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Prigozhin (probably) liquidated

FILE PHOTO: Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of Russian private mercenary group Wagner, gives an address in camouflage and with a weapon in his hands in a desert area at an unknown location, in this still image taken from video possibly shot in Africa and published August 21, 2023. Courtesy PMC Wagner via Telegram via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT. /File Photo

GOOD MORNING: EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis is in India today, where he’ll sound out chances for a deal between the “two largest democracies in the world,” he told Playbook. We’re also reporting on the latest Russian to fall from the sky.


THE CHEF IS COOKED: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mutinous boss of the Wagner mercenary group and former close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is believed to have been killed in a plane crash in Russia. Prigozhin was on the flight manifest, along with nine others, including believed Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin. The POLITICO team has the latest here.

A dish best served cold: Putin seemed to hint at the incident in remarks made at an event on Wednesday night, in which he appeared cheery. “Devotion to the homeland and loyalty to the military oath is what unites all participants of the special military operation,” he said, referring to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Who did it? Speculation is rife that the increasingly defensive and embattled Russian president ordered the downing of Prigozhin’s plane. Or should we call it a special landing operation?

Putin’s message to other would-be challengers: Traitors will be liquidated.

Timing is everything 1: The crash happened exactly two months after Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny … just two days after the warlord resurfaced in a defiant video address allegedly filmed in Africa … and only a day after Russian media announced the firing of Sergei Surovikin, the former commander of the Kremlin’s war effort in Ukraine, who has not been seen in public since reports circulated that he had known about Prigozhin’s planned mutiny.

Timing is everything 2: Today is Ukraine’s Independence Day, when the country marks the day it split from the Soviet Union in 1991.

What happens now: Prigozhin’s demise raises several questions about Russia’s flailing war on Ukraine, as well as Putin’s ongoing influence in Africa and the Middle East, where Wagner has been acting as the Kremlin’s armed foreign policy wing and propping up anti-Western autocrats. It’s likely Wagner will continue its operations in Africa under a new, more loyal leader. But the decision to liquidate Prigozhin may yet have consequences, if a significant cadre of Wagnerites decide they were more loyal to their downed leader than to the man in the Kremlin.

Exhibit A: “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.

Words from beyond the grave: The Grey Zone Telegram account, considered close to Prigozhin, published several videos of the warlord overnight. “We’re all going to hell,” he says in one, “but in hell we’ll be the best.”

Caveat — this isn’t the first time Prigozhin has ‘died’ in a plane crash: Back in October 2019, Russian media reported Prigozhin may have been among the passengers on a plane that crashed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, my colleague Eva Hartog writes in to report. A few days later, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti refuted the reports, citing a person close to Prigozhin as saying he had been in Russia at the time of the crash and was “very surprised, to be considered dead.”

US response: Regardless, the Biden administration shrugged off the news of Prigozhin’s apparent demise, according to my U.S. colleagues. However, when asked if he thought Putin was behind the plane crash, President Joe Biden said: “there’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”


TRUMP ON UKRAINE: Former U.S. President Donald Trump, who is the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the 2024 U.S. election, said Biden should end U.S. involvement in the “horrible, evil war” between Russia and Ukraine. In an interview with Tucker Carlson, hosted on X, Trump bombastically claimed: “That’s a war that should end immediately … it’s gotta be stopped and it can be stopped very easily.”

On the debate stage: Trump’s Carlson interview was released while the other candidates for the Republican nomination were taking part in a live TV debate. The division within the Republican Party over Russia’s war in Ukraine was on full show — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said he would stop aid to Kyiv unless European governments stepped up to “pull their weight.” Those calls to stop Ukraine funding earned applause in the room, but were not shared by all candidates, my U.S. colleagues report. Top moments from the debate here.

KALLAS’ HUSBAND INVOLVED IN RUSSIA TRADE: Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’ husband is part-owner of a company that continues trading with Russia, Estonian media reported Wednesday. According to the reports, Arvo Hallik owns a stake in Stark Logistics, which has continued exports to Russia throughout the war.

The response: Kallas seemed to confirm the reports in a post on Facebook. “My husband has a stake in a logistics company. He has explained that this company is helping one of his Estonian clients to end its production activities in Russia, in accordance with the law and the sanctions,” she wrote, adding her husband had no direct Russian “business clients.”


EU SEEKS CLOSER TIES WITH INDIA: Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis is in India, where he will participate in a meeting of G20 trade ministers. But the EU’s trade chief also has another mission: sounding out the possibility of striking a trade deal with the world’s biggest country by population — which the EU wants closer ties with, both to diversify away from China and to pull New Delhi out of Russia’s claws.

