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The Institute for the Study of War believes that reported deaths of Wagner Group leaders Yevgeny Prigozhin, Dmitry Utkin, and Valery Chekalov will prevent the organization from resisting efforts by the Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defense to “weaken, subsume, and destroy the organization” in the aftermath of the June 24 armed rebellion.
Calling the deaths in a plane crash an “almost certain assassination,” ISW reports that “the elimination of this central leadership likely ends any remaining means Wagner had to operate independently of the Russian Ministry of Defense.”
After gaining notoriety for their brutal participation in the battle for Bakhmut, Prigozhin led the infamous mercenary group through an aborted uprising in late June after publicly criticizing and denouncing Russian military leadership. The rebellion saw Wagner fighters shoot down Russian military aircraft before a settlement brokered by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko ended the uprising, resulting in Wagner relocating personnel and equipment to camps in Belarus.
Putin initially referred to the incident as “treason” and “betrayal” and vowed to hold those responsible to account. In a brief address, Putin referred to Prigozhin as having a “difficult fate” and as someone who had made “serious mistakes.” He also emphasized that Prigozhin had “achieved the necessary results both for himself and what I [Putin] asked him for – for a common cause, as in these last months.”
ISW speculates that Putin’s comment “implies that Prigozhin had been fulfilling Putin’s orders recently and throughout their acquaintance,” but “indicates that Prigozhin’s loyalty through the years was not enough to offset the “serious mistake” of launching a rebellion against the Russian military leadership.”
In previous assessments ISW has theorized that Prigozhin did not intend to oust Putin but rather wanted to force Putin to fire key members of Russia’s military leadership.
The exact cause of the plane crash has yet to be verified and multiple sources have offered varying explanations, from alleged surface-to-air missiles, to bombs and other sabotage. ISW has also reported that the Wagner Council of Commanders has yet to release a public statement following the downing of Prigozhin’s plane.