MOSCOW (AP) — In a tragic turn of events, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of a mercenary group known as the Wagner private military company, was among the 10 individuals who lost their lives in a plane crash to the north of Moscow on Wednesday. Russia’s civil aviation agency confirmed this disheartening news.
This incident has sparked immediate suspicions and drawn significant attention due to Prigozhin’s recent involvement in a short-lived armed rebellion against the Russian military earlier this year. This rebellion had been met with strong denunciation from President Vladimir Putin, who labeled it as an act of “treason” and a “stab in the back,” promising retribution. However, the charges against Prigozhin were subsequently dropped, and he was allowed to seek refuge in Belarus, occasionally reappearing in Russia.
Adding to the intrigue, recent reports from Russian media indicated the dismissal of a senior general associated with Prigozhin from his position as the air force commander. The ill-fated plane, carrying seven passengers and three pilots, was en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg when it tragically crashed around 185 miles north of Moscow, according to officials quoted by Russia’s state news agency, Tass.
Rosaviatsia, Russia’s civilian aviation agency, swiftly verified Prigozhin’s presence on the flight manifest, and the airline later confirmed his presence aboard the plane.
Earlier, Vladimir Rogov, an official appointed by Russia in the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia region in Ukraine, reported conversations with Wagner commanders who corroborated Prigozhin’s presence on the flight, along with Dmitry Utkin, whose call sign “Wagner” became the namesake of the private military company.
“I don’t have concrete information about what occurred, but I’m not taken aback,” remarked U.S. President Joe Biden on the incident.
Keir Giles, a Russia specialist affiliated with the international affairs think-tank Chatham House, cautioned against hasty conclusions regarding Prigozhin’s demise. He cited instances where multiple individuals adopted the name Yevgeniy Prigozhin to obscure their movements.
Giles remarked, “It wouldn’t be surprising if he reemerges soon in a new video, perhaps from Africa.”
Flight tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press documented the departure of a private jet frequently used by Prigozhin from Moscow on Wednesday evening, followed by the abrupt cessation of its transponder signal a few minutes later. The signal loss coincided with the aircraft’s cruising altitude and speed. An image shared by a pro-Wagner social media account depicted burning wreckage with a partial tail number that corresponded to the jet used by Prigozhin.
Videos disseminated through the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone showcased the aircraft plummeting from a billowing cloud of smoke, spiraling erratically during its descent. Such steep descents are indicative of severe damage to the aircraft. A meticulous analysis by The AP of multiple videos suggested the possibility of a mid-flight explosion, with the aircraft seemingly missing a wing.
Russia’s Investigative Committee initiated a probe into the crash on grounds of air safety violations, following the standard protocol for such incidents.
Even if Prigozhin’s demise is confirmed, its impact on Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict is likely to be minimal. His forces had been engaged in some of the most intense battles over the past year and a half. After their capture of Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donetsk region, Prigozhin’s troops shifted away from frontline action. This city had witnessed some of the most brutal confrontations during the conflict, with Russian forces struggling for its control.
Following the rebellion, Russian authorities indicated that Prigozhin’s fighters would be reintegrated into the regular army if they returned to Ukraine.
This week, Prigozhin posted a recruitment video, his first since the mutiny, asserting Wagner’s involvement in reconnaissance and search operations. He also expressed aspirations to elevate Russia’s stature across continents, including Africa.
During the same period, reports from undisclosed sources in Russian media stated the removal of Gen. Sergei Surovikin from his post as the commander of Russia’s air force. Surovikin, who once directed Russia’s operations in Ukraine, had not made any public appearances since the mutiny. At that time, he had issued a video address urging Prigozhin’s forces to retreat.
As news of the crash unfolded, Putin addressed an event commemorating the Battle of Kursk, praising the heroes who participated in Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.