Photo : svidomi.in.ua
24 August 2023, Thursday | NIAS Europe Daily Brief #603
By Rishika Yadav
Prigozhin killed in a plane crash
On 23 August, according to TASS, Russia’s Federal Agency for Air Transport initiated an investigation into the crash of an Embraer plane in the Tver Region. The plane, en route from Sheremetyevo International Airport, Moscow, to St Petersburg, crashed with all ten people on board reported dead. The passenger list, according to reports available in the media, included the names of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner Group leader, and Dmitri Utkin, Wagner’s top commander.
Until now, there are no comments from Vladmir Putin, Russia’s President.
RIA Novosti, the state-run Russia’s news agency, uploaded an unverified video capturing what seemed like an uncontrolled descent of an aircraft, plummeting almost vertically with a trail of light gray smoke. The footage, taken shakily from a mobile phone, omitted the plane’s actual impact. Another video shared on Telegram displayed a burning aircraft identified as an Embraer Legacy 600 business jet. Notably, the paint and partial registration number, RA-02795, aligned with a jet linked to Prigozhin. Rescue teams reached the crash scene, revealing airplane fragments, including a portion of a blue wing or tail fin.
Earlier this week, Prigozhin emerged in a video claiming to be in Africa, where his mercenaries relocated after the failed uprising. Speculations about Putin’s involvement linger following the crash. Prigozhin’s demise will heighten tensions in the Russian army. The jet crash coincided with Gen Sergei Surovikin's removal from leading the Russian aerospace forces, marking the highest-level dismissal post Prigozhin's mutiny. Questions arise about Prigozhin's support for Surovikin linking to the mutiny. Amid shock over the crash, Russian circles previously hinted at Putin's likely response to Prigozhin's betrayal.
Prigozhin’s end: Who said what?
On 23 August, Russia’s Federal Agency for Air Transport said: “An investigation of the Embraer plane crash that happened in the Tver Region this evening was initiated. According to the passenger list, first and last name of Yevgency Prigozhin was included in this list.”
On 23 August, Sergei Markov, a popular blogger and former advisor to the Kremlin, said: “We should be killing our enemies, not our own. All our enemies are celebrating… The death of Prigozhin is Ukraine’s biggest achievement this year.”
On 23 August, The Russian Ministry of Emergency Services wrote on its Telegram account: “In the Tver region, near the village of Kuzhenkino, a private Embraer Legacy aircraft crashed while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg. There were 10 people on board, including 3 crew members.”
On 23 August, Adrienne Watson, US National Security Council spokesperson, while briefing Joe Biden, US President, said: “We have seen the reports. If confirmed, Prigozhin’s death should come as no surprise. The disastrous war in Ukraine led to a private army marching on Moscow, and now-it would seem-to this.”
On 23 August, Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, also commented: “The fact that Prigozhin made a direct challenge to Putin’s authority, the fact that he questioned publicly the very premises that Putin has advanced for the aggression against Ukraine – that’s playing out and will continue to play out.”
On 24 August, The New York Times reported: “Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian Wagner mercenary group that staged a short-lived mutiny against the military top brass in June, was listed on the passenger manifest of a private plane that crashed outside Moscow on Wednesday, killing all 10 people on board. The Russian authorities have not confirmed his death.”
From the Europe Monitor Archives
A profile of Yevgeny Prigozhin
By Sneha Surendran
Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, 62, walked away seemingly unharmed after he led a short-lived rebellion on Russian soil. Prigozhin’s name has occasionally cropped up in the international arena, but on 23 June he grabbed the world’s attention when he ordered the troops of his private military force, Wagner, to march to Moscow. Beyond his persona as the leader of the Wagner group, Prigozhin is a man who has worn multiple hats.
It all began in St Petersburg
Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin is a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, the same as Vladimir Putin. His mother was a hospital nurse while his father, a mining engineer, died when Prigozhin was nine. His stepfather, a ski instructor, sparked an interest in crosscountry skiing in the young boy. Prigozhin joined and graduated from the Leningrad Sports Boarding School in 1977. However, an injury put an end to his sports dreams. Prigozhin’s entry into the world of crime began early when at the age of 18, he was first sentenced to prison for theft.
