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It appears Prigozhin got the punishment Putin vowed. What will the Russian leader do next?

According to Russian authorities, a plane crash on Aug. 23 killed 10 people, including Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Russian authorities say 10 killed in Aug. 23 plane crash, including Wagner Group leader

Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of Russian private mercenary group Wagner, gives an address in camouflage and with a weapon in his hands in a desert area at an unknown location, believed to be in Africa. This image was taken from a video published August 21, 2023.

When Russian authorities announced on Wednesday that Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was on board a private jet that crashed, the question wasn't so much why he might have been killed, but why a man President Vladimir Putin had branded a traitor wasn't taken out earlier.

Political and security experts say what appears to have happened to Prigozhin sends a strong signal — that if any of the Russian elite publicly challenges Putin, they will be taken out in a public way.

"What happened seems to confirm the general pattern of Putin's rule," said Sergey Radchenko, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies based in Cardiff, Wales.

"You have scorpions in the bottle. Putin is the main scorpion, and he goes after those who he feels betrayed him."

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The presumed death of Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash has become the subject of theories about how the plane crashed, whether Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind it and if Prigozhin is, in fact, dead.

In recent months, the 62-year-old Prigozhin has became an increasingly loud and angry critic of Russia's military, for what he saw as battlefield failures in its invasion of Ukraine. In June, it boiled over and Prigozhin led some of his mercenary fighters out of Ukraine and into Russia to target senior defence officials.

While his rebellion was eventually called off, Russia watchers say Putin doesn't forget, and never forgives.

With Prigozhin reportedly gone, and other high-ranking Wagner officials allegedly also killed in Wednesday's crash, there are questions about what Putin plans to do with the ruthless Russian mercenary group, which has fighters in Belarus and scattered around Africa.

Witnesses heard explosion

According to Russia's aviation agency, Prigozhin and nine others were on an Embraer jet that was en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg on Wednesday when it crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino, about 350 kilometres northwest of Moscow.

A wreckage of the private jet linked to Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen near the crash site in the Tver region, Russia, August 24, 2023.

Witnesses on the ground reported hearing at least one explosion prior to the crash.

Vitlay Stepenok, 72, told a Reuters journalist near the scene that he heard a large bang and then saw white smoke. He watched as one wing flew off the plane before it glided down to the ground.

Another man, who only gave his first name, Antaloy, said the loud bang residents heard was clearly not thunder.

"It was a metallic bang, let's put it that way," he said. "I've heard things like that before."

Emergency specialists carry a body bag near wreckages of the private jet linked to Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at the crash site in the Tver region, Russia, August 24, 2023.

Prigozhin's seemingly violent demise caps a stunning arc that saw the former convict turned Kremlin caterer become a mercenary leader who sent tens of thousands of convicts to fight in Ukraine, only to rail against Russia's defence ministry for incompetence and corruption.

The coup on June 23 and 24, which reportedly advanced to within a few hundred kilometres of Moscow, was dramatic but short-lived. Afterwards, Putin promised "inevitable punishment."

Five days after his mutiny was called down — as a result of a deal apparently brokered by Belarus — Prigozhin had a meeting with Putin at the Kremlin, according to officials.

For weeks, it appeared that Prigozhin was able to move around freely.

In that time, there were multiple reports of a Wagner-owned plane jetting back and forth between Minsk, St. Petersburg and Moscow.

WATCH | The attempted coup in Russia: 36 hours of chaos:

Putin and the mutiny: A chaotic 36-hours in Russia

2 months ago

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A short-lived mutiny orchestrated by the head of a Russian mercenary army caught the Kremlin off guard and is raising questions about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power. CBC’s Terence McKenna lays out how it unfolded and the potential consequences of the confrontation.

Prigozhin's changing whereabouts

On Monday, Prigozhin posted a video to social media that purported to show him somewhere in Africa, with a rifle in his hands.

He seemed free to travel to the continent — unlike Putin, who was forced to stay in Russia and miss attending the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, in person because of an International Criminal Court warrant out for his arrest.

In the video, Prigozhin was dressed in camouflage and boasted that Wagner makes "Russia even greater on all continents."

