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Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin reported killed in plane crash

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As with so much in Russia, we have no definitive word on the fate of the Russian mercenary leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

He was listed as a passenger on a small jet that crashed yesterday northwest of Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: That's the voice of an eyewitness watching the plane literally fall from the sky in a video posted on Russian state media. But was Prigozhin actually on the plane?

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes is following events from Moscow. Charles, welcome.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: What are the facts so far as they are known?

MAYNES: Well, first of all, we know about the flight path. The radar shows the business jet heading from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. And then a little over 30 minutes into the flight, the plane suddenly starts to fall from the sky, as we heard in that clip here in your intro. Russian aviation authorities say there were 10 passengers listed on board, among them, Yevgeny Prigozhin. And rescue teams say they've found 10 bodies. Meanwhile, the crash site has been sealed off. The bodies of the victims were apparently moved to a local morgue this morning. What we don't have is any official statement IDing Prigozhin's body or confirming his actual death, just as we don't have any confirmation on what caused the crash. And both those factors have fueled all sorts of rumors and conspiracy theories. That said, many of Prigozhin's supporters seem to think he's indeed gone. A makeshift memorial appeared outside the Wagner Center in Saint Petersburg last night.

INSKEEP: Many people would wonder how Prigozhin thought he could be safe anywhere in the borders of Russia and certainly how he could be safe traveling around.

MAYNES: Yeah, because he has certainly had a lot of enemies, both in Ukraine - let's not forget that - and within Russia, the Russian military in particular. You know, Prigozhin criticized and insulted the top brass publicly. I don't think there's any question they hated him for it. But the source of Prigozhin's power and protection had always been his relationship, real or perceived, with President Vladimir Putin.

INSKEEP: Until Prigozhin mutinied.

MAYNES: Right. And Putin publicly ultimately endorsed this deal that offered Prigozhin amnesty and life in exile in Belarus in exchange for ending the mutiny. And there was a sense here that Prigozhin, while a lesser figure politically, was being allowed to tidy up affairs and kind of plan his next chapter. You know, he was in Saint Petersburg to close down his media holdings. He apparently met with African officials about Wagner's future role there. So there was a sense that he'd made amends, and his ability to travel in Russia seemed to prove it. But one of the other takeaways from the rebellion was that Putin looked rather weak. You know, Prigozhin had challenged his authority and gotten away with it. And certainly that narrative now changes significantly whatever happened to that plane.

INSKEEP: What happens now to the Wagner Group, which has been so important to Russian military fortunes in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world?

MAYNES: Well, there's been a growing sense that Putin was interested in maintaining Wagner as a fighting force and less in keeping Prigozhin as its leader. A Putin spokesman said as much when he recounted a meeting between the Russian president and Wagner rebels, including Prigozhin, in the Kremlin in the days after the mutiny. Yet this plane crash appears to have taken the lives of not only Prigozhin but other top Wagner commanders, which means Wagner is effectively now decapitated as an organization.

INSKEEP: Although doesn't it still have thousands or even tens of thousands of armed men and women?

MAYNES: It does. And if the past is any lesson, those mercenaries have been fiercely loyal to Prigozhin. You know, think back to that rebellion. Prigozhin told them to march on this southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and seize the military base. They did it. Told them to march on Moscow - off they went - and then retreat. Again, they followed, no questions asked. And in the wake of this crash, we've seen prominent Wagner social media channels declaring that Prigozhin was killed by, quote, "enemies of Russia." You know, my question is, who do the mercenaries think that enemy is and what do they now do about it?

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks, as always, for your careful reporting.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Charles Maynes