian investigators. He was 62.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said Sunday that DNA evidence confirmed that all 10 victims of the crash were the same as those listed in the flight manifest, which included Prigozhin’s name. Putin earlier appeared to acknowledge Mr. Prigozhin’s death in televised remarks on Aug. 24, when he expressed his condolences to the families of the people killed in the crash. Putin spoke of Mr. Prigozhin in the past tense, describing him as “a man of complex fate” who “made serious mistakes in his life.”

The U.S. intelligence community is exploring the possibility that an explosion brought down his plane.

In an ascent that he owed almost entirely to the favor of Putin, his longtime patron, Mr. Prigozhin represented an unlikely case study in rebellion.

For years, he was denounced by the West as a Kremlin henchman and hailed by Russian state media as a patriot. With his weathered features and bulldog demeanor, he fit well into both narratives.

His guns-for-hire private military company, the Wagner Group, sent fighters across the Middle East and Africa to bolster Russian interests — and Mr. Prigozhin’s own agenda — often in brutal fashion. He attacked in cyberspace as well, running a troll factory that roiled Western elections and bankrolling efforts to plant fervently nationalist, pro-Kremlin views in social media.

Mr. Prigozhin first crossed paths with Putin in Russia’s post-Soviet bacchanal of excess in the 1990s. After serving nearly a decade in prison for robbery, Mr. Prigozhin opened a family-run hot dog stand that made him flush with rubles. He went into a casino venture, then joined with other investors to open the hottest restaurant in St. Petersburg.

The restaurant, New Island, became a favorite haunt for Putin, a former KGB officer who then served as a top aide to the city’s mayor. Putin liked Mr. Prigozhin’s swagger. Mr. Prigozhin admired Putin’s status and connections. They both were supremely ambitious.

As Putin climbed to power — starting in 1999 when he became prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin — favors started to flow Mr. Prigozhin’s way. First came lucrative food service contracts with schools and the military for Mr. Prigozhin’s catering company, Concord, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”

Putin then cleared the way for Mr. Prigozhin’s mercenary corps. In the calculation of the autocratic president, Mr. Prigozhin was a useful opportunist with a ruthless streak.

He occupied an unparalleled role. His militiamen helped carry out Russian objectives by backing shaky foreign governments and nailing down mineral rights and other concessions. Wagner and its founder were enriched by cuts from the money flow and side deals.

Western leaders and rights groups long saw Mr. Prigozhin as Putin’s shadowy enforcer — a capo in camouflage allegedly linked to potential war crimes. Because Wagner was portrayed as a private group, it offered a political shield for the Kremlin for messy practices such as targeting opposition in Russia-friendly states including Mali and the Central African Republic.

Earlier this year, Putin acknowledged what was widely suspected: Wagner was a full-fledged arm of the Kremlin, receiving as much as $1 billion in state funds during the first year of the Ukraine war.

Bid for history

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Putin’s predictions of a lightning victory were quashed by Ukraine’s unflagging resistance and a surge of Western military aid.

Mr. Prigozhin saw the conflict as his chance to make history by turning the tide for beleaguered Russian forces.

His fighters, among them prisoners recruited from Russian prisons, made some immediate gains in early 2023 with tactics that were savagely efficient. In fast-moving assaults, the former inmates often led the charge as expendable fodder. “I’m taking you alive,” a Wagner video recruiting pitch to prisoners declared. “But I don’t always return [you] alive.”

Wagner advances, although temporary in some places, were a rare bit of good news for Putin. But his alliance of convenience with Mr. Prigozhin soon began to show fissures.

In a country where dissidents are often the target of suspected state-ordered hits, Mr. Prigozhin stood apart with his public outbursts over what he called the Kremlin’s inept military planning and flawed tactics.

Mr. Prigozhin’s growing frustration exploded late on June 23, when he and Wagner forces left Ukraine and swept into the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, seizing military headquarters and effectively taking two generals captive.

The next morning, he sent Wagner tanks and personnel carriers rolling toward Moscow. Wagner gunners brought down Russian helicopters and a military surveillance plane. A panicked Putin denounced the “armed mutiny” as the world watched, stunned, amid the unprecedented challenge to his strongman rule.

A fast-hatched intervention conveyed by a Putin ally, Belarusian authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, kept the crisis from growing. “Prigozhin was a monster Putin created and allowed to grow,” said Ariel Cohen, a Russia analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank’s Eurasia Center. “It’s a timeless lesson: Be careful what you wish for.”

For embarrassing him on a global scale, Putin took systematic revenge, dismantling much of Wagner. Russian state media, meanwhile, broadcast images intended to discredit Mr. Prigozhin’s commando persona, including of the mercenary leader in wigs and crude disguises, such as an Islamist-style beard and wraparound sunglasses….

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