The Embraer Legacy 600 jet that crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in Russia’s Tver region last week carried Yevgeny Prigozhin, the warlord and oligarch who headed up the Wagner Group of mercenaries and who in June defied Vladimir Putin’s orders to sign a contract placing his troops under Defense Ministry command. British and American security forces believe Prigozhin’s jet was shot down by the FSB intelligence agency on Putin’s orders.

“I’m sure it’ll be presented as an accident,” the former head of British intelligence agency MI6 told London’s Daily Telegraph, “and there will be an element of doubt, but everyone in the West will come to the same conclusion — that this is Putin’s revenge on people who challenge his power base.”

Some might say that Prigozhin, hardly a choirboy, knew the risks when he had his troops march on Moscow in a coup attempt in June. He who lives by the sword, the saying goes, dies by the sword. Or, in this case, the Russian Federal Security Service, whose director reports directly to Putin.

Perhaps that explains the James Bond-like language some Western politicians previously used to describe the situation. “If I were he, I’d be careful what I ate. I’d keep my eye on my menu,” President Joe Biden joked about Prigozhin during a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in Helsinki last month. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on July 20, CIA Director William Burns accurately called Putin “the ultimate apostle of payback” and picked up his boss’s theme: “If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster.”

That’s all good for headlines — but now let’s remember that reportedly there were 10 people, including a crew of three, on a jet that can be seen on video plummeting to the earth, as if from an explosion caused by a bomb.

Perhaps all could be said to have been weaved from Prigozhin cloth, but most likely at least the pilots and flight attendant were just trying to make a living and survive in what clearly is one of the most brutal societies in living memory.

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“As for the aviation tragedy, first of all, I want to express my sincerest condolences to the families of all the victims,” Putin said on camera Thursday in remarks that could have been scripted by a spy novelist. He promised inquiries. Don’t hold your breath for the truth.

Putin will bob and weave and bob some more, making idiots of truth-seekers. But we’re just as concerned about what happened this week when the leaders of Brazil, India, China and South Africa joined Putin in closed-door discussions on the possible expansion of their so-called BRICS economic bloc (an acronym taken from the first letters of the countries’ names). Putin, who finds it tricky to travel, appeared by video link, but the leaders of the other nations nonetheless joined in conversations with a man who surely appears to be a murderous assassin who brooks no opposition.

Frankly, it beggars belief, and those other leaders should be ashamed of themselves. How do you hold conversations with such a man? Do you shower afterward?

Which brings us to the first Republican presidential debate Wednesday night.

We make no direct comparison between Putin and Donald Trump. Trump is not an assassin; his alleged offenses, yet to be proved in court, mostly were against democratic procedure and driven by an out-of-control ego and a desire to stay in power despite having lost an election. But as we’ve said many times before, Trump drew in other people whose lives he then proceeded to ruin; some showed up in mug shots this week.

Opinions vary as to how much that mitigates their guilt, if at all. But we all know that Trump, so to speak, was piloting the Jan. 6 plane. There was a crew, and there were passengers too.

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The Republican debate showcased some smart, lively candidates with a variety of opinions. We think Republicans have many better choices than Trump, such as the individuals standing on that stage. In time, that range of choices will narrow, as it must if Trump is to be defeated — and defeated he must be.

But we remain amazed at how few of these candidates are willing to repudiate the man who has brought the GOP to its knees. Only Chris Christie clearly spoke out against supporting the former president if Trump is convicted of a crime, or multiple crimes, as various grand juries seem to think he may well be. Christie said the GOP needs to stop “normalizing this conduct,” and he got booed for his trouble.

Take the boos, Christie, and stick to your guns. And we have some advice for newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy: You’re a smart man, and you’ve wisely set up your brand to be that of a truth-teller. But your positions of going soft on Putin and arguing against full-on support for America getting behind Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent nation are as morally repugnant as those of the world leaders who allowed Putin to join them in a summit with blood likely on his hands.

You’ve got plenty of time left to walk back all that, Vivek. Get on the right side of what’s right.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune

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