Western analysts believe President Vladimir Putin was likely to have ordered Prigozhin’s death as retribution for the rebellion his former ally led in June against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the general staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov. Some believe the opportunity to gain control of Prigozhin’s lucrative commercial empire providing mercenaries and other services in multiple regions was a motivation.
Shugalei’s comments on Telegram on Thursday, more than two weeks after the crash, show the still-simmering anger and cynicism among pro-war Russian nationalists close to Prigozhin over his death.
They also highlight the continuing fissures among Russia’s elite over the conduct of a war that has shattered the country’s military reputation, estranged its most important markets and undermined its global authority, with no clear benefit and no end in sight.
As Russian commanders face questions over the efficacy of the country’s air defenses, two generals responsible for protecting Moscow have been arrested over alleged bribes in a shady land deal, Russian media reported Thursday. Airports in the capital have suffered temporary closures and flights have been disrupted almost nightly in recent weeks amid drone attacks.
Wagner mercenaries fought alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine, where they were responsible for key gains. But Prigozhin, once close to Putin, differed with military leaders on strategy. After weeks criticizing Shoigu and Gerasimov, he led his forces on a march toward Moscow on June 23. Wagner fighters shot down Russian helicopters, killed Russian soldiers and occupied Russian military facilities.
Prigozhin called the rebellion off in a deal with Putin brokered by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko that allowed the mercenaries to relocate to a base in Belarus, sign contracts with Russia’s Ministry of Defense or go home. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at the time that Putin’s word guaranteed Prigozhin’s safety.
Shugalei wrote Thursday of the possibility that “internal forces” ordered the Wagner chief’s death.
“If we are talking about internal forces, this means only one thing to me,” he wrote. “In our country, no word given by anyone to anyone at any level can be trusted anymore.”
“Secondly,” he continued, “no one, no matter what their merits, position or social status, can feel safe.”
He acknowledged the crash might have been the work of Russia’s enemies. But “if these are external forces,” he said, “it demonstrates the failure and paralysis of the Russian security services, which cannot protect high-level people even at home.”
Either way, he said, the crash was clearly “not a coincidence,” because Prigozhin and two top Wagner leaders were together on the same flight, “which never happened before.”
Shugalei, president of the Foundation for National Values Protection, carried out some of Prigozhin’s most important geopolitical influence operations. He went to Kabul in 2021 on a mission to foster ties in the Taliban. He was arrested in Libya in 2019 and accused of undermining the nation’s interests after he met with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the late strongman Moammar Gaddafi. Prigozhin financed two action movies about Shugalei, one on his imprisonment.
Russian military leaders are under new scrutiny after a Ukrainian drone landed almost on the doorstep of Russia’s Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a facility seized by Wagner in the rebellion. The mercenaries held several Russian generals hostage before Prigozhin made the deal with Putin. He left the city to the cheers of local residents
Videos of a fiery explosion that damaged cars and buildings near the military headquarters emerged early Thursday on Russian media. Vasily Golubev, governor of the Rostov region, said it was caused by debris from an intercepted drone. He said a second drone was shot down around 10 miles south of the city. Officials in the Volgograd region in southern Russia, an area not previously targeted, also reported a drone was shot down.
Russian officials routinely report that drones have been intercepted without causing major damage, but recent attacks on airfields deep inside the country have destroyed strategic military aircraft.
Ukraine last week launched its biggest drone attack of the war, targeting six cities including Pskov, more than 370 miles from Ukraine, demonstrating Kyiv’s ability to launch attacks deep within Russian territory.
The Pskov attack destroyed two Ilyushin military cargo planes and damaged two others, satellite images showed.
Earlier, a drone destroyed a Russian Tu-22M3, a supersonic strategic bomber, at Soltsy air base in the Novgorod region northwest of Moscow, the open source military analysis group Ukraine Weapons Tracker reported. A Telegram channel with links to Russian security sources confirmed the attack; Russia’s defense ministry said one plane was damaged.
Maj. Gen. Dmitry Belyatsky and Maj. Gen. Konstantin Ogienko were arrested over an alleged $300,000 bribe. Belyatsky, commander of the 4th Air Defense Division, is under house arrest and is cooperating with investigators, the Kommersant newspaper reported. Ogienko was fired as commander of the 1st Special Purpose Anti-Aircraft and Missile Defense Army of the Russian Armed Forces and arrested in July, Tass news agency reported. He pleaded not guilty and is being held in a pretrial detention center. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on the second day of a visit to Ukraine on Thursday, praised Ukrainians’ resilience. On a visit to a former farm being cleared of mines, he spoke of the importance of the effort.
“What’s hard to get our minds around is that one third of Ukrainian territory has mines or unexploded ordnance on it,” he said.
“You’re making your land safe for your fellow Ukrainians. You’re saving lives in Ukraine, livelihoods in Ukraine, and allowing Ukraine to once again feed the world.”
Blinken also visited Ukrainian border guards and a school where Russians imprisoned civilians.
He said Russian “atrocities and the impact it’s having on Ukrainians of all ages continue to this very day.”
“But we’re also seeing something else that’s incredibly powerful, and that is the extraordinary resilience of the Ukrainian people.”
David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report