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Russian Mercenary Boss Prigozhin Reported Dead in Plane Crash, Kremlin Sacks ‘General Armageddon’ From Aerospace Command

Published: August 23, 2023
FILE PHOTO: Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group's pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. (Image: REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo)

On the same day (Aug. 23) that the plane reportedly carrying the bosses of Wagner private military company crashed in northwestern Russia with no survivors, the country’s military has apparently announced a new leader for its Aerospace Forces (VKS).

Russia’s most powerful mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin was on board the private jet that crashed in the Tver region, the Russian authorities said, two months to the day after he led an abortive mutiny against the army top brass.

Wagner PMC, known for advancing the Russian state’s interests in Ukraine and Africa, had since rebased to Belarus, an ally of the Kremlin that borders both Ukraine and Russia.

A view shows plane wreckage on fire following an alleged air accident at a location given as Tver region, Russia, in this image published August 23, 2023. Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of Russian private mercenary group Wagner, was reportedly listed as a passenger on a private jet which crashed north of Moscow on August 23, 2023. (Image: Ostorozhno Novosti/Handout via REUTERS)

Meanwhile, Russia has appointed a new acting head of its aerospace forces to replace Sergei Surovikin, nicknamed “General Armageddon,” who vanished from view after the Wagner mutiny, the RIA state news agency reported on Wednesday.

After the mutiny, Putin had conspicuously condemned Prigozhin and Wagner as traitors, but thanked Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko for brokering the deal between the mercenaries and the Kremlin, whilst encouraging Wagner fighters to either join the Russian army or “go to Belarus.”

Crashed and sacked

Meanwhile, there was no official comment from the Kremlin or the Russian Defense Ministry on the fate of Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group and a self-declared enemy of the army’s leadership over what he argued was its incompetent prosecution of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

A Telegram channel linked to Wagner, Grey Zone, pronounced Prizgohin dead, however, and hailed him as a hero and a patriot who it said had died at the hands of unidentified people it called “traitors to Russia.”

Amid fevered speculation and an absence of verifiable facts, some of his supporters pointed the finger of blame at the Russian state, others at Ukraine which was due to mark its Independence Day on Thursday.

During the June 23-24 revolt, Surovikin, who once commanded Russia’s overall military effort in Ukraine, appeared in a video, looking strained and without insignia, urging Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin to abandon his march on Moscow.

Gen. Sergey Surovikin calls upon Wagner troops not to take orders from Prigozhin on June 23, 2023. (Image: Screenshot via social media)

Since the mutiny, which was ended by negotiations and a deal, some Russian and foreign news outlets have said that Surovikin, who was often publicly praised by Prigozhin in the run-up to the revolt, was being investigated for possible complicity in it and being held under house arrest.

His reported removal suggests the authorities found fault with his behavior, but the details of his alleged wrongdoing remain unknown. Russian news outlet RBC and Rybar, a Telegram channel close to the Ministry of Defence, on Tuesday had also reported that Surovikin had been removed from his position as the head of Russia’s air force.

On Wednesday, RIA cited an unnamed source as saying: “Ex-chief of the Russian Air and Space Forces Sergei Surovikin has now been relieved of his post, while Colonel-General Viktor Afzalov, head of the Main Staff of the Air Force, is temporarily acting as commander-in-chief of the Air Force.”

Surovikin earned the nickname “General Armageddon” during Russia’s military intervention in Syria for the brutal tactics he employed there. He was placed in charge of Russian military operations in Ukraine last October, but in January that role was handed to General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, and Surovikin was made a deputy to Gerasimov.

After its abortive mutiny in June, Wagner troops have been redeployed to Belarus and Africa, where they took part in the coup that toppled the pro-France government of Niger. In Belarus, they have been seen as a growing menace to Ukraine’s northern border as well as to Poland.

The last time Prigozhin was seen publicly was when he appeared in a video apparently shot in Africa.