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Two Months After Mutiny in Russia, Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin Dies in Plane Crash

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Yevgeny Prigozhin, longtime leader of the private Russian mercenary Wagner Group, has reportedly died in a plane crash two months after his group launched a short-lived armed mutiny against Vladimir Putin. Several other key figures with the Wagner Group were also reportedly killed in the crash. The crash was “not unexpected,” says Kimberly Marten, Barnard College professor of political science, who has been researching and writing about the Wagner Group for years. “We know that Putin takes revenge on people who are disloyal,” says Marten, who expects the Wagner Group’s operations in several African countries to continue, but says political infighting in Russia has weakened the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Two months to the day after the private Russian mercenary group Wagner staged a failed mutiny, the group’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was apparently killed in a plane crash north of Moscow shortly after 6 p.m. local time Wednesday. Eyewitness videos posted online show the plane was missing a wing as it spiraled to the ground.

The official passenger list said several other senior Wagner members were on board, including Dmitry Utkin, a mercenary commander who allegedly founded the Wagner Group in 2014. Also on board was Evgeny Makaryan, who fought with the mercenary group in Syria, and longtime Prigozhin ally Valery Chekalov, who was in charge of his business empire, including his oil investments in Syria. Last month, the United States imposed sanctions on Chekalov for facilitating shipments of weapons to Russia.

The crash sparked widespread speculation that Prigozhin and other Wagner leaders were assassinated for leading a failed mutiny in June that saw heavily armed mercenaries advance to within 120 miles of Moscow. Adding to the speculation, Russian media reported Wednesday the Kremlin has fired senior Russian General Sergey Surovikin as Air Force chief. The general was known as an ally of the Wagner Group and had not been seen in public since the mutiny.

AMY GOODMAN: Just three days ago, Prigozhin posted one of his first online videos since leading the failed uprising. He appeared to be somewhere in Africa and spoke with a rifle in his hands with other armed men behind him.

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN: [translated] We are working. The temperature is 50-plus degrees Celsius, everything as we like. Wagner PMC conducts reconnaissance and search actions, makes Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa more free. Justice and happiness for the African people. We are making life a nightmare for ISIS and al-Qaeda and other bandits.

AMY GOODMAN: Since Prigozhin was killed Wednesday, there has been no official comment from the Kremlin or Defense Ministry. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech about an hour after the plane crash, but he made no reference to it. Putin later addressed the BRICS summit remotely and again did not mention the crash. This was President Biden’s response when asked to comment on the crash and the death of Prigozhin by reporters.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I am not surprised.

REPORTER: Do you think Putin was responsible?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind. I don’t know enough to know the answer. I’ve been working out for the last hour and a half.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Kimberly Marten, professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. She has been researching and writing about the Wagner Group for years.

Professor, welcome back to Democracy Now! First, your first response yesterday? It was like, oh, close to 1:30 in the afternoon when we heard, Eastern time, that Prigozhin possibly was dead.

KIMBERLY MARTEN: Not unexpected at all. We know that Putin takes revenge on people who are disloyal. It was two months to the day after Prigozhin began his mutiny. And it’s fitting that it happened on an airplane, given that, as part of that mutiny, Prigozhin’s men ended up shooting down a series of Russian military helicopters and an airplane and killed 13 people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Marten, can you say — talk about the other senior Wagner leaders who were apparently on this plane with Prigozhin?

KIMBERLY MARTEN: Yeah, probably the most significant one is Chekalov, who, as you mentioned earlier, was in charge of the Evro Polis business part of Prigozhin’s holdings. Prigozhin has many, many holdings in many, many very hidden places around the world. But Chekalov was associated with those in Syria. And that is significant because it appeared that the Wagner personnel in Syria had already been taken away from Wagner command immediately after the mutiny. We know that the Russian military personnel on the ground, uniformed military on the ground, in Syria had worked with Syrian authorities to either send Wagner people home who did not wish to sign new contracts, or had the rest sign contracts with somebody else in Syria — could have been either the Russian uniformed military or an alternative group called Redut, that has been performing similar activities in guarding oil and gas facilities for Russia in Syria. So, getting Chekalov out of the way was probably also a mechanism to take over those business holdings much more easily.

