On August 23, 2023, a private Embraer EMB-135BJ Legacy 600 passenger plane crashed while en route from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, Russia. Everyone aboard was killed, but the only reason this small plane crash made international headlines is because it was carrying the leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who also died in the crash.
The crash is widely believed to be anything but an accident. In June 2023, Prigozhin led his forces in a mutiny against the Russian government over its treatment of Wagner troops in the ongoing war in Ukraine. His march on Moscow forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to flee the city.
The mutiny was only abandoned after Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko negotiated an end to it. In exchange for ending the rebellion, criminal charges against Prigozhin were dropped, but Russia still investigated Prigozhin for treason. Prigozhin and Wagner got back to advancing Russia’s interests in Africa.
All seemed normal until the plane crash that killed Prigozhin and nine others. The Washington Post reported the crash was a result of a catastrophic in-flight structural failure, with “all the earmarks of an explosion on board.” Memorials to the fallen leader, featuring Wagner flags, sledgehammers, and flowers, began popping up all over Wagner-friendly cities.
The Latvia-based Russian and English language newspaper Meduza began reaching out to current and former Wagner mercenaries to find out what they think about the crash that killed their leader – and what the future of the Wagner Group might be. In the immediate aftermath, officials in the organization thought only of what its troops might be thinking.
“It seems like the commanders are planning to write a statement, but it will be addressed primarily to fighters,” one Wagner fighter, a Ukraine veteran, told Meduza. “Some of us panicked and some of us prayed. We’re all a little out of sorts now. And many are mad: they want revenge. What are they not prepared to do! Heading for the Kremlin with guns. Everyone understands that this was revenge. The president doesn’t allow such things.”
“We were all waiting for this,” said another who is currently fighting in Africa. “The only question was when. I thought they’d whack him in Africa, but they did it like this. He signed his own sentence with that march. He should have stuck with it till the end or not started it at all.”
Other Wagner mercenaries aren’t so sure there will be a response from the group at all.
“It’s sad, of course. Yevgeny Viktorovich was a serious dude, we called him dad,” said another member in Africa. “But time has already passed, you know? If this had happened on June 27, right after the march, there would have been a reaction. But now…some people are on vacation, some are building their own lives. Others have gone to work for the Defense Ministry.”
“No worries, they’ll gnaw on this shit on social media for two weeks and then forget about it,” added a Wagner Group veteran now in an official military role. “Some of the guys are now stuck in Belarus, some are in Africa, and the rest are evenly spread out over the territory of the Russian Federation. Everyone was dispersed in advance -- the country’s leadership protected itself. Some have been calling me to ask how to join me.”
Prigozhin held a tight grip on his company. He not only controlled the Wagner Groups deployments, he also maintained its finances and coordinated its activities. Some say the future of the company without Prigozhin is uncertain, others say there are many who could continue its missions.