MOSCOW — Reports have emerged that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of a private military group involved in a brief rebellion against Russian military forces earlier this year, was among the casualties of a plane crash north of Moscow, resulting in the tragic loss of all 10 individuals on board. The circumstances surrounding this crash have ignited speculations, especially given the intrigue that has surrounded Prigozhin’s activities since the mutiny.
Prigozhin had faced severe allegations during the rebellion, which President Vladimir Putin had labeled as “treason” and a “stab in the back.” However, those charges against him were subsequently dropped. Remarkably, Prigozhin was permitted to relocate to Belarus, occasionally reappearing in Russia.
This incident comes on the heels of reports in Russian media regarding the removal of a high-ranking general linked to Prigozhin from his role as the air force commander.
The plane, carrying three pilots and seven passengers on a route from Moscow to St. Petersburg, crashed nearly 185 miles north of the Russian capital, according to authorities cited by Russia’s state news agency, Tass.
Russia’s civil aviation agency, Rosaviatsia, swiftly confirmed Prigozhin’s presence on the flight manifest and later verified his presence on the plane according to the airline’s records.
Vladimir Rogov, an official appointed by Russia in the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia region in Ukraine, communicated with Wagner commanders who corroborated Prigozhin’s presence on the flight, along with Dmitry Utkin, known by his call sign Wagner, which eventually became the company’s namesake.
“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” commented U.S. President Joe Biden on the incident.
However, Keir Giles, a Russia expert from the think-tank Chatham House, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about Prigozhin’s demise. Giles pointed out that Prigozhin had employed tactics to obscure his movements, including individuals adopting his name.
Flight tracking data reviewed by The Associated Press revealed that a private jet previously used by Prigozhin took off from Moscow on Wednesday evening but disappeared from radar shortly after takeoff. The abrupt signal loss, at altitude and speed, is suggestive of a catastrophic event. An image shared on a pro-Wagner social media account depicted burning wreckage, with a partial tail number matching that of Prigozhin’s previous jet.
Videos shared on the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone depicted the aircraft descending precipitously from a dense plume of smoke, exhibiting erratic maneuvers. Such dramatic descents often indicate severe damage, and a frame-by-frame analysis by The AP of two videos suggested the possibility of a mid-flight explosion. The footage also indicated the loss of a wing.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has initiated an inquiry into the crash on charges of violating air safety regulations, a standard procedure in such incidents.
In the context of Russia’s ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Prigozhin’s purported demise is unlikely to significantly impact the situation. His forces had retreated from frontline combat after seizing the eastern Donetsk city of Bakhmut in late May, a city that had witnessed some of the fiercest battles in the conflict.
Following the rebellion, Russian authorities had announced that his fighters would only be allowed to return to Ukraine as part of the regular army.
This week, Prigozhin released a recruitment video, his first since the mutiny, outlining Wagner’s reconnaissance and search activities and their mission to “enhance Russia’s influence across all continents, including Africa.”
Simultaneously, Russian media reported, citing anonymous sources, the dismissal of Gen. Sergei Surovikin from his position as commander of Russia’s air force. Surovikin, who once led Russia’s operations in Ukraine, had not made public appearances since the mutiny when he issued a video address urging Prigozhin’s forces to withdraw.
As news of the crash broke, President Putin commemorated the Battle of Kursk, praising the heroes of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.