In today’s newsletter: Yevgeny Prigozhin is almost certainly dead – but, with the current state of chaos in Russia, could his plane crash be a smokescreen?
It’s been 36 hours since Russia announced that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, had been killed in a plane crash. Also on board the private jet was top Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin.
Widely viewed as an assassination ordered by Vladimir Putin it is seen by many to be entirely predictable revenge for the Prigozhin-led mutiny that shook the president’s authority back in June. Confirming the death while not bothering to actually deny his involvement, Putin described his one-time confidant as “a talented businessman” who “made some serious mistakes” but “achieved the necessary results for himself but also for the greater good.”
There will be those who will not believe Prigozhin is really dead and is in fact being held in a Siberian gulag sporting one of his (famous) disguises. But western intelligence agencies seem convinced that the wig-wearing warlord was indeed on the private jet that fell from the sky, with US spooks saying it was brought down by an “intentional explosion”. Prigozhin seemed to know where he was heading, with cheery statements such as: “We’re all going to hell – but in hell we’ll be the best.”
Andrew Roth, the Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief, helps me understand what it all means in today’s newsletter.
In depth: ‘The last few years of news in Russia have been so crazy that anything is possible’
The private plane showed no sign of problems until a precipitous drop in its final 30 seconds, when it plummeted more than 8,000 feet from its cruising altitude of 28,000 feet. It crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region. Russia’s civil aviation agency said that Prigozhin and six top Wagner lieutenants were on board.
The cause of the crash was not immediately clear. According to Reuters, the Embraer executive jet model that Prigozhin was flying had only recorded one accident in more than 20 years’ service, and that was not related to mechanical failure. Prigozhin’s allies were quick to accuse the Russian defence ministry of assassinating him and Joe Biden, the US president, was among those pointing the finger at Putin, saying: “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”
Andrew says his initial reaction was not shock but rather: what took so long? “One of the biggest surprises for most of us who cover Russia is: why was he still alive for two months after the coup? It was the biggest armed uprising since the fall of the Soviet Union and was extremely embarrassing for Putin.”
The curiosity for Andrew is why Prigozhin put himself in such a “vulnerable position” by flying over Russia after supposedly agreeing to move Wagner operations to Belarus.
Is Prigozhin definitely dead?
Andrew thinks so, but says “we should always leave open the possibility that there’s something going on behind the scenes. The last few years of news in Russia have been so crazy that anything is possible.” He recalls covering the press conference in 2018 concerning a Russian journalist who had supposedly been murdered, only for the reporter to turn up alive to take questions.
And it’s not the first time Prigozhin has been “killed” in a plane crash. Back in October 2019, Russian media reported that he may have been among the passengers on a plane that crashed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He soon emerged to insist that claims of his death had been exaggerated.
The picture is complicated by the fact that Prigozhin apparently often switched planes at the last minute for security reasons, and is believed to have body doubles – as well as those ridiculous disguises. Plus, says Andrew, “Prigozhin is a troll. He invented troll factories in St Petersburg. He loves to play with the media.”
How will this affect the war in Ukraine and beyond?
Not much, reckons Andrew. Prigozhin’s forces fought some of the fiercest battles over the last 18 months, but pulled back from the frontline after capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut in late May.
“Africa is the key,” says Andrew. “It might explain why Prigozhin was still alive this month. The question now is: can the Russian military and state take over Wagner’s operations? Because they are quite lucrative, and they’re also very important to spread Russian authority around the world.”
As mercenaries for hire, despots pay Wagner to fight, either in cold hard cash or in kind, whether in diamonds or gas.
What now for Putin and Wagner?
The Institute for the Study of War argued that Russian authorities likely moved to eliminate Prigozhin and his top associates as “the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organisation”.
Andrew thinks it will be very handy for Putin that the Wagner top brass are now dead: “You might be able to replace them and keep Wagner intact underneath, doing the same stuff in Africa, where they are in demand.”
For all that Prigozhin was an innovator, pioneering the idea of employing serving criminals as paid fighters, he is not a battlefield commander, says Andrew. “Russia has plenty of those. Beyond that, if they can command the loyalty of rank and file – if the mercenaries are willing to work for whoever takes it on – Wagner could carry on, perhaps under a different name.”
What else we’ve been reading
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Aditya Chakrabortty heads to the Welsh town of Llanelli, where a protest camp has been set up outside a hotel housing asylum seekers. He reports on how a local wedding venue has turned into a battle ground. Helen
For those of you with a green thumb, Alys Fowler has written a handy guide on how to save some money by harvesting the huge crops of seed that are all over your allotment or garden. Nimo
Did Jennifer Aniston and co really mumble their lines through “mouthfuls of bacon” in the final years of Friends? That’s what one of the show’s writers, Patty Lin, claims in her new book. Alexi Duggins reports. Helen
As fewer people are getting married the diamond industry is having to diversify its customer base. In the Atlantic (£) Jaya Saxena explores the new marketing tactics deployed by jewellers to encourage women to buy diamonds. Nimo
The front pages
Friday’s front pages are dominated by Prigozhin’s presumed death. “US says bomb most likely cause of Prigozhin crash,” the Guardian says, while the i headlines “Bomb blew up Putin critics jet”. The Financial Times splashes on “Putin breaks silence on Prigozhin to confirm Wagner warlord is dead,” and the Metro leads with “We’re coming for you, Vlad”. The Daily Mail headlines its story “Putin’s chilling taunt over his rivals’ ‘mistakes’” while the Times splash reads “Prigozhin made serious mistakes, declares Putin”. “What Putin really meant: with deepest sympathy so sorry I killed him”, the Sun says. The Daily Telegraph leads with “He was a talented businessman … who made mistakes, says Putin”. The Daily Express headlines “PM: Vast £4bn spend on asylum is unacceptable”, while the Mirror focuses on the cases of Sara Sharif with “Cops: we’re closing in on her dad”.
Something for the weekend
Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now
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Burna Boy – I Told Them
Eschewing the political controversies of his interviews, the Nigerian singer’s seventh album is streamlined, swaggering and rich with perfectly deployed vocal samples and a warm sound that combines subtle washes of synthesiser, sparkling guitar lines and smooth 80s pop signifiers. Alexis Petridis
With his fourth feature directing, mop-haired actor-director Louis Garrel puts a French stamp on the Hollywood heist movie. The Innocent is a screwball romcom-caper starring Garrel himself as a guy who gets caught up in a plot to pilfer a job lot of caviar. Does it get more Gallic than that? Cath Clarke
The Eras: Kylie Minogue
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Today in Focus
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Julia remembers the moment when a lorry driver pointed at a compartment behind his seat and told her to get in. “He starts screaming at me, ‘Quickly, go here’ and he looks at me and I remember I didn’t know what to think,” Julia tells the journalist Annie Kelly, the editor of the Rights and Freedom project. “I was scared, I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know what to think. I hear my heartbeat.” In this four-part series, we hear from Julia on how she was taken from one life as a young mother in Ukraine and ended up in a very different one here in the UK, a life defined by exploitation and human trafficking.
Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings
A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad
While romantic relationships are widely regarded as the most important life connection a person can make, this is not the case for Rebecca who says her relationship with her best friend, Clare, is more important to her than any romance.
Clare and Rebecca met at university in 1999 after which their lives took different paths but they made their friendship a priority. Rebecca was a central part of Clare’s recovery after bouts of mental ill-health. “She’s been the most stable relationship I’ve ever had,” says Clare. “She was absolutely my rock.”