Two months after a "rebellion" by the Wagner Group was quickly quelled, the leader of the private military company Yevgeny Prigozhin was reportedly killed in a plane crash, leaving a trail of shock, mystery and speculation over the incident.
As of press time, the Kremlin did not release any details about the incident, which is still under investigation. However, Russia's rivals, including the US and Ukraine, have pointed the finger at Russian President Vladimir Putin. Experts believe that although the existence of Prigozhin posed risks to all parties, the US and its allies are using the incident to launch a wave of public opinion and cognitive warfare against Russia in order to create more chaos and instability.
Russia's Federal Agency for Air Transport confirmed on Wednesday that Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash in the Tver Region near Moscow. According to the name list released by the agency on its Telegram account, Prigozhin, as well as his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin, were among the 10 people who lost their lives in the crash earlier Wednesday.
The agency said earlier that an investigation had been launched into the cause of the plane crash.
The Telegram account Grey Zone linked to Wagner also reported Prigozhin's death late on Wednesday, saying that the head of the Wagner Group "died as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia."
US President Joe Biden said that he is "not surprised" about the incident, and strongly hinted at Putin's involvement, according to media reports.
Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukrainian presidential adviser, directly named Putin as being right behind the "demonstrative elimination" of Prigozhin, which is "a signal to Russia's elites ahead of the 2024 elections."
The prime minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas, Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau, and chair of the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee Alicia Kearns also suggested Russian president's involvement to "eliminate opponents."
Chinese experts said that based on public information and video materials so far, there was little chance that Prigozhin's death was just an accident. They added that continuous debate and recriminations are inevitable regardless of the final outcome of the Russian investigation, as Prigozhin's existence generally posed a kind of "threat" to all sides.
Zhao Long, deputy director of the Institute of Global Governance at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the Global Times that for the US, although the "Wagner rebellion" created chaos in Russia, the group's influence in Africa is an obstacle to the US' global strategic layout. Wagner's bloody campaign in Bakhmut and its deterrence also led NATO countries to identify Prigozhin as a threat.
Ukraine had called for Prigozhin to be held accountable over "war crimes", and his death coincides with Ukraine's warning of retaliation against Russia on Kiev's Independence Day, Zhao said.
In addition, internal strife within Wagner and the conflict between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry may also have been factors and even motives leading to the "accident," Zhao said.
While the results of the investigation are still not clear, the US and its allies pointed the finger at Putin, which is aimed at discrediting him at home and disrupting Russia's internal unity and stability, Chinese military expert Song Zhongping told the Global Times.
This is cognitive and information warfare against Russia launched by the West, Song added.
The Kremlin needs more trust from Russian society, including confidence in winning the war and confidence in domestic order and security, some other experts commented, adding that there may be more attempts and actions aimed at undermining this trust.
When the plane crash took place, Putin appears to have been attending a concert in the city of Kursk to mark the 80th anniversary of the victory in the Battle of Kursk — the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany, according to media reports. Video clips on Twitter shows the Russian President's motorcade speeding through Moscow toward the Kremlin after his trip to Kursk.
Zhang Hong, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that Russia is likely to investigate the incident before choosing a new head of Wagner.
If those responsible were Russian side, the appointment of a successor by the Russian government would provoke a revolt from some senior personnel in Wagner, but if the West was responsible, the impact on Russian domestic affairs would likely be limited, Zhang said.
According to experts, after the Prigozhin incident, the Russian legislature is likely to pass a new bill to fully regulate the activities of private military companies, and the Russian defense authorities may speed up the "recruitment" and integration of most Wagner personnel, and may also supervise and punish those who refuse to carry out orders through a unified military decision-making and command system.
The incident is unlikely to have a huge impact on the Russia-Ukraine battlefield, Zhao said, noting that Wagner's offensive role in Bakhmut does not play a prominent part in the Russian military's current strategic thinking of constantly depleting Ukraine's military.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict is a strategic game between Russia and US-led NATO. Since the "rebellion," Wagner is no longer the main force of the Russian military, Zhang said.