Wagner Group Leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has joined a growing list of Russian elites who have died under suspicious circumstances since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.
The string of suspicious deaths coincides with the ongoing war in Ukraine and a period of heightened political stress in the Kremlin. On July 9th, a Wikipedia page appeared online tracking the deaths.
Due to a lack of verifiable information, it remains unclear whether the string of recent deaths among Russian elites is indeed due to foul play or whether they were merely coincidences that lend well to conspiracy theories.
Death of Yevgeny Prigozhin
On Wednesday, Russian media outlets reported that Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash during a flight between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He had appeared that same week in Africa in what was his first video address since his mercenary company Wagner Group staged a mutiny in June.
Once a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin became a threat to Putin’s political position after his mercenaries seized the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and threatened to march on Moscow back in June. Wagner Group relented after a deal was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, but the aura of Putin’s indomitability was diminished by the apparent rebellion.
Speculation now abounds concerning Prigozhin’s death. Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak shares the sentiments of many analysts who believe Prigozhin’s death was the result of a political assassination. Podolyak said that Prigozhin’s death was “a signal from Putin to Russia’s elites ahead of the 2024 elections. ‘Beware! Disloyalty equals death.”
According to information provided by Russian aviation authorities, Prigozhin was accompanied by nine other individuals when the plane crashed. Among them was Dmitry Utkin, credited with coining the mercenary group’s name. Additionally, Valeriy Chekalov, thought to have played a pivotal role in Wagner Group’s financial operations, was identified among the passengers.
Putin Responds to Death of Wagner Chief
On Thursday, President Putin finally referred to the plane crash and death of Prigozhin in a public address.
“As for the aviation tragedy, first of all, I want to express my sincerest condolences to the families of all the victims,” Putin said. “Indeed, if there were, and the primary data indicate that there were employees of the Wagner PMC, I would want to note that these people made a significant contribution to fighting the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine.”
“I knew Priogozhin for a very long time, since the early 1990s,” Putin continued. “He was a man with a complex destiny, and he made serious mistakes in life.”
“He achieved the results he needed both for himself and, when I asked him, for the common cause, as in these last months. He was a talented person, a talented businessman,” Putin said, before recounting Prigozhin’s various business interests in Africa and elsewhere.
Deaths of Russian Elites
Whether or not the deaths of Russian business elites are truly deserving of suspicion, it cannot be denied that a significant number of them have died over the course of the past year.
The “mystery deaths,” as Wikipedia calls them, began in January and February 2022 just prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Leonid Shulman and Alexander Tyulakov, both directors at Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom, were found dead during the first months of the year. Both men had apparently committed suicide.
Igor Nosov, a former Russian official, also died in February after suffering a stroke. At the end of that same month, Mikhail Watford, an oil and gas tycoon of Ukrainian origin, was found dead in the UK.
Russian oligarchs were also found dead under more unusual circumstances in March and April. The body of Vasily Melnikov, the CEO of a medical firm, was found next to the corpses of his wife and two sons all of whom had been stabbed to death.
In April, Vladislav Avayev, an ex-Kremlin official, was found dead in his multi-million dollar apartment in Moscow. His wife and thirteen-year-old daughter were likewise discovered dead at the scene. All three had sustained gunshot wounds in what was pronounced to be a murder-suicide.
Hangovers and shamans?
By far the most bizarre death of the Russian oligarchs was that of Alexander Subbotin, who died in May last year.
The billionaire oligarch was found dead in the basement of a shaman’s home in the city of Mytishchi, just northeast of Moscow. Subbotin traveled to the shaman’s home “in a state of severe alcoholic and drug intoxication the day before,” said Russian media outlet TASS.
According to TASS, Subbotin went to see the shaman for a hangover cure. Russian media reported that his body was discovered in a basement used for “Jamaican voodoo rituals.” A criminal investigation into Subbotin’s death was opened by Russian authorities after the body was found.
The oligarchs’ deaths continue
In December 2022, Pavel Antonov, a Russian lawmaker and successful businessman, who made his fortune selling sausages, died in a hotel in India. He was reportedly killed after falling from a third-floor hotel window.
During the summer, Antonov had denied criticizing Putin’s war in Ukraine after a message appeared on his WhatsApp account. He was not the only Russian oligarch to die in India. In the same hotel in the state of Odisha, another Russian guest reportedly died of a heart stroke.
A clear and forthcoming explanation for the strange fatalities is unlikely to emerge anytime soon. Some news outlets have pointed out that a significant number of those Russian business elites who were found dead had been critical of Putin since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s death is undoubtedly the most consequential among the Russian elites who have met their demise since last year as it remains to be seen how Wagner Group will operate without its late chief.