There is speculation that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of a Russian mercenary group, died in a mysterious plane crash on August 23 in Russia.
The Russian news agency Interfax said ten bodies had been recovered from the site and Russian authorities released the flight’s passenger manifest, listing ten people on board. Prigozhin was one of those listed.
In June, Prigozhin led a mutiny in which Wagner fighters took control of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and shot down a number of military helicopters, killing their pilots, as they advanced towards Moscow.
President Vladimir Putin called it an act of treachery that would be met with a harsh response.
The revolt was defused in a deal whereby the Kremlin said that, in order to avert bloodshed, Prigozhin and some of his fighters would leave for Belarus and a criminal case against him for armed mutiny would be dropped.
Confusion has surrounded the implementation of the deal.
Prigozhin soared in prominence after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, where his fighters, including thousands of convicts he recruited from prison, led the Russian assault on the city of Bakhmut in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.
Here, MailOnline explains what we know so far about the plane crash.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of Russian private mercenary group Wagner, gives an address in camouflage and with a weapon in his hands in a desert area at an unknown location, in this still image taken from video possibly shot in Africa and published August 21, 2023
Debris from a plane that crashed in the Tver region of Russia on August 23
What happened to Prigozhin’s plane?
The plane that listed Prigozhin as a passenger departed from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on August 23 at around 6pm local time flying to St. Petersburg.
The crash occurred in a wooded area near the village of Kuzhenkino, in the Tver region, less than 100 miles northwest of the capital.
The Russian state media agency, RIA Novosti, later that day posted an unconfirmed video that appeared to show a plane that had lost control and was plummeting almost vertically, with a cloud of pale grey smoke emanating from it.
The shaky video did not show the moment of impact.
Footage shared on Telegram appeared to show the plane, an Embraer Legacy 600 business jet, in flames on the ground.
The paint and a partial registration number, RA-02795, that can be seen match a jet Prigozhin is known to use.
Emergency workers were at the crash site on August 24 and images published by Russian and international media outlets showed sections of the plane, including a part of a blue wing or tail fin.
This video grab taken from handout footage posted on June 24, 2023 on the Telegram account of the press service of Concord shows Prigozhin speaking inside the headquarters of the Russian southern military district in the city of Rostov-on-Don
A Russian serviceman inspects a part of a crashed private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences on August 24 to the family of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin after his presumed death in a plane crash the day before and praised him as a ‘talented businessman’
Who was on board Prigozhin’s plane?
Russian authorities released the flight’s passenger manifest, listing 10 people on board.
- Yevgeny Prigozhin (chief financier, co-founder and frontman of Wagner Group)
- Dmitry Utkin (Wagner co-founder, former special forces officer)
- Valeriy Chekalov (Close confidant of Prigozhin and head of logistics for Wagner)
- Sergey Propustin (Wagner fighter with combat experience in the second Chechen war)
- Yevgeny Makaryan (A former police officer who joined Wagner to participate in Russia’s intervention in Syria)
- Alexander Totmin (Wagner fighter)
- Nikolay Matuseev (Wagner fighter)
Plus crew members:
Aleksei Levshin (Commander)
Rustam Karimov (Co-pilot)
Kristina Raspopova (Flight attendant)
Russia’s aviation authorities said all those on board died.
Flight attendant Kristina Raspopova was among the crew members listed on the flight’s passenger manifest
Dmitry Utkin, Wagner co-founder, was also on the flight’s passenger manifest
What caused Prigozhin’s plane to crash?
A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment has found that the plane crash was intentionally caused by an explosion, according to U.S. and Western officials, Associated Press reported on August 24.
There is no indication, as of the time of the preliminary assessment, that the jet was downed by a missile, according to three officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a preliminary assessment.
An explosion was detected along the path of the aircraft, but there are no signs of a missile launch, two officials said.
The U.S. Department of Defense on August 24 said there was currently no information to suggest that a surface-to-air missile took down the plane.
Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, offered no evidence or further details on what U.S. officials believe caused the crash as he made his remarks at a Pentagon news conference.
‘Certainly it’s an inside job, the suggestion is that it’s a bomb in a wine crate,’ former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele told Sky News.
The wine crate theory was also circulating widely on social media.
The United States is looking at a number of theories over what brought down the plane, including a surface-to-air missile hitting it, U.S. officials told Reuters on August 24.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, former MI6 chief John Sawers suggested a device on board could have been responsible.
He said: ‘I’m not an expert on these things, but I would have thought there was some device on board that brought the plane down suddenly and killed all those on board.’
Prigozhin was once considered a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and was known by the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’. Pictured: Prigozhin serving food to Putin in 2011
Did Putin assassinate Prigozhin and what has he said so far?
Putin expressed his condolences on August 24 to the family of Prigozhin after his presumed death in a plane crash the previous day and praised him as a ‘talented businessman’.
Crash investigators have still to conclusively identify the remains of the 10 people believed to have died in Wednesday’s crash northwest of Moscow, and Putin said the examination would take time.
‘As for the aviation tragedy, first of all I want to express my most sincere condolences to the families of all the victims. It’s always a tragedy,’ Putin said in televised remarks made during a meeting in the Kremlin with the Moscow-installed chief of Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.
‘Indeed, if employees of the Wagner company were there, and the preliminary data indicate they were, I would like to note that these people made a significant contribution to our common cause of combating the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine, we remember this, we know it and we shall not forget,’ he added.
The crash occurred exactly two months after Prigozhin led a mutiny against Russia’s army leadership, an act of rebellion that Putin at the time condemned as a treacherous ‘stab in the back’.
Putin on August 24 recalled that he had known Prigozhin – a convicted criminal who went on to establish a successful catering company before founding the Wagner mercenary group – since the early 1990s, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
‘He (Prigozhin) was a talented person, a talented businessman, he worked not only in our country, and achieved results, but also abroad, particularly in Africa. He was involved there with oil, gas, precious metals and stones.’
A view shows a portrait of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at a makeshift memorial in Moscow, Russia August 24, 2023
A woman lights a candle in front of a portrait of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at a makeshift memorial in Moscow, Russia August 24, 2023
What have world leaders said about Putin and Prigozhin since plane crash?
‘First of all, we had nothing to do with it. Everybody realises who has something to do with it,’ Volodymyr Zelensky said on August 24.
The Ukrainian President then quipped: ‘You know, when Ukraine asked the countries of the World for airplanes, we did not have this in mind. We had something else in mind, we needed support. Although, it (Prigozhin’s death) would help.’
President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters on August 23, said that he believed Putin was behind the crash, though he acknowledged that he did not, at that time, have solid information verifying his belief.
‘I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,’ Biden said.
‘There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind. But I don’t know enough to know the answer.’
What happens to the Wagner group now?
Wagner mercenaries have threatened to march on Moscow after it was claimed warlord Prigozhin was among the dead in the plane crash.
Telegram channels with links to Prigozhin announced his death shortly after news of the crash, and claimed it was caused by ‘traitors’ within Russia.
Keir Giles, from the London-based think tank Chatham House, warned: ‘It’s been announced that a passenger by the name of Yevgeny Prigozhin was on board – but it is also known that multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeny Prigozhin, as part of his efforts to obfuscate his travels.
‘Let’s not be surprised if he pops up shortly in a new video from Africa.’
As more claims of Prigozhin’s death spread, Wagner fighters posted a video on social media vowing retribution if their ‘leader is confirmed dead’.
A Wagner address, reported on August 23 by the Sun, stated: ‘We directly say that we suspect the Kremlin officials led by Putin of an attempt to kill him!
‘If the information about Prigozhin’s death is confirmed, we will organize a second “March of Justice” on Moscow!’
Armed men claiming to be from the unit warned Putin in a video shared online: ‘There’s a lot of talk right now about what the Wagner Group will do. We can tell you one thing.
‘We are getting started, get ready for us.’