Two days later, Russian authorities said Prigozhin, along with another top Wagner commander, Dmitry Utkin, and a Prigozhin ally named Valery Chekalov, were on the passenger manifest of the plane that crashed. If confirmed, this means the upper echelon of Wagner was wiped out when the jet came down.

The crash is being investigated by Russian authorities.

Patrick Bury, a security expert at the University of Bath who spoke with CBC News via Zoom, says the footage of the crash leads him to believe the plane either went down as a result of a surface-to-air missile or some explosive device inside the plane.

Radchenko said if Prigozhin, Utkin and Chekalov were travelling together, it likely means they believed they had some kind of security guarantee from the Kremlin. Radchenko described the crash as a deliberate act to behead Wagner, "which has opened up a gangster turf war that is waiting for someone to take over."

A fighter of Wagner private mercenary group lights a candle at a makeshift memorial with portraits of Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner group commander Dmitry Utkin outside the local office of the Wagner private mercenary group in Novosibirsk, Russia August 24, 2023.

As part of the reported deal to end the June mutiny, a criminal case against Prigozhin was dropped and he was to be sent into exile in Belarus. His fighters were given the option of going to Belarus, signing contracts with Russia's military, or simply going home.

Wagner still has an extensive presence in parts of the Middle East and Africa, including Syria, Mali and the Central African Republic. Last month, Belarussian officials said some Wagner fighters were in the country training special forces near Poland's border.

Marina Miron, a post-doctoral researcher in the war studies department at King's College London, told CBC News that Putin might have been biding his time while he sussed out the extent of Prigozhin's network, looking for people in the Russian military and security services who might be sympathetic to the Wagner leader.

On Wednesday, a Wagner-affiliated group announced that Prigozhin's reported death was at the hands of "traitors of Russia." On Telegram, an online platform widely used in Russia, many posts made veiled threats and promises of revenge.

One video emerged of three fighters dressed in camouflage and wearing masks, warning that Wagner was "getting started and get ready for us."

Miron said Prigozhin has a loyal following, including among "ultra-patriots" who wish Russia would unleash all its firepower against Ukraine and the West. He also had supporters in the ranks of the Russian military.

On the same day Prigozhin was reportedly killed, there were reports Sergey Surovikin, a decorated commander who led Russia's military operation in Ukraine before being made head of the air force, was removed from his post. Nicknamed "General Armageddon" from his time leading Russia troops in Syria, Surovikin had not been seen publicly since the failed mutiny in June.

Commander of Russia's Aerospace Forces Sergei Surovikin was removed from his post yesterday after not being seen in public since Prigozhin launched his mutiny in June.

There was speculation Surovikin had supported the June coup.

Impact on Putin's power unclear

As news of the plane crash broke on Wednesday, Putin was in the Russian city of Kursk, holding a minute of silence as part of a ceremony to remember soldiers who fought in the Second World War.

On Thursday, Putin shared condolences for Prigozhin's death, noting that he had known the Wagner leader since the 1990s.

Miron believes Putin likely has a replacement to head up Wagner. She said one benefit of keeping Wagner separate from the military is that any deaths in the mercenary group's ranks won't show up in official statistics. Plus, Wagner fighters can keep operating in the shadows.

"They are like a Swiss army knife," Miron said. "They have many capabilities that transcend those of a classic military."

Bury says it remains unclear how Prigozhin's alleged death affects Putin's hold on power and the stability of his government, not to mention the continued military engagement in Ukraine.

Does it leave Putin in a strong position because he has now drawn a line under the recent instability and reasserted control? Or is it the start of a widening crack in his authority, and a problem that's only going to get worse?

Speaking to the Reuters on the streets of Moscow on Thursday, residents expressed a range of opinions on the Wagner Group leader.

Some said Prigozhin was a traitor, others said he was a hero. Some wondered whether he was really dead.

Prigozhin "was, in fact, a master of illusions," said one man. "Maybe he didn't die. No one knows yet."

WATCH | What does Yevgeny Prigozhin's alleged death mean for Putin?

What Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death could mean for Putin

1 day ago

Duration 4:11

With the suspected death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, CBC’s Chris Brown breaks down who could be responsible and what the death of an ally turned adversary could mean for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Briar Stewart is a correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart

    With files from Corinne Seminoff, Reuters

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