Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine suffered an unexpected hit when Yevgeny Prigozhin and the leadership of the Wagner Group private military company were killed in an airplane crash on Wednesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin used the Wagner Group to great effect in the war in Ukraine. But after Prigozhin launched a mutiny and rolled with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in Russia in June, his days were numbered.
As the days pass, the picture of what took place becomes clearer.
Anti-Aircraft Missile or a Bomb?
According to a preliminary assessment by the U.S. Intelligence Community, an intentional explosion caused the Embraer Legacy 600 business jet that was carrying Prigozhin and the Wagner Group’s leadership to crash.
But the Pentagon and the U.S. Intelligence Community are refuting this version of the story and suggest that something else, such as a bomb or drone, was responsible.
It is almost certain that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the assassination. Initial reports indicated that an anti-aircraft missile took down Prigozhin’s plane.
The business jet crashed near the town of Tver, between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. According to the official Russian narrative, ten people, including Prigozhin, were killed in the crash.
The Day After for Wagner Group
On Wednesday, the Wagner Group lost its leader and leadership.
The loss of Prigozhin will “almost certainly” change the private military company and have a destabilizing effect on its operations, according to the British Military Intelligence.
“There is not yet definitive proof that Prigozhin was onboard and he is known to exercise exceptional security measures. However, it is highly likely that he is indeed dead,” the British Military Intelligence assessed in its latest estimate of the war.
Prigozhin was responsible for most of (the very few) Russian successes in Ukraine, including the capture of the town of Bakhmut in the Donbas. He was widely respected by his mercenaries but also by the Ukrainian forces because he was a brutal but largely fair adversary.
“His personal attributes of hyper-activity, exceptional audacity, a drive for results and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor,” the British Military Intelligence stated.
The Wagner Group is now a force without a leadership and without any heavy weapon systems. With these conditions, it has stopped being a serious major player in the conflict. The Kremlin might try to retain a use for the mercenary group for overseas missions in Africa and the Middle East. However, it remains to be seen how the Wagner Group’s council of commanders reacts to the death of the leadership.
“Wagner’s leadership vacuum would be compounded by the reports that founder and field commander Dimitry Utkin and logistics chief Valery Chekalov also died,” the British Military Intelligence added.
There are already indications that Wagner Group mercenaries are reacting badly to the loss of Utkin—indeed, some are taking it worse than the loss of Prigozhin. A brutal neo-Nazi commander, Utkin was widely respected by the Wagner Group’s rank and file. His loss will likely be as important to the Wagner Group’s operations as the loss of Prigozhin.
A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations and a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ). He holds a BA from the Johns Hopkins University, an MA from the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and is pursuing a J.D. at Boston College Law School. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.
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