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DNA tests prove that the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died in a plane crash last month, Russian officials said recently. As Reuters wrote, the tests could put to rest speculation that Prigozhin was not on the plane and might have faked his death.
Two months earlier, Prigozhin and his fighters launched a mutiny that evolved into an aborted coup. Billed as a protest against Russian generals’ incompetence in prosecuting the war in Ukraine, the Wagner force marched within 125 miles of Moscow before halting their advance. Observers at the BBC wondered if he was a dead man walking from that moment forward.
Prigozhin was a classic post-communist Russian oligarch. He was a convict, hot dog vendor, a luxury restaurateur, and caterer in the Kremlin before leading a private fighting force that included battle-hardened veterans and violent criminals, the Associated Press noted.
In a sign of Prigozhin’s popularity, Russians throughout their massive country and regions in occupied Ukraine have laid flowers at makeshift memorials, the Washington Post reported. Such demonstrations were arguably direct challenges to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has come under criticism from elites and others over Russia’s failure to defeat Ukraine, which was united with Russia in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Meanwhile, the future of the Wagner Group is up in the air, especially since Prigozhin’s right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin, also died in the private jet that crashed while flying between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Al Jazeera wrote.
After praising Prigozhin as a “talented businessman” with interests in “oil, gas, precious metals and gems” – but noting that he was “a man with a complicated fate, who has made many serious mistakes in his life,” Putin ordered Wagner troops to sign an oath of allegiance to the Russian state in a bid to remove a potential challenge to his rule, according to NBC News.
Putin likely doesn’t want to disband Wagner. The organization has highly trained fighters who have played pivotal roles in Ukraine as well as in pursuit of business interests – think mines in Africa – and deployments in at least 10 countries throughout the globe.
Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow Catrina Doxsee told the New York Times that Putin wants Wagner to exist, or transition to another form but remain smaller and fragmented. Never again would he allow a similar unified force within Russia to grow large enough to challenge his rule, she said.
The Ukrainians will gladly take up the torch in that regard.