On Utkin, there had actually been rumors that Utkin was killed many years ago. He had not been seen publicly in several years, except for this very odd video that came out in July, under very low light, that was filmed at the Wagner new camp in Belarus. And there had been some speculation that maybe that wasn’t really Utkin, and that maybe the reason it was filmed in such low light was to try to hide somebody who was playing the part of Utkin.

But nonetheless, this is, essentially, a statement by the Russian state that these people have been now out of the way. Whatever really happened to them, we may never know, if they were really killed or just given another identity and sent off to some island somewhere. But in any case, it appears that these people are no longer significant actors in Russia.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Marten, you mentioned Redut, which is reportedly another paramilitary group, except this one is headed by Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu?

KIMBERLY MARTEN: It’s not clear that Shoigu actually heads it. It has a much closer relationship with the Defense Ministry than, certainly, Prigozhin’s group has had. It got along very well with the Defense Ministry.

And in many ways, it’s not going to really be an easy substitute for Wagner, because it does not have Wagner’s battle experience. In Syria, what it was primarily involved in is guarding oil and gas facilities that are associated with different a Russian oligarch, Timchenko, somebody who’s actually much, much closer to Putin than Prigozhin ever was. And so, in Syria, it would be very easy for them to take over the kinds of duties that Prigozhin’s forces were carrying out more recently. Very early on in Syria, in Russia’s military involvement in Syria, Prigozhin’s forces were engaged in full battle. We know that in 2020 they also recruited former Syrian opposition folks to go fight in Libya on behalf of Prigozhin’s activities in Libya for the warlord Khalifa Haftar. And Redut has done nothing like that, to our knowledge. But in Syria, it would be easy for Redut to take over the forces.

It appears that in recent weeks Redut has been trying to compete against Wagner to recruit people for Africa, as well. But given that the tasks that Wagner has been fulfilling in Africa are significantly different from just guarding facilities — in the Central African Republic, they have been guarding the leadership that are threatened by rebels, the President Touadéra’s leadership. They have been engaged in a lot of real battles with those rebels in Mali. Certainly, they’re fulfilling similar duties in Sudan. Not merely are they guarding facilities, but they are smuggling gold out of Sudan to the United Arab Emirates for melting down and then sale of the cash back to Moscow. And in Libya, they’ve been working with Khalifa Haftar. And I think it would be difficult for Redut to take those over anytime soon. But I think it’s entirely possible that some version of Wagner will continue operating in Africa even without Prigozhin. I don’t think they needed Prigozhin for those activities with the local commanders on the ground to continue.

AMY GOODMAN: The video we just showed of Prigozhin, supposedly the last time he was seen, somewhere in Africa — people speculated it was in Mali — if you can talk about that? He was also seen on the outskirts of the Africa summit that Putin held in St. Petersburg. And also, do you believe he’s dead? I mean, Prigozhin, obviously, is famous for using body doubles, but there’s no — we just know there was a crash.

KIMBERLY MARTEN: So, complicated questions. On the images, many of them have not been verified in terms of time stamp and geolocation. The video that was taken of him that appeared to be in Mali, his airplane flew from Mali to Moscow, and so the supposition is that it took place in Mali. But the background was just, essentially, savanna, and it could have been a TV set, for all we know. And so, it’s very hard to verify any of those videos or any of those photographs.

We do know for sure that the Russian state has announced that somebody with Prigozhin’s name has been killed. We know that Prigozhin’s media channels are announcing that he has been killed. At a building that was formerly associated with him in St. Petersburg before the mutiny, there were lights on the building last night in the shape of a cross, indicating that people who were working for him wanted to give the impression that he’s killed. So, whether he’s dead or not, he is certainly dead in his future in Russian politics.

