The Kremlin is yet to confirm the details of Wednesday’s plane crash in Russia. Commentators are speculating.
All 10 people on board were killed, but the Kremlin is yet to confirm Yevgeny Prigozhin‘s death, despite Russian officials saying he was on the passenger list.
Prigozhin‘s short-lived rebellion was seen as the biggest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority since he came to power. Since then, uncertainty has surrounded the fate of Wagner and its controversial chief.
Wednesday’s announcement by Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, that a private plane travelling between Moscow and Saint Petersburg had crashed, has raised suspicion that the Wagner head and his collaborators could have been intentionally killed.
Margarita Simonyan, editor of the Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT, tweeted: “Among the versions under discussion is a staging. But personally, I’m leaning towards the more obvious.”
Russian news agency RIA Novosti on Thursday reported that the tail of the plane had been found 3.5km (2.2 miles) from the crash site.
TASS, another Russian state news outlet, reported that a team of Russian Investigative Committee investigators was dispatched to the crash site and first responders were working at the scene.
The cause of the crash has not yet been established. Video footage circulated on social media appeared to show the plane in a vertical free fall, leaving a smoke trail.
The Wagner-linked Grey Zone Telegram channel claimed the plane had been shot down by the Russian military’s air defence systems, but this information could not be verified.
A Russian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Moscow Times that they believe neither the fact of the crash nor its location were a coincidence.
“Not far from the president’s residence in Valdai, there are four divisions of S-300 PMU1s [missile defence systems] guarding the sky,” the source said. “On June 24 – a march on Moscow. And on August 24 – two missiles …
“Look how it was falling – it was shot down just like that. The plane just fell out of the sky,” the source added.
Independent journalist Andrei Zakharov, citing an unnamed source, told the newspaper that Prigozhin on Wednesday was returning to Russia from a trip to Africa, where Wagner mercenaries have operated for years and where Prigozhin was recently filmed for a recruitment video.
Russian journalist Ksenia Sobchak said in a Telegram post that the incident was “a completely clear message to all the elites, to anyone who had any subversive thoughts about the direction of the special military operation, and [other thoughts] in general”.
Villagers interviewed by Reuters reported hearing a loud bang before seeing the plane plummet.
Some unnamed sources told Russian media they believed the plane had been shot down by one or more surface-to-air missiles.
“According to the airline, the following passengers were on board the Embraer-135 (EBM-135BJ) aircraft … Prigozhin, Yevgeny,” said Rosaviatsiya, which also listed Dmitry Utkin, a shadowy figure who managed Wagner’s operations and allegedly served in Russian military intelligence.
Rosaviatsiya said it set up a special commission to investigate the crash of the aircraft, which belonged to MNT-Aero.
The Embraer executive jet model boarded by Prigozhin had only recorded one accident in more than 20 years of service, and that was not related to mechanical failure.
Telegram channels linked to Wagner posted footage allegedly showing the wreckage of the plane burning in a field, as Russian law enforcement officials stood guard at the crash site near the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region.
Prigozhin’s mutiny was ended by an apparent Kremlin deal which saw him agree to relocate to neighbouring Belarus. But in practice, he had appeared to move freely inside Russia after the agreement which had reportedly guaranteed his personal safety.
No reaction from the Kremlin
There has been no official comment from the Kremlin or the Ministry of Defence on the fate of Prigozhin.
As the news broke, President Vladimir Putin was attending an event commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Battle of Kursk during World War II.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the opposition of Belarus, said Prigozhin would not be missed in her country. “He was a murderer and should be remembered as such,” she said on social media.
Bill Browder, a businessman with years of experience in Russia and another Kremlin critic, said many Russians had wondered how Prigozhin had been able to get away with such a brazen affront to the Kremlin without consequence.
“Putin never forgives and never forgets. He looked like a humiliated weakling with Prigozhin running around without a care in the world [after the mutiny]. This will cement his authority,” Browder wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The crash came the same day that Russian media reported that General Sergei Surovikin, a former top commander in Ukraine who was reportedly linked to Prigozhin, was dismissed from his post as commander of Russia’s air force.
Surovikin hasn’t been seen in public since the mutiny when he recorded a video address urging Prigozhin’s forces to pull back.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said on Telegram that “no matter what caused the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of vengeance and retribution” by the Kremlin, and “the Kremlin wouldn’t really stand in the way of that”.