Deeper and deeper: “The EU and India are the two largest democracies in the world,” Dombrovskis told Playbook. “India is of course a major player in the Asia-Pacific region where the EU wants to deepen its footprint. We are now working to deepen our ties with India, notably with an ambitious free-trade agreement.”

But EU won’t rush into concessions: On Saturday, Dombrovskis will meet with his Indian counterpart, Minister Piyush Goyal, “which will be a good opportunity to work out how far we can go” on a trade deal, Dombrovskis said, adding the EU would prioritize “substance over speed … we have to be mindful of one another’s approaches and objectives.”

On the G20 trade ministerial, which starts today, Dombrovskis said: “I expect us to discuss global food security,” adding that Russia, “the one country that is actively weaponizing food,” will be at the table. “Russia’s decision to terminate the Black Sea Grain Initiative is a disaster, it will ramp up global grain prices and hit developing countries hardest.”

On Ukraine grain: Dombrovskis, who also chairs the EU’s Ukraine Coordination Platform, said there is a need to find practical solutions for the export of agricultural produce coming from Ukraine via the EU. “We are also continuously improving our Solidarity Lanes, which have already allowed Ukraine to export about 45 million tons of agricultural produce so far.”

NOW READ THIS — NEXT BRICS SUMMIT IN RUSSIA: Addressing the leaders of Brazil, India, China and South Africa on the second day of the BRICS summit on Wednesday, Putin said via video that Russia would assume the chairmanship of the group next year and host a summit in Kazan in October. The New York Times has a write-up.

**Our POLITICO Live Sustainable Future Week is back on the Brussels scene! Join us from November 14 to 16 for three days of debates digging into EU energy and climate policy, and more! Discover our passes here!**


PROTECTING ELECTIONS: Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), TikTok and other hot-shot online platforms have just days before they will be forced to respect the Digital Services Act (DSA). But, campaigners aren’t waiting: Over 50 NGOs today urge the European Commission to require large social media companies to say how they will protect elections in 2024 under the DSA.

The time is now: “2024 is a pivotal year for elections with over 50 countries going to the polls including India, U.S. and Europe,” said the 56 groups, including EDRi, AlgorithmWatch and the EU Disinfo Lab. “Extremists are using these sites to facilitate and amplify disinformation and conspiracy theories to challenge election outcomes,” wrote the signatories in a letter, my colleague Clothilde Goujard reports.

What do they want? The groups are asking platforms to make their recommendation algorithms safer, including by limiting the visibility of disinformation and to stop the micro-targeting of people online with political ads. They also want companies to ensure they have enough staff moderating content in different European languages. “Tech platforms must not be allowed to shape the fate of elections behind closed doors,” they wrote. 

Is it doable? Some of the activists’ requests are real obligations that the Commission and national regulators will be able to enforce. But it remains unclear how the Commission will enforce the obligations to identify and mitigate systemic risks like disinformation.

On Breton’s radar: In comments shared with reporters Wednesday, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton has insisted that dealing with disinformation is in the Commission’s sight. “Child protection will be an enforcement priority, as will be fighting disinformation, including pro-Russian propaganda, in particular as we are entering a period of elections in Europe,” he said. Slovakia and Poland will see elections in a matter of weeks. 

FINE WATCH: With the DSA Friday deadline looming, Clothilde Goujard takes a look at the platforms that may be at risk of a hefty Commission fine for breaching the new tech regulations.


A PLAYBOOKER WRITES IN: Wednesday’s story on the Nordic push for more of their nationals to be hired by Brussels caused quite a stir, with one Playbook reader writing in to argue that it’s a broader problem.

Blame the rain: “Noting the significant underrepresentation of Czech officials in the Commission officials ranks, it may be possible to consider that there aren’t only anti-Nordic factors in play,” Czech Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Hulicius said in an email. He argued that there was “most probably some unintended bias in the recruitment process” but also other reasons, including “cultural, competitive, or natural — it does rain a lot in Brussels!”

Utilizing temp staff: “What I find encouraging is the fact that there has been a realization that the EU institutions need a more diverse staff,” Hulicius said. He added there was now a “mutual effort” between Brussels and EU countries to hire more underrepresented nationals, “by measures and means that will be in line with the impartiality provisions.” But he also flagged that there is a need for “more creative and open work with the contract and temporary agents as well as the seconded national experts.”

**Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, will be joining POLITICO Live’s Health Care Summit in Brussels. Join her and other key stakeholders in health care policy from October 24-25 to debate the next big challenge: Europe’s health care system in permacrisis. Find out more and register to participate**


TIMMERMANS DISTANCES HIMSELF TUNISIA MIGRANT DEAL: Former Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans signaled serious doubts about the migration deal spearheaded by President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, under which the EU pays Tunisia to prevent migrants from crossing into the Continent.