Although the jail term was suspended, in a couple of years he received a 13-year jail term for robbery and theft. Prigozhin spent the next nine years in prison. Following his release in 1990, he set up a stable hot dog stall business with his family. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Prigozhin began looking for opportunities in the entrepreneurial and business sectors. By 1995, he was able to establish himself in the food catering industry, opening restaurants and food catering companies under his major enterprise, Concord Catering. This was to become his first steps to the corridors of power.
As business flourished, Prigozhin began interacting with the elite class of Russian society. Concord Catering started to get good reviews from its customers, leading to even the military calling for its services. A businessman who knew Prigozhin at the time, remarked: “He can adapt to please any person if he needs something from them. That is definitely one of his talents.”
And then came to Moscow as Putin’s Chef
While Prigozhin was raising his business empire, Vladimir Putin had been climbing the political ladder. Once Putin became President, Prigozhin’s catering business flourished with contracts from the Kremlin and the military. One of Putin’s favoured spots for dining was Prigozhin’s boat restaurant named ‘Novyi Ostrov’ or New Island in the Neva River that runs alongside St. Petersburg. Here, he hosted his foreign guests as well as had personal celebrations. Through these events, Prigozhin’s ties to Putin began strengthening. Prigozhin once remarked: “Vladimir Putin…saw that I had no problem serving plates to dignitaries in person.” This is corroborated by the many photographs available that depict Putin sharing a meal with dignitaries like the former US President George Bush, with Prigozhin in the background.
“Prigozhin has had a tough relationship with the Russian military leaders. However, these connections soured during the time he spent leading Wagner in the Ukraine invasion….”
Grows further but in the shadows to build the Wagner empire across continents. Over time, Prigozhin’s companies began earning billions of dollars’ worth of catering contracts from schools and colleges in Moscow, facilitated by his political connections. In fact, since 2013, 90 percent of catering contracts from the Russian defence ministry have been in the hands of Prigozhin’s network. Eventually, Prigozhin came to be known as “Putin’s chef.” At the same time, Putin too would benefit politically from his relationship with the businessman as there was more to Prigozhin than just being “Putin’s chef.”
This began with the origins of Wagner, a private military company that first came on the international radar in 2014. Russia had invaded and annexed Crimea, while Russian-backed separatists were creating unrest in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk cities. At the time, there were reports of uniformed soldiers dubbed as “little green men” in the regions of tension. Wearing masks, carrying weapons, and donning green uniforms but without the Russian insignia, it was speculated that some of these men belonged to the little-known Wagner group. Although the group is thought to be the brainchild of Dmitry Utkin, a veteran military officer and Nazi propagandist, evidence to verify the true extent of his connection to Wagner is scarce. The EU considers Utkin as the founder of Wagner, responsible for “coordinating and planning operations for the deployment.” Meanwhile, Prigozhin has been the face of Wagner before the world.
Prigozhin has been the face of Wagner before the world. While Prigozhin and the Wagner group operated in the shadows for a long time, they came into the spotlight to support Russia’s military in the Ukraine invasion. However, for a long time, Prigozhin staunchly refused any ties with the mercenary group. In fact, he even sued journalists who implied the opposite. The Russian state, too denied any connection to Wagner. In 2022, Wagner registered in Russia as a joint stock company named ‘PMC Wagner Centre.’ Finally, in September 2022, Prigozhin admitted to creating Wagner, saying that he previously denied it to protect the group, stating: “I cleaned the old weapons myself…found specialists who could help me with this…on 1 May 2014, a group of patriots was born…called the Wagner Battalion.” Prigozhin reportedly recruited Wagner troops from Russian prisons, promising them freedom if they lasted for six months. These recruits were often people with military experience or a history of violence. To bring them into Wagner’s fold, Prigozhin is said to have cited his own prison experiences with the criminals.
