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Who’d shed a tear for Yevgeny Prigozhin?

Well, the apparent death of the belligerent leader of the notorious mercenary Wagner Group in a plane crash Wednesday night has created an unexpected outpouring of grief inside Russia.

In the 62-year-old oligarch’s home city of St. Petersburg, a candlelit vigil was set up outside one of the group’s now-shuttered recruiting centers. Well-wishers lay red roses, while others placed badges featuring Wagner’s macabre skull and crosshairs logo.

Meanwhile, the office lights of Prigozhin’s former headquarters, a glass and steel tower in the heart of Russia’s second city, were switched on in the shape of a crucifix in mourning, photos posted online show.

Online, Wagner’s social media mouthpieces were quick to suggest the light aircraft’s sudden crash — en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg with many of the group’s leadership on board — was no accident.

“The fact that our best soldiers died in battle is the will of God,” wrote the pro-Prigozhin “Fatherland” Telegram channel. “Probably whoever organized it thinks he’s won, but he hasn’t … if it’s a knife in the back, the motherland will survive but your fate as Judas is unenviable.”

Others pointed out Prigozhin might not have died had he not instructed his fighters to turn back from their march on Moscow in June, after a last-minute deal brokered by Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko put an effective end to Prigozhin’s putsch.

“Let this be a lesson to all. Always go all the way,” said the Rusich Group, a neo-Nazi paramilitary unit that is closely aligned with Wagner, in an ominous Telegram post.

What now for Wagner?

The bulk of Russia’s pro-war military bloggers — many of whom had lavished praise on Wagner over the course of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine — have remained silent, preferring to post updates from the front lines.

Igor Girkin, a suspected war criminal turned online commentator who has been arrested for his criticism of Putin’s handling of the invasion, celebrated the news with a champagne glass emoji.

Meanwhile, Russia’s military observers wonder where this leaves the remnants of the Wagner group, with the well-connected VChK-OGPU channel commenting: “Wagner has been decapitated.”

According to Jade McGlynn, a Russia expert at King’s College London’s War Studies Department, Prigozhin’s former lieutenants would do well to lay low. “It is hardly reassuring for the top brass,” she said, while noting that “for the actual fighters it appears to be business as usual.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin received little in the way of fanfare from state media in death | Pool photo by Sergei Ilnitsky via AFP/Getty Images

Despite being banned on paper from operating in Russia and Ukraine, Wagner’s global mercenary empire still has lucrative contracts in Africa, from where Prigozhin appeared to broadcast a rare speech to camera earlier this week. “Daddy is in the building,” he announced.

Presented by Russia’s propaganda machine in life as a true patriot and a key part of Moscow’s attempted to conquer Ukraine, Prigozhin received little in the way of fanfare from state media in death. In a short segment on rolling news channel Rossiya-24, a blank-faced presenter offered up the facts of the crash.

Then the news moved on.





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