Was the Wagner chief a dead man walking
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When discussing Prigozhin’s life expectancy, CIA Director William Burns even said: “I wouldn’t fire my food taster if I were him.”

A mid-air destruction of a plane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin, if proven to be an act of cold-blooded revenge by the Kremlin, will go down in Russian history as the ultimate “special military operation”.

His Wagner mercenary army and beyond were filled with admirers of Prigozhin, a former convict, chef, and hot dog salesman turned mercenary boss. In the midst of his aborted one-day rebellion, he appeared in Rostov-on-Don exactly two months ago and was warmly welcomed by the public.

In Moscow, he also had many enemies, most notably the upper ranks of the Russian military, whose leaders he frequently criticized.

When he launched that march on Moscow on 23 June, he crossed President Putin, which turned out to be his fatal mistake. By publicly criticizing the official reasons given for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Prigozhin infuriated the Kremlin, even though he did not mention Putin by name. Russians were deceived and their sons were dying in the Ukraine war because of poor leadership, he told them. Putin’s video message on that day was full of vitriol and heresy. A betrayal and a stab in the back was what he called Prigozhin’s march on Moscow. Neither Vladimir Putin forgives traitors nor those who challenge him.

After he was poisoned with radioactive Polonium-210 in a London hospital in 2006, former Russian intelligence officer-turned defector Alexander Litvinenko died a slow and agonizing death.

This lethal substance was brought with these assassins from Russia and could only have been sourced from a Russian government laboratory, according to a subsequent investigation. Although Moscow denied any involvement, it refused to surrender the two suspects for trial.

Then there was Sergei Skripal, a former Russian KGB officer who defected to Britain. The GRU Russian military intelligence officers allegedly placed Novichok nerve agent on the door handle of his Salisbury house in 2018. He and his daughter Yulia narrowly escaped death. Dawn Sturgess, a Wiltshire resident who died after applying the lethal agent to her wrists, found the discarded perfume bottle containing the lethal agent. Many Russians, including critics and businessmen, have met with sudden death, in some cases falling from upper floor windows. Putin’s most vocal opponent, Alexei Navalny, is in prison on politically-motivated fraud charges. Following a near-death experience onboard a flight across Siberia in 2020, he too survived assassination by Novichok nerve agent poisoning.

Yet Prigozhin was a very different case, which makes his death all the more controversial for Russians. There was a man here who was extremely useful to the Kremlin and regarded as a national hero by some Russians.

A hard core of former Russian Speznaz (Special Forces) operatives and other soldiers formed his Wagner group of mercenaries in 2014. Having driven the Ukrainian army out of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, it acquired a fearsome reputation not shared by the often decrepit and poorly-led regular Russian army. In addition to recruiting thousands of convicts, including rapists and murderers, Prigozhin personally toured Russian penal colonies. They were effectively used as cannon fodder in eastern Ukraine where commanders ordered them to advance into withering fire in repeated attempts to overwhelm the enemy.