Apart from the military sector, Prigozhin also operated in the cyber space on behalf of the state. In November 2022, Prigozhin admitted to meddling in the US’s 2016 Presidential elections. In a post made through the press service of Concord Catering, he stated: "We have interfered (in U.S. elections), we are interfering, and we will continue to interfere. Carefully, accurately, surgically, and in our own way, as we know how to do." Furthermore, in February 2023, he revealed his connections to the company Washington had accused of interfering in the 2016 US elections, Internet Research Agency. Washington had described it as a “troll farm” for spreading disinformation online. Prigozhin revealed: “I thought it up, I created it, I managed it for a long time." He said that the organization aimed to “protect the Russian information space from the West's boorish and aggressive anti-Russian propaganda.”
But the trouble starts with Russia's military leaders, and ends in a revolt
Prigozhin has had a tough relationship with the Russian military leaders. However, these connections soured during the time he spent leading Wagner in the Ukraine invasion, especially during the battle of Bakhmut. He repeatedly spoke out against the competence of the military leaders, alleging that they refused to supply his troops with ammunition, calling it a deliberate move to undermine Wagner. He went so far as to imply that the leaders were committing treason. In one of his online rants, he stated: “The shells are lying in warehouses, they are resting there…There are people who fight, and there are people who have learned once in their lives that there must be a reserve, and they save, save, save those reserves…Instead of spending a shell to kill the enemy, they kill our soldiers. And happy grandfather thinks this is okay.” When netizens connected the “grandfather” comment to Putin, Prigozhin was quick to deny it. During his participation in the Ukraine war, he extensively made use of social media to post updates regarding the victories of Wagner and criticism of the military.
So, what next for Prigozhin?
The tension between Prigozhin and the military leaders finally culminated in the Wagner rebellion on 23 June. Prigozhin’s troops captured Rostov-on-Don, a military base and began marching towards Moscow. While Putin denounced the rebellion as treason, Prigozhin stated that the revolt was not against Putin, but rather the defence leadership whom he accused of firing a missile at his troops. The revolt ended when Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s President negotiated a truce according to which, all charges against Prigozhin were dropped by the state and he was allowed refuge in Belarus. The latest reports locate Prigozhin in Belarus, where he was recently shown welcoming Wagner troops. In a video message, he said that they would no longer be involved in the Ukraine invasion, rather focussing on Africa.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s narrative is complicated. He has owned restaurants, media companies and a private military force, and indulged in selling hot dogs and even writing a children’s storybook. He is wanted by multiple agencies for charges ranging from corruption, human rights violations, and war crimes. Furthermore, Russia is working to erase Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who undermined their authority, from the public memory while taking over his business enterprises.
War in Ukraine: Day 546
The Third Crimean Summit and the Killing of Prigozhin
By Rishika Yadav
War on Ground
On 23 August, leaders from around the world convened virtually for the Third Crimean Platform Summit. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s President delivered a passionate address reaffirming the nation's commitment to reclaim Crimea from its isolation. Representatives from 63 countries and international bodies united to collectively denounce the occupation and forge agreements aimed at ending the ongoing aggression. The core mission of the Crimean Platform emerged as a resolute call for de-occupation and foster international collaboration. Central to this vision was ecological restoration and modernization, with the President asserting Ukraine’s commitment to preserving nature, promoting tourism, and establishing modern institutions to rejuvenate Crimea.
On 23 August, according to Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence, explosions took place in occupied Crimea near Olenivka village on Cape Tarkhankut, resulting in the destruction of a Russian S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft missile system. The blast annihilated the system, loaded missiles, and personnel, delivering a substantial blow to Russia’s air defence capabilities due to the system’s limited availability.
On 23 August, Ukraine reported that Russia's attacks had decimated 270,000 tonnes of grain, damaging export infrastructure. Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister, revealed the systematic targeting of grain tanks and warehouses, with recent attacks diminishing port capacities.
On 23 August, an Iranian-made Shahed-type drone, targeted a school in Romny, Sumy Oblast. The assault claimed four lives
On 23 August, according to Ukrinform, Ukraine’s defence forces intercepted Russia’s military aircraft over the Black Sea, near Zmiinyi Island. The aircraft attempted an attack on Ukraine’s vessels; Ukraine’s combat boat fired a missile, damaging the Russia’s plane, which had to retreat.
