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Weeks after Yevgeny Prigozhin's mutiny, he has apparently died in a plane crash

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russian officials say a business jet flying from Moscow to Saint Petersburg crashed today, and the passenger list included the name of Yevgeny Prigozhin. He's head of the mercenary group Wagner. And two months ago, Prigozhin led a short-lived uprising against the country's military leadership. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow with more. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So what do we know exactly at this moment?

MAYNES: Well, Russian emergency officials say a plane went down over the Tver region in northwestern Russia with 10 people listed on board - seven passengers and three crew - all reportedly killed. According to Russian aviation authorities, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary force, was on the passenger list, along with other Wagner commanders. Authorities, however, did not directly confirm Prigozhin's death, although some Wagner-affiliated social media channels say he perished in the crash. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of theories as to what may or may not have happened. You know, was the plane shot down? Did it lose control? Was there, perhaps, some kind of explosive device on board? We don't have any answers, not yet. Russia's investigative committee and aviation regulators say they've both launched investigations.

CHANG: OK. Tell us more about who Prigozhin is and what he has meant to Russia.

MAYNES: Well, you know, Prigozhin's a really unique figure in Putin-era politics. You almost can't make him up. You know, he was a Soviet-era convict who later started a hot dog stand in Saint Petersburg, in the new Russia. He later parlayed that into a catering and restaurant business where he made an influential friend in the future Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin made a fortune, really, when his food service businesses got contracts supplying the Russian military and public schools. And in exchange, he was tasked with carrying out often unsavory, off-the-book assignments for the Kremlin.

CHANG: What do you mean unsavory?

MAYNES: Well, I mean, like the Russian troll farms implicated in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections and like his mercenary group, Wagner, which fought in Ukraine in 2015, later Syria and Africa. But this was always done in the shadows until Russia's full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in February of last year. That's when Wagner appeared to have more success than the Russian military. And we saw Prigozhin take on this increasingly public, almost political role, criticizing the Russian military leadership over perceived failures with the war effort.

CHANG: Right. And then in June, he leads this mutiny against Russia's top military leadership, even sending a column of his mercenaries to Moscow. But they stopped short, right?

MAYNES: Yeah, that's right. I mean, the uprising began in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Wagner and Prigozhin basically waltzed right into the key command center of the Russian military, seemingly unopposed. And the express purpose was the removal of the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and his chief of general staff over what Prigozhin says were their failures in Ukraine. He later mounted this convoy to Moscow, almost "Mad Max"-style, that made nearly all the way to the capital before they stopped. An agreement had been reached with the Kremlin by which Prigozhin and Wagner would end the rebellion in exchange for amnesty and exile in neighboring Belarus. And there was one other interesting development today, I want to add, which may or may not be related to Prigozhin's fate. General Sergei Surovikin, commander of the Russian Air Force, was reportedly fired. He had been seen as a Prigozhin ally.

CHANG: Huh. OK. Well, Charles, then since that rebellion, what has the relationship been like between President Vladimir Putin and Prigozhin?

MAYNES: Well, Putin initially denounced Prigozhin as a traitor for launching the rebellion and vowed he'd be punished. Yet, he then cuts this amnesty deal, saying it spared additional bloodshed. It later came out that Putin even met with Prigozhin and Wagner commanders in the Kremlin after the rebellion was over. And yet it's never been clear, you know, did Putin really forgive Prigozhin? Would he allow Prigozhin to continue playing a role defending Kremlin objectives in Ukraine or perhaps elsewhere in Africa? We just don't know.

CHANG: We just don't know. To be continued. That is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you so much, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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