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What we know about the death of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, let's turn back now to that news today from Russia, where the government news agency TASS is reporting a plane crash and reporting that among the passengers listed on the flight, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner chief who kicked off a mutiny two months ago and whose whereabouts ever since have been challenging to pin down. Let's turn to Nina Khrushcheva. She's a professor of international affairs at The New School in New York City. She's also the great-granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. And she is on the line now from Moscow. Professor Khrushcheva, welcome.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Thank you.

KELLY: What's your top-line reaction when you hear this news?

KHRUSHCHEVA: I was surprised and not surprised, but you can't be surprised of anything that's happening in Russia now. There're drones flying every day, so the Prigozhin plane, on which he may or may not be, is sort of one of those moments when things just get shut down. But we also - there's a lot of speculation because we also know that Prigozhin has a lot of doubles. So there's a lot of people playing Prigozhin, changing their names even legally.

KELLY: Yeah.

KHRUSHCHEVA: So once again, it may be one of those ploys to make it difficult to pin him down. But there's, as I said, the rumors swirling around.

KELLY: You point to some of the many unanswered questions - among them, the fact that Prigozhin's name was on the passenger list doesn't necessarily confirm that he was, in fact, on the flight. I do want to note, I asked CIA Director Bill Burns about Prigozhin. This was last month at the Aspen Security Forum. Burns told me, and I quote, "Vladimir Putin thinks revenge is a dish best served cold." Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BILL BURNS: In my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback. So I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this.

KELLY: Professor Khrushcheva - again, nodding to the fact that there's so much we don't know - is that likely what we are seeing today, Prigozhin experiencing retribution for having crossed Vladimir Putin?

KHRUSHCHEVA: We don't know. I mean, we really don't know. It could be the cruelty of chance because, as I said, there are drones flying and there are terrorist attacks happening. But Putin is certainly not the guy who is going to let it slide. So in fact, right after the mutiny, when it happened on June 24, when it was sort of resolved, everybody was saying, including me, that Prigozhin is a dead man walking.

KELLY: You mentioned the drone attacks. And I will just add for context, there have been a series of drone attacks in the last few days in Moscow. Russia is blaming them on Ukraine. It has meant Moscow's main airports have seen flights halted, at least for a bit, the last several days in a row. So clearly, air defenses have been on high alert. And we just don't know what exactly happened. I am mindful, as you will be, I'm sure, of the history, the startling frequency with which people who cross Putin tend to find themselves very ill, tend to find themselves no longer alive. I'm thinking Alexander Litvinenko or Sergei Skripal. There's a long list.

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, there's many. I mean, in fact, you know, the joke is that Prigozhin really should be staying in the hotels, if he does, that doesn't have any windows opening. But Prigozhin himself is a very masterful man. He has doubles. He has many planes. So he - if anybody is able to deceive Putin, he would be the one.

KELLY: If - and again, a big if - if Prigozhin is dead, what would that mean, either for domestic politics there in Russia or for the war in Ukraine?

KHRUSHCHEVA: It would - I don't think it would mean much for the war in Ukraine because he has been out of that war now for two months. It's that, you know, Putin likes to send - he's a KGB man, and so that's why he's a clandestine, quiet man. But at the same time, he likes big boom and big performance in many ways. So that could be a message to mutineers.

On the other hand, if Prigozhin is indeed dead, he will become or may become a martyr to those who already fan of those kind of very militant, very aggressive, very Wagner-like actions, the fight actions. If that's the case and he is killed, he may have created the whole martyr image of Prigozhin and the new Prigozhin army. But I think it's too early to speculate because Putin thinks he is eliminating an enemy, but then the whole army of little Prigozhins may rise in his place.

KELLY: Nina Khrushcheva speaking with us from Moscow - she is a professor of international affairs at The New School in New York City and the great-granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. And one last note - after we taped with Khrushcheva, we got word of a post on a Wagner-affiliated channel on the social media app Telegram. It reads - Prigozhin was killed as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia, but even in hell, he'll be the best. Glory to Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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