As the head of the world's most feared private army, Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin was always aware of the danger of death. Whether during his last missions in Africa, before that in the war in Ukraine or exactly two months ago when he instigated the uprising against Moscow's military leadership on June 23 and failed - the 62-year-old was aware that his life was rapidly changing can be the end. After the failed revolt, he asserted that he had not planned a change of power. But Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin is known for punishing betrayal, especially from friends, with cold blood.
According to the Gray Zone Telegram channel, which is close to Wagner, Prigozhin died in a plane crash in Russia on Wednesday. The TV station Zargrad TV, which is close to the Kremlin, also reported, citing its own sources, that Prigozhin's body had been identified for the time being, but DNA analyzes were still pending. According to the Rozaviazia aviation authority, Prigozhin was on the passenger list. Rosawiazija also said that it was information from the airline. Many commentators saw this as confirmation of Prigozhin's death. However, there was no direct confirmation from Rozawiazija or any other official body in Russia that Prigozhin was dead.
Shortly before reported by video from Africa
Ten people are said to have been killed on Wednesday when a Prigozhin passenger plane crashed in the Tver region - as many as the Russian pilots killed by his Wagner fighters in the uprising, observers quickly commented. What exactly happened on board the machine was initially unclear.
But the authorities quickly confirmed that Prigozhin, who had recently reported from Africa via video for the first time, was on the plane's passenger list. According to reports, he had just returned from Africa. The Wagner boss wanted to continue to represent Russia and his own interests in conflicts in the individual states on the African continent. Part of his force, which fell out of favor in Russia, was transferred to Belarus.
Little has been heard from Prigozhin since the revolt. In Russia, the last much-noticed photos were taken when he was conducting talks on the sidelines of Putin's Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July.
For months before the uprising, he had been at odds with the military leadership in Moscow over the chaotic course of the war in Ukraine. He repeatedly accused the Defense Ministry and the Army General Staff of lying to President Putin. With the armed uprising of his army, which is fully equipped with tanks and other heavy weapons, he ultimately also challenged Putin.
Criticism as an outlet in times of war
The Kremlin confirmed that Prigozhin and Putin met again in the Kremlin after the near-coup. But observers reminded that Putin never forgives public shaming like that of Prigozhin. Like the head of the Kremlin, Prigozhin comes from St. Petersburg. Little is known about the family man's private life. But again and again he staged himself as a protector with a social streak. He maintained rehabilitation centers for war invalids.
His popularity skyrocketed during the Wagner fights in Ukraine - also because he reached hundreds of thousands with his channel on the Telegram news service. Many considered the statements, reminiscent of the Russian opposition, to be honest - an outlet in times of war. This also fueled speculation about the political ambitions of the Wagner boss. He always rejected such intentions.
Rather, Prigozhin enjoyed the reputation of being out for maximum profit with his corporate empire Concord and other business activities. It was also clear to the Kremlin that he was acting in an extremely power-conscious manner. In particular, he used his influence to pressure Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov to up the ante in the war. He accused them of not leading the troops properly.
When news of the plane crash broke, commentators in Moscow said it could have been revenge by the two military men. Several generals who were in line with Prigozhin were recently deposed or disappeared from the scene - without explanation.
Entrepreneurs with a criminal past
No one else in Russia dared such criticism as Prigozhin, for which ordinary citizens are sentenced to long prison terms. For him, it's about the army being able to carry out its tasks with dignity and pride - and not in a system of "syphony, sycophancy and irresponsibility," he once said. The mercenary boss also criticized the state media for belittling Wagner's successes or even concealing them. The word Wagner is "carefully erased" in the media - like genitals in a film about saunas, he said.
But Prigozhin was also known as an unscrupulous businessman with a criminal past. He and Putin have known each other for a long time. When the current president was still working in the St. Petersburg city administration, he is said to have stopped off at Prigozhin's restaurant. That is why the Russian, who was imprisoned for several years for robbery, is also known as "Putin's cook".
The man with the shaved head is said to have interfered in the 2020 US presidential election with his internet troll factory, which specializes in disinformation. That's why the United States put him on an international manhunt. The Wagner troops are considered a "terrorist organization" in the West, responsible for war crimes in many countries.
In September, after six months of war in Ukraine, Prigozhin admitted for the first time that he had formed the mercenary force in 2014 for use on the Russian side in the Ukrainian Donbass. Prior to this, Prigozhin had never clearly disclosed his connection to the mercenaries. Moscow also vehemently denied its existence for years.
Wagner offers unscrupulous staff
The second founder is the former secret service agent Dmitri Utkin, the official Wagner commander. He is also believed to have died in the crash. He was said to have a fondness for the German composer Richard Wagner - hence the troupe's name. For a long time it played a central role in the Ukraine war: the bloody conquest of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut was considered Prigozhin's greatest military success. However, his men are also said to have been involved in the massacre in Bucha near Kiev.
Wagner fighters have been, and still are, deployed in Syria, other Arab countries, Africa and Latin America. There lies one of many sources of money: Wagner offers unscrupulous personnel and services. In return, there is money and commodities such as gold and diamonds. In Russia, Prigozhin earns money by providing food for the military, but also in schools and kindergartens.
The Wagner Group recruits its members from among volunteers - not least among prisoners during the Ukraine war. Prigozhin lured criminals with the promise to receive a pardon after six months of military service. 32,000 ex-prisoners were released in this way. According to Prigozhin, around 10,000 former prisoners were killed in the battle for Bakhmut alone. Attempts to escape from the ranks of the army are said to be threatened with execution. A video showing how a renegade Wagner man was killed with a sledgehammer caused horror.
Commentators always think that the Wagner boss will pay for his criticism with his life. Like other critics of Putin before.