On 23 August, Oleh Kiper, Governor of Odesa Oblast, reported that overnight, Russia conducted a drone attack on Odesa Oblast, damaging a Danube grain storage facility. Although no casualties occurred, a grain warehouse suffered partial burning. The Ukraine’s Air Force noted that Russia deployed 20 Shahed attack drones at night, with 11 destroyed over Odesa and two over Zaporizhzhia.
The Moscow View
Claims by Russia
On 23 August, according to TASS, Russia’s Federal Agency for Air Transport initiated an investigation into the Embraer plane crash in Tver Region. Notably, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner Group leader, was among the passengers. The crash occurred near Kuzhenkino, claiming all 10 lives on board the business jet flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
On 23 August, according to The New York Times, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, continued to blame western countries for the Ukraine conflict during a comprehensive video speech at the BRICS summit, aiming to rally member countries. He confirmed Russia’s upcoming BRICS chairmanship and a 2024 summit in Kazan. Russia’s 18 month invasion of Ukraine was portrayed as a defensive response to a hostile government and western antagonism. Despite being sought for war crimes, Putin was the only absent BRICS leader due to ICC obligations. The summit focused on expanding the bloc and countering western influence, while heightened China and US tensions and the war in Ukraine drew attention.
On 23 August, according to The Moscow Times, Putin removed General Sergei Surovikin from his position as head of Russia’s Aerospace Forces following a failed mutiny by Prigozhin. Surovikin had been seen urging Wagner fighters to halt their march towards Moscow to overthrow military leadership. His whereabouts after the incident remain unknown, and reports of his arrest have not been officially confirmed. Viktor Afzalov, Colonel General, will temporarily assume the position. Surovikin, a key intermediary between Wagner and the Defence Ministry, has been reassigned elsewhere and is reportedly on vacation. The Kremlin has not commented on the situation.
On 23 August, according to The Moscow Times, Vyacheslav Gladkov, Governor of Belgorod confirmed that a Ukraine’s drone strike killed three people in Russia’s border region of Belgorod. The attack used an explosive device launched through a drone while civilians were on the street. The victims included refugees from occupied Ukraine’s areas and a resort employee. The incident marked the second drone strike on the village within 12 hours. Over the past 24 hours, 12 other towns and villages in the Belgorod region faced drone and artillery strikes. The responsibility has not been confirmed by Kyiv.
The West View
Responses from the US and Europe
On 23 August, in an interview with Deutsche Welle, Margus Tsakhna, Estonia’s foreign minister, supported Ukraine’s right to defend itself and conduct attacks in Russian territory in response to recent strikes blamed on Ukraine. Ahead of Ukraine’s independence day, Tsakhna emphasized sustained support for Ukraine rather than seeking peace at any cost, citing Russia’s rule-breaking behaviour since its 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.
On 22 August, Kajsa Ollongren, Dutch Defence Minister, announced in Kyiv that the Netherlands will supply Ukraine with portable charges for remote demining. Ollongren assured continued support, including air defence equipment, crucial for defence against Russia’s invasion. The statement was made during her meeting with Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Defence Minister, and her participation in the VI International Veterans Forum.
