Multiple sources within Russia report that Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder and leader of the Wagner mercenary group, is presumed dead after a deadly plane crash northwest of Moscow on Wednesday.
Reports from Russian state media agency Tass and Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviatsiya) state that Prigozhin was one of 10 people – seven passengers and three crew members – aboard a small business-class jet bound for St. Petersburg.
The Brazilian-manufactured aircraft – an Embraer Legacy 600 – reportedly went down a little less than halfway into the 400-mile flight, crashing in the Tver region about 185 miles northwest of Moscow.
The news fueled immediate speculation of foul play by the Kremlin. Prigozhin’s death comes just two months after tensions between the private military company and the Russian Defense Ministry came to a head in the form of a 36-hour rebellion in which Prigozhin’s troops met little resistance and (per Prigohzin) came as close as just 120 miles from Moscow.
In a week of confusion and uncertainty, locally and globally, President Vladimir Putin’s reign in Russia appeared to be in legitimate peril. Putin referred to Prigozhin’s self-described “march for justice” as “treason” and a “stab in the back.”
However, Prigozhin opted to avoid bloodshed at the time. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a deal allowing Prigozhin and his troops to relocate to Russia’s neighbor to the west in exchange for ending the insurrection.
Even at the time, it seemed like an uneasy truce, and rumors swirled that Prigozhin was dead when he wasn’t seen in the immediate days following the deal. Prigozhin had exposed Putin’s surprisingly tenuous grasp on power, and many were inclined to believe that Putin had made good on his promise of “inevitable punishment” for the mercenary chief and his followers.
While the evidence that the Kremlin is responsible for the crash is only circumstantial, it is abundant. According to flight track data from flight tracker website Flightradar24, the Embraer showed no signs of a problem until its last 30 seconds when it dropped more than 8,000 feet.
The crash comes on the same day that General Sergei Surovikin, chief of the Russian air force, was dismissed from his post after weeks of speculation that his dismissal was imminent. Surovikin was rumored to have ties to Prigozhin, and to have possibly even known that Wagner’s July rebellion was coming.
Also reportedly aboard the plane with Prigozhin was the lesser-known Dmitry Utkin, who at the very least was one of Prigozhin’s most-trusted lieutenants, but many credit him for founding or co-founding the Wagner Group itself.
Furthermore, the timing is of interest because Monday was the first time since the rebellion that Prigozhin appeared in a Wagner recruitment video, posted across several Telegram accounts. He appears in uniform and in a desert climate, claiming the group is aiming for a “more free” Africa.
It’s not entirely clear when the video was filmed or where in Africa Prigozhin may have been, although recent rhetoric from Wagner suggests Niger. It’s also not entirely clear what Prigozhin, seemingly exiled since the uprising, was doing in Russia.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to include mention of the Flightradar24 information.
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