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i morning briefing: Prigozhin and the plane crash

Welcome to Thursday’s Early Edition from i.

Two months ago, Wagner troops launched an extraordinary armed rebellion in Moscow, an attempted coup that Vladimir Putin furiously decried as an act of treason. Now the group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is reported dead in a plane crash. A private jet, owned by the mercenary boss, was travelling from Moscow to St Petersburg when it crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region on Wednesday. Footage circulating on social media showed an aircraft trailing smoke while dropping out of the sky, before exploding. All ten people onboard the jet, three pilots and seven passengers, were killed, according to Russia’s aviation agency. Those passengers included Dmitry Utkin, a former officer in Russia’s GRU military intelligence who reportedly co-founded Wagner, apparently using the name of one of Hitler’s favourite composers. A spokesman for the US National Security Council said: “We have seen the reports. If confirmed, no one should be surprised. The disastrous war in Ukraine led to a private army marching on Moscow, and now — it would seem — to this.” Joe Biden, questioned by reporters as news of the crash broke, said: “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.” Many analysts expected that Prigozhin, in the wake of his mutiny, would come to a grizzly end. An aide to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky wrote on social media that his “demonstrative elimination” shows Putin “does not forgive anyone for his own bestial terror”. But much still remains unclear. How did the plane come down, and do we really know who was on board? What of reports about a second, private jet which apparently landed shortly after? And what effect might it have on Putin’s presidency? We’ll take a look at what we do, and don’t know, after the headlines.

Today’s news, and why it matters

One of the consultants who worked with Lucy Letby and warned bosses about the serial killer nurse is supporting calls for regulation of healthcare managers to improve accountability within the NHS. Dr Ravi Jayaram, a consultant paediatrician at the Countess of Chester Hospital, has been left “incensed” by senior NHS management staff who he believes have failed to “put their hands up and admit that they got it wrong” when concerns about Letby were initially raised by doctors.

A boom in private tuition has sparked an “education arms race” that can be expected to deepen “shameful” inequalities in today’s GCSE results, experts and headteachers have warned. The use of private tutors has seen a dramatic increase in recent years. But the extra help is going disproportionately to those from more affluent homes, in what secondary school leaders have condemned as a “national scandal” they say ministers have failed to combat.

Thousands of stolen British Museum artefacts may have been melted down or are in private homes in far-flung corners of the world, experts have warned, as the hunt for the rare antiques gets murkier. Art detective Arthur Brand told i: “Some of them might have ended up in China, even some pieces might have been sold to jewellery shops to be melted down – gold or silver objects – even some pieces of jewellery might have been dismantled.”

The Conservatives have failed to deliver the overarching aims of the 2019 manifesto due in part to the “chaos” wrought by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, one of the authors behind the policy paper has said. A swathe of the Tories’ election promises from that year remain undelivered, and with the next election expected in the coming 12 months, Rishi Sunak’s chances of meeting his party’s objectives have been written off.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is facing pressure over his imminent trip to Beijing – including calls to cancel it – following revelations that a Chinese spy was using LinkedIn to lure British officials to hand over state secrets. Former Conservative leader and China-sceptic Sir Iain Duncan Smith said Mr Cleverly should cancel his trip, while Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns urged him to use it to “argue vociferously” with his counterparts.

Five questions on Prigozhin and the plane crash:

What happened? According to flight-tracking website Flightradar24, the Embraer Legacy made a “sudden downward vertical” at 3.19pm GMT (4.19 BST), plummeting more than 8,000 feet within 30 seconds. “Whatever happened, happened quickly,” Ian Petchenik of Flightradar24 said. “They may have been wrestling (with the aircraft) after whatever happened”. But he said prior to the drop, there was “no indication that there was anything wrong with this aircraft.” Russian investigators have opened a criminal probe to determine what happened. Unnamed sources in Russian media say they believed the plane had been shot down by one or more surface-to-air missiles, but this has not been confirmed by independent sources. Grey Zone, a Wagner-linked Telegram channel, said the jet had been shot down by the Russian military. And UK security sources cited by the Daily Telegraph say they believe the aircraft was downed by Russia’s intelligence agency the FSB, following orders from the Russian president. “Of course it’s Putin,” one source told the paper.

Who was on board? The seven passengers were identified by Russia’s aviation agency as: Yevgeny Prigozhin, Dmitry Utkin, Sergei Propustin, Yevgeny Makaryan, Alexander Totmin, Valery Chekalov and Nikolai Matuseyev. The crew members were named as Captain Alexei Levshin, co-pilot Rustam Karimov and flight attendant Kristina Raspopova.

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? He started out in life as part of a small group of thugs, jailed for 12 years after he and fellow gang members violently attacked and mugged a woman in St Petersburg. On his release he became a hot dog seller in St Petersburg, and went on to open a series of upmarket restaurant. He earnt the nickname “Putin’s chef” due to being regularly pictured with the Russian leader and then handed government catering contracts. But the most notorious part of his legacy began in 2014 when he set up the Wagner Group, offering good money to former prisoners. Read his rise and fall from power here.

