Aug 24, 2023 - Podcasts

Russian mercenary chief Prigozhin listed aboard deadly plane crash

Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was listed as a passenger on a private plane that crashed north of Moscow on Wednesday, killing all 10 passengers according to Russian authorities.

The big picture: In June, Prigozhin led a rebellion against the Russian military leadership. It was seen as the biggest challenge to President Vladimir Putin's rule since he came to power more than two decades ago. We take a deeper look at the plane crash and what it means for Russian forces.

Guests: Axios' Miriam Kramer and Maria Curi; The Washington Post's Missy Ryan.

Credits: Axios Today was produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Robin Linn, Lydia McMullen-Laird and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.


NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It's Thursday, August 24.

I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Here's what you need to know today: India becomes the latest country to land on the Moon. Plus, the FCC's attempt to regulate the cost of prison phone calls.

But first, today's One Big Thing: A mysterious plane crash in Russia.

Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was listed as a passenger on a private plane that crashed north of Moscow yesterday, killing all 10 passengers on board, according to Russian authorities.

This crash is the latest in the drama and intrigue related to the Wagner mercenary force and its boss' relationship with Vladimir Putin.

We caught up with Washington Post reporter Missy Ryan last night to help make sense of this. Hi Missy, welcome to Axios Today.

MISSY RYAN: Thank you so much.

NIALA: At this point, what do we know about this crash?

MISSY: Russian authorities are saying that a aircraft, a private aircraft, associated with Wagner crashed shortly after takeoff outside of Moscow, and that, according to Russian authorities, all 10 people on the aircraft died, and that Prigozhin was one of the names listed on the manifest. So, when you think about the impact of this possible death of Prigozhin, what can we conclude from the fact that everybody is assuming that Putin did try to take out Prigozhin, whether or not that was true, I think it says something about how modern Russia operates.

NIALA: Missy, what are you hearing from your sources inside the State Department about how the U.S. is perceiving all of this right now?

MISSY: Well, what we've been told by Biden administration officials in the last few hours is that they really don't have much information at this stage. You know, you had the spokesperson for the National Security Council come out and say that if it was an attempt on Prigozhin's life, it wouldn't be surprising. That's very much in keeping with what Bill Burns and President Biden have said in the past. I think one of the important things to remember is that even if the Russian government comes out and says that Prigozhin is dead or is not dead, I think, just goes to show the lack of trust that the international community has with the Russian regime at this point.

NIALA: Right. And given all of that uncertainty around this, Missy, how should we be trying to interpret this news?

MISSY: I think that the bottom line is, number one, this is another indication that Wagner's moment is most likely over. And that has implications for Russia's influence beyond its borders, especially in some of these vulnerable places like Syria, Libya, different parts of Africa, where Wagner has been active, and Russia would like to play an increased role.

And then the second point is an indication of the severity of the Challenge that Putin may face, whether it's that he had to go to the lengths of assassinating an opponent or a challenger, that tells you something. So I think it is an indication of Putin's attempt to keep this tight grip on power at a moment of real vulnerability because of what the war in Ukraine has shown us.

NIALA: Missy Ryan writes about diplomacy, national security, and the State Department for the Washington Post. Thanks, Missy.

MISSY: Thank you.

NIALA: After the break, India joins the race to the Moon.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. India made history yesterday and landed its first space mission on the Moon. This came after a Russian spacecraft crashed into the Moon on Sunday ahead of its own landing attempt. And all of this is happening as we're looking more and more to the Moon and what we can learn from it and even how we can make money.

Here to help us dig deeper is Axios senior space reporter, Miriam Kramer. Hi Miriam.

MIRIAM KRAMER: Hi, thanks for having me.

NIALA: So Miriam, let's start with India. How big of an accomplishment is this?

MIRIAM: It's a huge deal. India is now only the fourth nation to successfully soft land a spacecraft on the Moon. I mean, it's a pretty big moment. Like, this country has been working toward becoming a major player in space for many, many years, and this just vaults them into, you know, a new category.

NIALA: And do we know what happened with Russia this past weekend?

