Yevgeny Prigozhin, 62, leader of the private military Wagner Group who challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority in June, is presumed dead.
He and nine others who were aboard a plane that crashed are thought to be dead, with some news outlets reporting that Prigozhin’s body was identified, perhaps from an injury to one of his hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters on Aug. 23 that he wasn’t surprised. Asked if Putin was behind the crash, Biden said “there’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind, but I don’t know enough to know the answer.”
In the Republican debate on Wednesday night in Milwaukee, Nikki Haley, a former diplomat and governor, said: “Look at what Putin did today. He killed Prigozhin. When I was at the U.N., the Russian ambassador suddenly died. This guy is a murderer.”
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned Wagner, which it called a “Russian proxy,” as a transnational criminal organization on Jan. 26. It also called Prigozhin, who is the target of multiple U.S. sanctions, “a Putin crony,” whose organization “has been involved in Kremlin-backed combat operations around the world in support of Putin’s war on Ukraine.”
“The Wagner Group has also meddled and destabilized countries in Africa, committing widespread human rights abuses and extorting natural resources from their people,” the department added. “Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions and physical abuse in the Central African Republic and Mali.”
Dissatisfied with the direction the war had gone in June, Prigozhin dispatched troops towards Moscow. He claimed Russian forces had attacked his men. “We will destroy anyone who stands in our way,” he threatened in audio and video that he posted. The next day, Putin accused his former ally on Russian television of “a stab in the back of our country and our people.” Within hours, Prigozhin called off the march to Moscow.
Prigozhin has been on the move ever since—first in Belarus and then in undisclosed locations, including in Africa. He is reportedly of Jewish descent on his father’s and his stepfather’s sides.
Some say that the Wagner Group has pro-Nazi origins, including perhaps being named after Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer Richard Wagner.
Prigozhin “appears to be the latest thorn in Putin’s side to meet an untimely end,” Business Insider reported, listing a dozen such deaths, including two who “fell” out of windows.