Cash to do the dirty job: Unlike the deal with Turkey, where the EU insisted that money actually be spent on helping and protecting refugees, money for Tunisia comes with fewer strings attached, Timmermans told Anke Truijen from Dutch program Nieuwsuur. “I take full responsibility for everything the EC does but that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything. That’s what you get in a collegiate administration,” Timmermans said.

VDL’S ACCOUNTABILITY TRACKER: Another winter, another summer — but the Commission president still refuses to be interviewed by the biggest newsroom in Brussels. It’s now 667 days since von der Leyen’s team refused to answer POLITICO’s interview requests … and counting.

BORRELL’S HAPPY WOMEN ‘ARE LEARNING TO PLAY FOOTBALL AS WELL AS MEN’: Top diplomat? More like top un-diplomat! EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Wednesday further fueled a sexism storm which has clouded Spain’s victory in the women’s World Cup, saying he was happy our women “are learning to play football as well as men, and that in itself is already very good news.” (And before you write in, we know the EU’s high representative is not technically a diplomat!)

Hermoso update: Meanwhile, Jenni Hermoso, who was kissed on the lips by Spanish football boss Luis Rubiales after her team’s win at the World Cup, has issued a fresh statement calling on Spain’s Sports Council to “prevent sexual harassment or abuse, machismo and sexism.” (H/t Aitor Hernández-Morales.)

INDIA WINS RACE TO MOON’S SOUTH POLE: The Indian Space Research Organization on Wednesday successfully landed the Chandrayaan-3 mission on the rocky surface of the lunar south pole. That made India the first country to reach the region, beating Russia, whose own mission crashed.

ANTI-SEMITISM ACCUSATIONS DIVIDE FRANCE’S LEFT: A rapper’s alleged pun about the Holocaust threatens to drive a wedge between France’s Nupes coalition of the hard left and Greens — which is leading in the poles. The row has sparked a debate over whether the left is soft on anti-Semitism, Clea Caulcutt writes.

A POST-SOROS EUROPE: As George Soros’ Open Society Foundation pulls out of Europe, Alberto Alemanno, founder of The Good Lobby, says the gap left by OSF funding may soon be filled by conservative and religious-right donors. In an opinion piece for POLITICO, he writes: “The Soros retreat couldn’t come at a worse time for the European project, as it is being challenged by nationalist and populist parties.” 


— High Representative Josep Borrell in Santander, Spain. Attends the Quo Vadis Europa? event at the Menéndez Pelayo International University.

— European Commission Vice President Dubravka Šuica in Zagreb, Croatia. Participates in the annual conference of ambassadors, consuls, general consuls and military envoys of Croatia.

— Ukraine Independence Day. Official opening ceremony in Brussels with welcoming remarks by Ukraine’s Chargé d’Affaires in Belgium Natalia Anoshyna and Head of the Mission of Ukraine to the EU Vsevolod Chentsov. Watch at 2 p.m.

— BRICS summit in South Africa.


UKRAINE’S INDEPENDENCE DAY: Ukrainians are celebrating independence day in Brussels with an after party at 7 p.m. in Ixelles. There’ll be a fair, music and food, activities for kids including a treasure hunt, and a raffle, the proceeds of which will go to charity.

NEIGHBORHOODS SOUND THE SAFETY ALARM: About 40 Brussels neighborhood committees and associations are sounding the alarm about drug use and decreasing safety in the Belgian capital in an open letter to local politicians, distributed by French and Dutch speaking local press.

The letter: The authors say Brussels is facing a growing problem that is making life difficult for locals, highlighting the increasing violence and drug use in public spaces, a general feeling of insecurity and dirty streets. “Our neighborhoods and train stations sometimes look like war zones,” reads the letter addressed to the Minister-President of Brussels Rudi Vervoort and the mayors of Brussels, Molenbeek, Saint-Josse, Saint-Gilles and Anderlecht.

Fixing the problem: The neighborhood committees and associations are calling for structured and sustainable long-term solutions, rather than the occasional band-aid solution, and better coordination between the federal, regional and local authorities. It comes a few days after railway company SNCB asked for help in tackling crime at Brussels-Midi.

The political response: Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo convened federal, regional and local representatives together with SNCB for a meeting on Monday. According to De Tijd, more discussions are to follow in the coming days. The Flemish nationalist party N-VA has already drawn up a plan for Brussels-Midi and other train stations, which includes a ban on alcohol consumption, begging and tent camps, as well as gatherings inside the stations and their surroundings.