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A pool photograph distributed by Sputnik agency shows Russia’s President Vladimir Putin addressing the audience during a ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of the victory in the Battle of Kursk, a major World War II Eastern Front battle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, in Kursk, on August 23, 2023.

Gavriil Grigorov | Afp | Getty Images

Prominent Kremlin critic Bill Browder believes the presumed death of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin will shore up President Vladimir Putin’s shaken authority, saying the Russian leader “never forgives and never forgets.”

His comments come shortly after Russian aviation officials said Wednesday that Prigozhin was believed to have been killed in a plane crash.

The mercenary boss, who exactly two months ago led his notoriously brutal fighters on a short-lived march on Moscow, was listed as a passenger on the downed private aircraft along with nine others, including senior Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin.

Russian authorities said the business jet crashed in the Tver region northwest of Moscow, leading to the deaths of all 10 people onboard. NBC news has not confirmed that Prigozhin was on the plane.

A Telegram channel associated with the Wagner Group, which has fought on the frontlines of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine and has been linked to violence in Syria, Libya and elsewhere in Africa, said Wednesday that Prigozhin and Utkin had died.

“The head of the Wagner Group, Hero of Russia, a true patriot of his Motherland, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, died as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia,” a post on the Grey Zone channel said.

A view of site after a private jet, allegedly carrying Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin and other passengers crashed in Russia’s northwestern Tver region, Russia on August 23, 2023.

Wagner Telegram Account | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Russia’s Federal Agency for Air Transport said an investigation is underway into the cause of the crash, amid intense speculation that Prigozhin was targeted following his armed mutiny against the Russian government on June 23-24.

“Putin never forgives and never forgets,” Browder said via X, the platform previously known as Twitter.

“He looked like a humiliated weakling with Prighozin running around without a care in the world. This will cement his authority and is standard Putin operating procedure,” Browder said.

The Russian Embassy in London did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Putin ‘still runs the show’

A screen grab captured from a video shared online shows Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Russian private security company Wagner, holding a rifle in a desert area while wearing camouflage in a video for the first time after his rebellion against the Russian administration in an unspecified location in Africa on August 21, 2023. In the footage shared on the Telegram channel ‘Wagner’s evacuation’, Prigozhin stated that they have made Russia ‘even greater’ on all continents, including Africa. 

Wagner Account | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“A reminder to all that [Putin] still runs the show & consequences for taking him on remain deadly,” Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, said Wednesday via X in reaction to Prigozhin’s presumed death.

Bremmer had previously described Prigozhin as a “dead man walking” after the Wagner chief’s botched rebellion. “I would be very surprised that he’s still with us in a few months’ time,” Bremmer told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on June 26.

‘The situation is very dangerous’

Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak, meanwhile, said the apparent death of Prigozhin showed that “it is obvious that Putin does not forgive anyone.”

“The demonstrative elimination of Prigozhin and the Wagner command two months after the coup attempt is a signal from Putin to Russia’s elites ahead of the 2024 elections. ‘Beware! Disloyalty equals death,'” Podolyak said via X.

Samantha de Bendern, an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, highlighted that the plane crash which appears to have killed Prigozhin took place on the same day that Russian Gen. Sergei Surovikin was dismissed as head of the country’s aerospace forces.

“This suggests that a certain amount of tidying up had to be done before getting rid of Prigozhin and those associated with him,” de Bendern said, adding that it “is a clear message to all elites that no matter how powerful they think they are, if they oppose Putin they will meet a similar fate.”

Chatham House’s de Bendern said a number of scenarios could arise in the next few days that may shape Russian politics over the coming months. These included Putin accusing Ukraine of being responsible for Prigozhin’s presumed death, Russia’s president opening an investigation into the plane crash that will ultimately peter out and Putin emerging as a “weakened man who does not keep his word.”

Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov said Wednesday that he does not believe Putin will come out of this episode stronger.

“When a dictator is reduced to murdering members of his inner circle and fighting with and replacing his own generals, the situation is very dangerous,” Kasparov said via X. “There is no trust among those who remain, and therefore no loyalty. The knives are out and must taste blood,” he added.

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