Why is there speculation that Prigozhin may not have been on board? Ever since the failed uprising in June, Prigozhin has had a target on his back. But the interlude between then and now has prompted all kinds of theories about what Putin intended to do with the warlord. In the initial aftermath of the mutiny, charges against the Wagner boss were dropped and he was offered a move to Belarus. In July, he reportedly met Putin alongside Wagner commandos in the Kremlin. He appeared to be living life as a “free man”. However most analysts and insiders appear to agree that it was “inevitable” Prigozhin’s life would end this way. The big question is – do we know for sure that it has ended? Reports over a second private jet owned by Prigozhin, which was following a similar route and landed in Moscow shortly after the first crashed, has prompted theories that the mercenary boss may have duped those trying to kill him. Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner mercenary, said Prigozhin often switched planes, the Times reported. Sky’s Sean Bell said: “This might have been an engineered story for Prigozhin to slip quietly away and live in exile somewhere, under a wig and with a degree of privacy.” And that is not all. Russia analyst at Chatham House, Keir Giles, prompted more intrigue by revealing: “It is known that multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeny Prigozhin, as part of his efforts to obfuscate his travels. So until we know for certain that it’s the right Prigozhin, let’s not be surprised if he pops up shortly in a new video from Africa.”

What ‘message’ does the incident send? The reported death of Prigozhin ends “Putin’s humiliation,” Alicia Kearns, the Conservative chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs committee, said. She wrote: “For Putin there is one unforgivable sin: the betrayal of Putin and Russia. He hunts down those he perceives to be traitors, (including) on British shores, such as Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal. Now Yevgeny Prigozhin has been added to that list.” BBC Russia editor Steve Rosenberg said “if this was an act of revenge it sends a clear message” to Wagner loyalists as to what can happen to those who betray Russia. That could possibly strengthen Putin’s leadership. Shashank Joshi, the Economist’s defence editor, told the BBC: “It was an act of vengeance against a perceived enemy of Vladimir Putin, a perceived traitor to the Russian state, and it was done in a way that was meant to send a signal and a message to all others.” The FT quoted a person close to the Russian defence ministry saying: “Obviously this was ordered. It was his people who killed the airmen, after all,” referring to the 13 Russian servicemen killed when the Wagner convoy shot down several helicopters. They added: “You live by the sword, you die by the sword. It was totally unclear for two months why he was travelling the world . . . now they’ve liquidated him and it all makes sense.”

Around the world

Eight Republican presidential candidate sparred over a range of topics at their first debate of the 2024 election as they sought to win voters’ attention without front-runner Donald Trump. All but one of the Republican candidates raised their hand in support the former president if Trump becomes the party’s nominee, even if he is convicted in court.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has surrendered to authorities in Georgia after being named as a defendant in the case accusing Donald Trump and his allies of seeking to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. The former lawyer, who lashed out at “enemies of our Republic” had a mugshot released after his arrest.

Japan has begun discharging tonnes of water into the Pacific Ocean from the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, despite protests and import bans from China and Hong Kong, and anger in nearby fishing communities.

The Spanish Football Federation has called an emergency meeting to discuss the behaviour of its president, as he was accused by government figures of “assaulting” a player when he kissed her after the World Cup final. Luis Rubiales will attend the meeting on Friday to explain what happened after Spain’s win against England on Sunday, when he was filmed planting a kiss on Jennifer Hermoso’s lips as the 33-year-old received her medal.

A German woman who spent most of her adult life in the UK before moving to France says she and her Brexit-voting husband have “no intention of ever going back” to Britain, despite having family in the country. Gudrun Minton, 56, told i she felt “fundamentally betrayed” by the decision to leave the EU.

 Watch out for…

Routine hospital care, which is expected to come to a standstill over the next 48 hours as consultants in England go on strike. NHS leaders are anticipating “major disruption” during the current walkout, with thousands of the most senior hospital doctors expected to be absent from work.  

 Thoughts for the day

On asylum, the Government is learning that cruelty is expensive. Cash is being sunk down a bottomless black hole, simply so that Suella Braverman can show how much unnecessary suffering she can inflict, says Ian Dunt.

The science might be ready for womb transplants, but society needs to catch up. We haven’t yet got basic maternity care or affordable childcare, writes Dr Agnes Arnold-Forster.

I’m shouting about Mary Earps shirts because no one in Parliament stood up for girls like me. Nike could have played a huge part in the Lionesses legacy, argues Tracey Crouch.

You cannot buy Mary Earps’s shirt because Nike decided not to sell it (Photo: Alex Pantling/FIFA via Getty)

Culture Break

‘No one is as invested in the Beatles’ lives as I am’: How Gen Z revived Beatlemania. Modern fans have taken up the mantle of the 60s devotees and have found a home on TikTok and Twitter – they might not scream but their love for the Fab Four is just as heartfelt.

Gen Z fans understand the hysteria at the height of Beatlemania in 1964 (Photo: Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

The Big Read

I’m a Donald Trump whistleblower but he’s used my revelations to drive his violent ‘deep state’ conspiracy. Miles Taylor receives violent threats from Trump supporters after revealing that government officials were resisting some of his wilder ideas. Now he’s he worried about what a second Trump administration might do.

Miles Taylor says that former colleagues in Donald Trump’s government worked to protect the country from his most dangerous plans but the world could be more vulnerable if he’s elected again (Photos: Getty Images)


Man Utd takeover: Glazers ‘increasingly unlikely’ to sell club, fear sources close to deal. The Glazers are sticking to their guns as progress continues to stall, reports Mark Douglas.

The Man Utd Supporters Trust has accused the owners of holding the club hostage (Photos: Getty)

 Something to brighten your day

“India is on the moon!” declared the head of the country’s space agency. Yesterday, India successfully landed an aircraft near the lunar south pole, becoming the first nation to do so. Scientists broke out in cheers and applause as the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft landed on the dark side of the moon. Scientists believe the region holds water ice that could supply fuel, oxygen and drinking water for future missions.

A livestream image of the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft seconds before its successful lunar landing (Photo: Isro/AFP via Getty)

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