MIRIAM: Yes, we have some idea. Ahead of the landing attempt, the spacecraft, Luna 25, was executing this engine burn. And instead of cutting off when it was supposed to, it just kept right on burning. It crashed into the Moon and then Russia put out a statement basically saying that the spacecraft ceased to exist on the lunar surface.

NIALA: Why so much interest in the Moon right now?

MIRIAM: Well, it's kind of a proving ground. A lot of different nations have a variety of ambitions on the Moon. I mean, the U.S. has said that they want to establish this sustained presence on the lunar surface of crewed missions. You need robotic missions to go and kind of scout things out first. China is also planning on landing people on the Moon within the next decade or so. And we're just seeing a lot of interest in part because it's just a pretty nearby object. I mean, it's only three days away at the fastest speeds. And that makes it really appealing. There's a lot of pride wrapped up in being able to send something to the Moon.

NIALA: If people are planning to try to make money on the Moon, how do we figure out who gets access and control? Is it whoever gets there first?

MIRIAM: That's a complicated question, But the basics of it are that according to the Outer Space Treaty, which is sort of the document that kind of governs peaceful uses of outer space, you can't claim an object as yours, like the U.S. can't go to the Moon and say, this is ours now, like no one else can come here. But it's OK to put your own stuff on the Moon and kind of say that, hey, like, don't mess with our things in this particular area of the Moon. There's also these questions about, like, there are these companies who want to mine the Moon for resources, maybe extracting water or grabbing elements, whatever it might be. And so there are going to be some really interesting and potentially thorny questions about whether they have a right to actually mine the surface of the Moon, to bring their own materials up there, use them. It's, it's going to be a kind of interesting moment.

NIALA: So what are you watching for next in, are we calling this Moon politics?

MIRIAM: Yeah, I mean, Moon politics is good. I think for me, one of the most interesting things about the Moon these days is just that as the International Space Station is kind of coming to an end, and the partnership between the U.S. and Russia and space is really dissolving as a result of that, these new alliances are forming in space and it's really a reflection of the Earth. Like Russia and China have said that they're collaborating to build a Moon research station and the U.S. is doing its Artemis Accords to bring other nations on board to go to the Moon together and I think the next couple of decades are really going to be about the Moon when it comes to politics in space.

NIALA: Miriam Kramer is the author of the Axios Space Newsletter. Thanks Miriam.

MIRIAM: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: The FCC is trying to figure out how much a phone call from prison should cost. Expensive calls pose a barrier for communicating with loved ones outside the criminal justice system, something that can contribute to lower rates of recidivism. Axios' Maria Curi is here to go deeper.

Maria, how expensive is it to stay connected with those incarcerated? What's the average price for a phone call to a prison or jail?

MARIA CURI: So if you're placing a call outside of the state where you are incarcerated, it's typically about 21 cents. That's what's been able to be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and even though that agency has not had the authority until now to regulate the cost of it within a state, it has ended up being similar to 21 cents per minute, because it's difficult for phone companies to track exactly where the call is going.

NIALA: So 21 cents translates to more than $5 for a half an hour phone call. If these calls are cost-prohibitive to people, what effect does that have on prisoners?

MARIA: So it has a really big effect on their ability to connect with loved ones outside of the facility, which, of course, is something that helps with their mental health issues. And with getting acclimated to the outside world once they are released. So that is why mental health experts and social justice advocates will say that this is really important to reduce recidivism and the chances that they will end up back in prison.

NIALA: So this Martha Wright Reed Act is behind the push for the FCC to consider the cost of prison phone calls. What do we need to know about this law?

MARIA: The FCC has between June and December of 2024 to come up with the rulemaking. For example, they're going to have to determine how to incorporate security and safety costs. This process started more than 20 years ago when Martha Wright Reed, a telecommunications advocate, sued the Corrections Corporation of America because her grandson was incarcerated and she realized just how expensive it was to stay in touch with him. Um, eventually, in 2013, the FCC announced that it would set caps on calls being made across state lines. And then with the passage of the Martha Wright Reed Act, the FCC was able to now regulate calls within a state as well.

NIALA: Maria Curi is the author of the Axios Pro Tech Policy Newsletter. Thanks, Maria.

MARIA: Thank you.

NIALA: That does it for us today! I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening. Stay safe, and we'll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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