“Russia caused the isolation of Crimea, we will return the whole world for Crimea - the President's speech at the third summit of the Crimean Platform,” president.gov.ua, 23 August 2023
“Ukraine's Defence Intelligence confirms explosions in Crimea and destruction of S-400 missile system along with crew,” Ukrainska Pravda, 23 August 2023
“Russia destroyed 270,000 tonnes of grain in month: Kyiv,” Zawya, 23 August 2023
Sofiya Tryzub-Cook, “Russian strike on school in Sumy Oblast kills 4, injures 4,” The Kyiv Independent, 23 August 2023
“Defense Forces Strike at Russian Aircraft in Black Sea - DIU,” Ukrinform, 23 August 2023
Elsa Court, “Russia launches 20 drones overnight, strikes Odesa grain storage,” The Kyiv Independent, 23 August 2023
“Prigozhin listed as passenger of plane crashed in Russia’s Tver region — aviation agency,” TASS, 23 August 2023
Enjoli Liston and Matthew Mpoke Bigg, “In Speech to BRICS Nations, Putin Again Blames West for Ukraine War,” The New York Times, 23 August 2023
“Putin Sacks Aerospace Forces General – State Media,” The Moscow Times, 23 August 2023
“3 Killed in Ukrainian Drone Strike on Russian Border Region – Governor,” The Moscow Times, 23 August 2023
“Estonian foreign minister defends Ukrainian attacks in Russia,” Deutsche Welle, 23 August 2023
Serge Havrylets, “The Netherlands to provide Ukraine with demining equipment,” Euromaidan, 22 August 2023
By Rishika Yadav
Prominent human rights group labelled as extremist
On 23 August, Belarus labelled Viasna, the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights group, as an extremist organization. Founded by Ales Bialiatski, Nobel laureate, Viasna has been at the forefront of documenting human rights abuses in the country. This move is part of a wider crackdown on dissent following the disputed 2020 presidential election that saw Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s President, secure another term. Thousands were arrested, NGOs were shut down, and independent media outlets outlawed. Viasna’s designation further escalates pressure on dissenters, with authorities threatening criminal charges for anyone involved with the group. The move reflects the ongoing suppression of opposition voices in Belarus. The labelling of Viasna as extremist underscores Belarus’s sustained efforts to silence human rights advocates and curtail dissent, drawing international condemnation for stifling civil liberties. (Yuras Karmanau, “Belarus outlaws prominent rights group Viasna, declaring it extremist,” Associated Press, 23 August 2023)
Legislation to boost integration and skilled workforce
On 23 August, according to the Associated Press, Germany’s Cabinet approved legislation aimed at easing citizenship rules to enhance immigrant integration and address the skilled labour shortage. The bill, backed by Olaf Scholz, Germany’s Chancellor, proposes reducing the waiting period for citizenship eligibility from eight to five years, with exceptions for special integration achievements. Additionally, German born children would become citizens if one parent has resided legally for five years, down from eight. Restrictions on dual citizenship will also be lifted. Nancy Faeser, Germany’s Interior Minister emphasized the importance of attracting skilled workers and creating a diverse society. However, the centre-right opposition Union bloc argues that the changes could have negative implications and compromise integration efforts. Germany’s move reflects a balance between facilitating integration and addressing labour needs, while also sparking debates about the pace and nature of citizenship for immigrants. (Geir Moulson, “Germany is moving forward with a plan to ease its citizenship rules as it seeks to attract workers,” Associated Press, 23 August 2023)
Wildfires threatens Greece; investigation into racist violence launches
On 23 August, according to the BBC, deadly fires continued to rage near Athens and the Evros region, with at least 20 lives lost. Eighteen victims are believed to be migrants who recently crossed the border, heightening concerns about their safety. Greece mourned the deaths near the Turkish border as firefighters battle fierce winds and scorching temperatures. The fires prompted suspicions of migrants causing blazes, while authorities investigate racist violence against migrants following the deaths. Greece’s wildfire emergency highlights the vulnerabilities faced by migrants amid climate-related disasters and xenophobia. (Orla Guerin, Kostas Koukoumakas & Feras Kawaf, “Greek fires rage after migrant tragedy near border,” BBC, 23 August 2023)
Statue in Pristina honouring Kosovo Albanians who rescued Jews