But, yes, it did appear that he was flying back and forth between the new Wagner base camp in the middle of Belarus, back and forth both to Moscow and to St. Petersburg, participating in the summit that Putin held with African leaders in July, and then that he probably also was in Mali a couple of days ago before flying back to Moscow.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Marten, very soon after reports of his death emerged, there were numerous Telegram channels that were warning of Wagner taking revenge, and some Russian security forces were reportedly put on high alert. So, are you expecting anything to happen?

KIMBERLY MARTEN: You know, something might happen, but it’s not clear how it could possibly be successful. So, in a sense, it makes sense that Putin waited two months to take revenge, if that’s actually what happened, because the mutineers are no longer located on Russian territory. Part of the so-called deal that was reached with Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, was to put them on Belarusian territory, and they are in the middle of Belarus. They are in an area that is a rural area, without any big cities nearby, in the exact center of the country. And so, if those people were to plan anything, it would be fairly easy to contain them in Belarus, without allowing them back into Russia, by Russian military and security forces.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the people engaged in the mutiny were the people who, earlier in the month of May, had been fighting in Bakhmut in Ukraine, in eastern Ukraine. And those were primarily prisoners that Prigozhin had released from Russian prisons with a deal that they would have their sentences commuted if they were willing to fight for Wagner for a certain number of months. And what that means is that they may have been very loyal to Prigozhin, because Prigozhin arranged this for them, but they were not the kind of fighters that we associate with what Wagner has done in Africa, in particular. They were not sophisticated military people. They were former prisoners who were doing this to get out of jail free. And certainly they had battle experience in Bakhmut, but they’re not particularly well trained. And also, as part of that deal that moved the forces to Belarus, Wagner gave up its heavy weaponry that it had had in Ukraine. And so that means that they’re armed just with, you know, probably Kalashnikovs and things that are similar to that. So, again, they would be very easy to contain.

The other Wagner forces are in Syria and in several places in Africa, as we mentioned earlier, the Central African Republic, Mali, Libya and Sudan. The only way that they could get back to Russia is by taking Russian military airplanes, which go through the Khmeimim Air Base, that Russia now controls in Syria. And so, unless they had support from Russian uniformed military forces, they have no way of getting back to Russia.

So, there may be a few people in Russia who had been engaged in Wagner, who have recently retired or were, quote-unquote, “on vacation,” who might try something, but it’s a very small group of people. They are not heavily armed. And it’s most likely not the best-trained members of Wagner. And so I think that probably Putin is pretty safe from any kind of an uprising by Wagner folks per se.

The one question we have is how the Russian military feels about this. And there had been some indication, as your reporting indicated, Surovikin has been detained. We haven’t seen him publicly since the mutiny. He had been identified by Prigozhin as his go-between with the Defense Ministry. He had been in charge of Russia’s Air and Space Forces, and he was relieved of those duties. We don’t know how many people in the Russian military actually supported Prigozhin, and what this effect might now have within the Russian military forces. But I would say that so far we haven’t seen anything happening indicating that there would be any kind of additional mutiny.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s end with Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who’s written extensively about Russia, posting Wednesday, “So the Russian officer (Girkin) who started the Donbas war in 2014 is in jail, the only Russian general to carry out a successful maneuver in 2022 (Surovikin) has been relieved of duty, and the only Russian commander to take a city in 2023 (Prigozhin) has been murdered.” Your final response, Professor Marten?

KIMBERLY MARTEN: I think Russia has not been doing as well in Ukraine as it had originally hoped to do. I think we’re seeing some new energy on behalf of the Ukrainians, who are now launching their counteroffensive. And I think that all of this political infighting that is happening among security forces in Russia makes Russia weaker in the battlefield. So this certainly did nothing to strengthen Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it appears that it has weakened Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: Kimberly Marten, we want to thank you for being with us, professor —

KIMBERLY MARTEN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: — of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. She has been researching and writing about the Wagner Group for years.

Coming up, eight Republican presidential candidates faced off in their first debate Wednesday night, but front-runner Donald Trump refused to take part. He’s turning himself in today to the Fulton County Jail to face charges for attempting to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. Stay with us.

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