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Wagner mercenary chief Prigozhin confirmed dead in plane crash, Russia says after DNA analysis

The Russian investigative committee said it had established the identities of all 10 who died in Wednesday's plane crash north of Moscow.
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Wagner Group mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has been confirmed dead after genetic analysis of the bodies from Wednesday's plane crash, Russian officials said Sunday.

After "molecular genetic examinations" were completed, "the identities of all 10 dead were established" and "they correspond to the list stated in the flight sheet" of the aircraft that went down Wednesday north of Moscow, the Russian investigative committee said in a statement on Telegram.

Prigozhin and some of his most trusted lieutenants, including Dmitry Utkin — a shadowy figure with neo-Nazi tattoos known as the mercenary chief’s right-hand man — and logistics chief Valery Chekalov, were listed on the plane's manifest, along with four other passengers and three crew members.

The private jet, which was destined for St. Petersburg, crashed 60 miles north of Moscow two months to the day after Prigozhin’s failed coup attempt against President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin has denied it was behind the crash, rejecting widespread speculation that the it was a revenge assassination for Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny in late June, when Wagner fighters captured the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don before marching on Moscow.  

They would eventually stop 120 miles south of the Russian capital after a deal brokered by the Belarusian president would allow Prigozhin and his fighters to leave Russia for its neighboring ally.

Prigozhin’s whereabouts has been clouded in mystery since then, although he appeared in a video in which he hinted that he was in Africa conducting reconnaissance and “making Russia even greater on every continent.”

Putin appeared to acknowledge Prigozhin’s death Thursday, calling him a “talented businessman” who had “dealt with oil, gas, precious metals and gems.” He added that Prigozhin was “a man with a complicated fate, who has made many serious mistakes in his life.”

The following day, in a clear attempt to bring such private mercenary groups under tighter state control, he ordered Wagner Group and other mercenary fighters to swear an oath of allegiance to the Russian state in which they promised to follow strictly the rules of commanders and senior leaders.

Earlier this year, the Russian Defense Ministry gave mercenary groups until July 1 to sign army contracts, a move that appeared to anger Prigozhin ahead of his failed mutiny. Wagner fighters who did not take part have already been transferred to the regular Russian army.

A St. Petersburg native like Putin, Prigozhin, a former convict and later a restaurateur, rose to power through lucrative catering contracts for Kremlin events, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef.” 

He would go on to found the Wagner Group in 2014 and since then, the company has operated in Syria, Mali, the Central African Republic and other countries.

Prigozhin Wagner Africa
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the Wagner mercenary group, at an unknown location in video released this month.Razgruzka_Vagnera / Telegram via AP

Two years later, the U.S. intelligence community sanctioned Prigozhin for his creation of the Internet Research Agency, a bot farm that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Last year, Prigozhin boasted that he had interfered in American elections, and that he would do so again. Whether the bot farm, which polluted social media with conspiracy theories and disinformation, affected the results remains an open question.

With the Wagner Group, Prigozhin initially remained in the shadows, denying he was associated with the mercenaries, but he began to pursue a more public profile after Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.

Donning military fatigues, he appeared in videos appearing to show him recruiting prisoners, or in the thick of the action on the front lines. Using his well-oiled social media machine, Prigozhin emerged as a leading voice for hard-liners and influential pro-war figures who were critical of the Kremlin’s approach to the war.

His death and that of his other senior commanders leaves a vacuum at the top of the group.