At the time of writing, it has just been reported that an extremely reliable private jet class, the Embraer, has crashed flying from Moscow to St Petersburg. Somewhat unusually, the alleged sometime head of the Wagner Group, ostensibly a private mercenary organisation within Russia seeking to usurp the authority of the Russian Armed Forces, Yevgeny Prigozhin, together with his deputy, were both on board the aeroplane. The weather was good. The Embraer class of aircraft are well maintained outside Russia. Flights between Moscow and St Petersburg, a well-established Russian aerial artery, are virtually never the subject of accidents. In this case all the passengers on board died. At least so we are told. But this is Russia, and hence we will likely never know the truth.
Mr Prigozhin had been somewhat controversial. Originally a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, he had sought to build his own power base by constructing a mercenary organisation within the Russian Armed Forces, that started operations by charging African tyrants and overlords exorbitant fees derived from hydrocarbon and other primary industry revenues to maintain them in office against the domestic popular will and against the interests of Western powers with interests in the African countries in question. Wagner Group became notorious in Libya, and then extended its influence to Syria and also into the Sahel. And then it became a significant fighting force in Russia's so-called "special military operation" in Ukraine, and at that point it became a threat to the primacy of Vladimir Putin's control over Russia's Armed Forces, because it founds itself in the position of having battled-hardened fighters that it could charge for. Hence Wagner Group started extorting the Russian government for tens or hundreds of millions of US Dollars to prop up Russia's faltering military operations in Ukraine as her invasion of Ukrainian territory began to flounder in the face of NATO-funded support of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Mr Putin, being a man of particularly callous ruthlessness, did not much appreciate being held as a financial and military hostage by a sometime member of his own inner circle as he laboured with a flailing Ukrainian military campaign, and he came to be extremely wary of Mr Prigozhin, who would pull stunts of a kind quite adverse to Mr Putin's cautious and private nature, such as flying around Russian prisons and penal colonies in military helicopters recruiting prison inmates in televised publicity stunts. This is the sort of activity the publicity-shy Mr Putin particularly despises. President Putin, being a creature of the Russian nomenklatura and the country's secretive security establishment, came to see the publicity-embracing Mr Prigozhin as an existential threat.
Hence Mr Putin engineered an attempted and abortive coup d'état by Wagner Group forces, who were based for the most part in Rostov, the southern Russian city close to the border with Ukraine and the front line near to Kharkiv and the Crimean peninsula, to overthrow him. He infiltrated the Wagner Group with his own FSB (Russian internal security service) personnel, who then purported to occupy Rostov and initiate a march upon Moscow. Needless to say, this was all a charade. There was no way that the Wagner Group, a paramilitary unit of perhaps 50,000 troops, could defeat the might of the Russian Armed Forces that has well over one million soldiers on active duty alone. (That excludes the some 400,000 personal members of Mr Putin's pretorian guard, and countless other military and paramilitary units under his personal control.)
The net result of this ostensible coup, in July 2023, was most unclear but one thing that became immediately clear was that the results were extremely bad for Mr Prigozhin. He appeared on the television, giving unusual interviews; there were reports that he had been indicted for treason, pardoned, and then given free passage to Belarus; then there were reports that his house in St Petersburg had been raided by Russian security forces who had found millions of US Dollars in cash, gold bars, fake wigs and multiple passports each with his photo but with different names; then we were told that he had moved back to St Petersburg; then President Lukashenko of Belarus said that he did not know where he was; then the Wagner Group troops were supposed to have been given a base in Belarus; and so on and so forth. None of it looked very good for Mr Prigozhin. He would occasionally pop up in videos, apparently giving speeches about political subjects; it was said he had met Mr Putin for political discussions in Moscow; it was asserted that he had been giving speeches to Wagner Group troops; select groups of compliant Russia-leaning journalists were given tours of apparent Wagner Group barracks in Belarus where there was no evidence of any soldiers actually being present; and so on and so forth.
And now Mr Prigozhin and his deputy are mysteriously suddenly reported as having been killed in a freak aviation accident in clear weather with a well-maintained western aircraft on a reliable Russian internal aviation route.
What really happened we will never know. In all likelihood there was a 'plane crash; prompt footage has emerged of it. It was a small aircraft. Presumably somebody was on it. Why it crashed, we will never know. It could have been a mechanical failure or it could have been shot down. The opacity of Russian air accident investigations is such that such questions will remain permanent mysteries. Whether Mr Prigozhin or his deputy were on the 'plane is likewise something we will never know. He might have been; or he might have been killed several weeks ago, and this event is simply a cover story. Again, the opacity of Russian administrative procedures is such that these questions are simply unanswerable.
We predicted some weeks ago that Mr Prigozhin was either dead or would shortly be so. In this we turned out to be right. There is no doubt now that Mr Prigozhin is dead. Mr Putin and his inner circle have no comments. That is an indication, within Russian political psychology, that the death of Mr Prigozhin was personally ordered by Mr Putin. When we say:
Vladimir Putin litigates with himself
--- what we mean is that the President of Russia, when he perceives a political or personal risk to his reign of terror, manufactures a dispute within his own inner circle, that more often than not leads to an obscure and impenetrable set of unusual events with the result that his perceived principal opponent dies. The way Mr Putin does this is by orchestrating a conflict, accident or dispute in which people beneath him do combat and one or both of them are eliminated. It is by this cruel and merciless regime of recurrent regicide beneath the ultimate leader that a leader as callous as Mr Putin can maintain power indefinitely. He is undoubtedly the master of this sort of strategy, as befits his past as a senior FSB internal security service manager and operative; and he continues to use these dark arts to the present day to maintain himself indefinitely in office.
Who knows when or how Mr Prigozhin actually died. One thing we can be sure of now is that he is indeed dead: Russian media has publicly pronounced his death. God bless the crew and passengers on the ill-fated Embraear aircraft, who in all likelihood were innocent victims in this the most damnable of Russian power plays.