(Bloomberg) -- Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led an abortive mutiny two months ago that shook President Vladimir Putin’s rule, was on a private jet that crashed Wednesday killing everyone aboard, Russian aviation authorities said.
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No cause was announced but the crash immediately raised suspicions that Prigozhin had been killed. Putin had denounced the June rebellion as “treason,” but the mercenary leader had appeared to escape immediate retaliation by the Kremlin under a deal brokered to end the revolt as his fighters came within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of Moscow. Questions about his fate have swirled in the two months since the mutiny, with US officials speculating he might wind up dead.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin on the crash, but US officials were quick to suggest Prigozhin may have faced Putin’s retribution.
“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” President Joe Biden told reporters.
US officials had speculated that Putin would seek to take revenge for the unprecedented rebellion that shattered his image as Russia’s invincible leader and left the US, Europe and China puzzling over the political fallout.
“Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback,” CIA Director William Burns said at the Aspen Security Forum last month.
Putin has been seeking to restore his shaken authority at home since the rebellion, amid rising nationalist anger over the Russian leader’s stalled invasion of Ukraine, now in its 18th month. Prigozhin had won a wide following with his brazen and profane attacks on the military brass on social media, accusing them of sabotaging the war effort. But at least 13 Russian troops were killed in his abortive mutiny when his forces shot down military aircraft along their route.
“Whatever the reasons were for the plane crash, everyone will see this as an act of retribution and reprisal, and the Kremlin won’t do much to challenge that,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R.Politik. “From Putin’s perspective and that of many among the security services and military, Prigozhin’s death should be a lesson to any potential followers.”
Russia’s aviation regulator said Dmitry Utkin, Prigozhin’s No. 2 in Wagner, was also among the passengers on the plane. Investigators began a probe into the causes of the crash, Tass said, without providing details.
The jet, an Embraer SA Legacy 600, was cruising straight and level on course from Moscow to St. Petersburg until it suddenly began behaving erratically for a few seconds and then plunged, according to enhanced flight-track data from Flightradar24. Video from the scene showed the plane dropping from the sky.
The flight data combined with those videos indicates a catastrophic problem consistent with being shot down, an explosion on board or some other massive type of breakup, said Jeff Guzzetti, a consultant who formerly was the US Federal Aviation Administration’s chief accident investigator.
In the months since the uprising, Prigozhin had seemed to upstage Putin by appearing in St. Petersburg last month meeting with African officials at the same time as the president was hosting a showcase Russia-Africa summit. His Wagner fighters also avoided punishment under the deal, and the mercenary group was allowed to keep some of its extensive operations in Africa.
“If Prigozhin was indeed killed in this crash, that means that Putin is a very cold-blooded player. He waited to sort out the situation with Prigozhin’s assets, and when everything was in order and ready, made his final move,” said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian security services. “Putin has removed all critics of his war performance and has shown everyone that he is in total control of the situation.”
Read more: Putin Turns to Ruble and Ballot to Shore Up Shaken Authority
The Russian president is already making preparations for his bid to secure a fifth term in March 2024 elections, even as anxiety spreads among senior officials and business tycoons.
Prigozhin’s death isn’t likely to have much impact on Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, according to Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“The Wagner Group was totally out of the fight,” he said, with only about 2,000 to 3,000 fighters left in Ukraine. “I don’t think this will end with the death of just the two top commanders,” he said, referring to Prigozhin and Utkin, predicting other senior officials could face retribution as well.
(Updates with details on crash from 10th paragraph)
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