On 23 August, a “Wall of Honor” statue commemorating 23 Kosovo Albanians who saved Jews during World War Two was unveiled in Pristina, attended by descendants of the rescuers, political leaders, and US and German ambassadors. In a region where many Jews perished, Albanians helped Jews escape Nazi persecution, often taking them to Albania. Arslan Rezniqi, a rescuer, was the first Kosovar included in Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among the Nations” list. Kosovo and Israel established diplomatic ties in 2020, and Kosovo became the first European country with a Muslim majority to open its embassy in Jerusalem in 2021. This event highlights the remarkable humanitarian efforts of Albanians during World War Two and showcases the unique bond between Kosovo and Israel, setting an example of cross-cultural unity and recognition. (Sylejman Kllokoqi and Llazar Semini, “Kosovo inaugurates ‘Wall of Honor’ statue for 23 Albanians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust,” Associated Press, 23 August 2023)
World's largest floating wind farm
On 23 August, fossil fuel company Equinor launched the world's biggest floating wind farm, Hywind Tampen, generating 88 MW of energy for nearby oil and gas platforms. The project uses 11 floating turbines tied to the seafloor, aimed at reducing emissions from the carbon-intensive platforms. However, Greenpeace highlights Equinor's limited investment in renewables, with only 0.13 per cent of its total energy production coming from renewables in 2022. The company plans to increase installed renewables capacity to 12-16 GW by 2030, yet critics argue that the “dirty dozen” energy companies, including Equinor, need more substantial green efforts. Equinor's investment in renewables reflects a growing trend among fossil fuel companies to diversify, but critics remain sceptical about their commitment to combating climate change. (Lottie Limb, “Norway: World’s biggest floating wind farm will power oil and gas platforms,” Euronews, 23 August 2023)
Federal Council orders Xplain data leak investigation
On 23 August, the Swiss Federal Council sanctioned an administrative investigation into the data breach incident at Xplain AG. The Federal Department of Finance (FDF) will appoint Geneva-based law firm OBERSON ABELS SA to probe the Federal Administration’s compliance with its duties in selecting, instructing, supervising, and collaborating with Xplain AG. The investigation aims to uncover circumstances that allowed Xplain AG access to Federal Administration data and propose preventive measures. The FDF will coordinate with the investigative body and aims to conclude the investigation by March 2024. The results will guide potential consequences. The breach, attributed to hacker group “Play,” exposed sensitive federal data on the darknet in June 2023. The investigation reflects the government’s commitment to cybersecurity and accountability, aiming to enhance data protection measures for government entities. (“Xplain hack: Federal Council approves investigation order,” admin.ch, 23 August 2023)
Coastal defence upgrade in Humber Estuary to protect communities and infrastructure
On 23 August, according to the Government of UK, the Environment Agency’s initiative will enhance coastal defences over 4.5 kilometres along the Humber estuary’s south bank, safeguarding 2,300 properties, essential industry, and future development areas. This phase is part of the Stallingborough Sea Defence Improvement Scheme, which has strengthened sea walls in stages over 15 years. Large rock armour will be installed across three kilometres, while the remaining 1.5 kilometres of defences will be repaired. River outfalls will also be upgraded. The sustainable approach aims to minimize environmental impact and generate GBP 1.1 billion in economic benefits over 25 years. The initiative is a crucial component of Humber’s flood risk management strategy. It highlights the intersection of environmental resilience and economic development, illustrating a sustainable approach to protecting vulnerable coastal regions. (“Humber flood defences £29m upgrade begins at Stallingborough,” gov.uk, 23 August 2023)
Senator Cruz questions FTC's collaboration with EU on tech regulation
On 23 August, according to Politico, Ted Cruz, US Republican Senator, expressed concerns about the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) collaboration with European counterparts on regulations targeting Big Tech companies, many of which are based in the US. In a letter to Lina Khan, FTC Chairperson, Cruz criticized the agency’s meetings with European Commission officials regarding the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Market Act (DMA), which he believes discriminate against US firms. The senator raised questions about the FTC’s officials sent to Europe and its San Francisco office’s interactions with EU counterparts. He also called for transparency on communication between the FTC and the Commission. Similar apprehensions were voiced by James Comer, Republican Representative, who requested FTC-Commission communications on DMA be shared with Congress. Senator Cruz’s concerns reflect the ongoing tension between US lawmakers and the EU over regulating American tech giants operating in Europe, highlighting broader debates on international cooperation in digital regulation. (Edith Hancock, “Senator Ted Cruz slams US agency for ‘collusion’ with EU on Big Tech rules,” Politico, 23 August 2023)