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Russia’s RIA news service reports that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the ex-con billionaire caterer turned massively influential mercenary warlord of the Wagner Group, has died in the crash of his personal Embraer ERJ135BJ Legacy 600 business jet while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Reportedly, all 10 passengers aboard—including three crew members—died in the crash. The incident may end up being officially described as an accident or terrorist attack by authorities in Moscow, but already, the Greyzone social media account closely linked to Wagner is claiming that the jet was downed by air defenses north of Tver, citing a witness who states that local residents heard two bangs and saw vapor trails that were presumably caused by missiles.
Another social media account claims that witnesses saw the aircraft’s wings and tail stabilizers falling off during the crash. Bellingcat researcher Aric Toler notes that a missiles could easily have been fired from Borisovsky Khotilovo airbase 9 miles away from the crash site.
According to multilateration (MLAT) of its transponder signals, the Wagner-owned jet—serial number RA-02795—was flying smoothly at a height of roughly 28,000 feet and traveling at 690 miles per hour when it abruptly plummeted at around 3 p.m. local time.
It crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino roughly a half hour after takeoff, catching fire as it hit the ground. A video posted on Russian social media, allegedly depicting the incidents, appears to show the jet spinning to the ground while trailing smoke.
⚡️ Самолёт, который разбился в Тверской области, принадлежит Евгению Пригожину, утверждают издание Baza и журналистка Ксения Собчак. На борту бизнес-джета Embraer, как утверждается, были 7 человек, они погибли.
Видео: соцсети pic.twitter.com/EzyZ3PbVT8
— ЭХО (@echofm_online) August 23, 2023
Other media posted online shows the business jet’s wreck and shattered components.
Major Breaking News:
Private jet of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has crashed in the Tver Region. Prigozhin was on the passenger list. Wagner channel “Greyzone” accuses that Russian air defense shot it down.
It was inevitable that the feud between Putin and Prigozhin will end… pic.twitter.com/NYGhnCrkBp
— (((Tendar))) (@Tendar) August 23, 2023
Prigozhin was reportedly accompanied on the flight by Dmitry Utkin—Wagner’s military leader in its early years who was infamously photographed sporting SS and Nazi collar tattoos. However, while bodies have been recovered from the plane, none have been positively identified at the time of writing.
A second Wagner jet, RAO-2748, was in the air at the time of the crash and executed an abrupt U-turn to land in Moscow. This led some of Prigozhin’s supporters to hope he was onboard that plane, contrary to the passenger manifest. But eventually, multiple Russian sources confirmed that he had died onboard the other.
From June 23 to 24, Prigozhin led an armed uprising against his longtime rivals in the Russian Ministry of Defense—one which involved his Wagner Group mercenary forces seizing control of the city of Rostov while a separate column barreled toward Moscow down the M4 highway, brushing away resistance on the ground. Though the 62-year-old warlord insisted that he wasn’t out to overthrow Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader was unsparing in condemning the quasi-coup, which revealed his internal security forces’ startling inability to stop the Wagner column.
Ultimately, Prigozhin was persuaded to call off the coup in a deal negotiated with president Lukaschenko of Belarus, in which he supposedly agreed to withdraw Wagner to exile in Belarus. Nonetheless, his troops shot down at least seven valuable Russian military aircraft, killing at least 13 Russian air force personnel before the fighting died down.
While the Wagner Group’s battlefield role in Ukraine rapidly wound down this summer, it’s remained too valuable for the Kremlin to destroy after the rebellion, as it has extended the Kremlin’s influence broadly and deeply across Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Wagner’s soldiers can undertake military actions across the globe at Russia’s direction without the deaths of Wagner soldiers, or the people they kill, being officially actions of the Russian state and its military.
For example, back in May of 2018, Wagner mercenaries led an assault attacking American forces in Syria in an attempt to capture an oil field. The attack was cut to pieces by U.S. air power in a battlefield bloodbath that did significantly affect U.S.-Russian relations.
More recently, military coup governments in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have expelled Western military forces assisting them against Al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated insurgents due to Western criticism of the military dictatorships—something they felt confident doing thanks to being able to dial-in Wagner mercenaries to secure their hold on power.
Prigozhin’s Final Act
Following the June coup, the arrival of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus (supposedly to train the armed forces) rang alarm bells in neighboring Poland and Ukraine, which fear that his mercenaries might be involved in violent ‘gray-zone’ cross-border activities. However, it soon became clear that Prigozhin himself was dissatisfied with opportunities for business in Belarus, and didn’t intend to remain in exile as agreed.
Russian media, which had formerly showed adulatory coverage on Wagner’s activities, was by then running a full-court press against Prigzohin—publishing photos of security agents rifling through his mansion, exposing his wig collection and cobbled-together disguises, and his expensive harem.
But when Prigozhin returned, he set about reclaiming property confiscated by state agents, and even met with Putin for three hours alongside his commanders on June 29. It seemed the wealthy caterer-turned-warlord had once again demonstrated his impunity.
The 'Accidents' of Putin’s Enemies
The Embraer ERJ-135BJ Legacy 600/650 twin-engine 13 passenger business jet is a further shortened version of the ERJ-135 50-passenger regional jet. Aviation Safety Network records only two other accidents involving Legacy 600s/650s, and 14 incidents involving all ERJ 135 models in the last 23 years. None of these incidents led to deaths of crew or passengers onboard, until the crash of Prigozhin’s jet.
While it’s possible that Prigozhin’s plane crash was a genuine accident, the chance that it was caused by an assassination attempt seems extremely high. If so, there are many actors both within Russia and abroad that might have sought his death, though government action at Putin’s behest seems by far to be the most likely culprit.
Over the last two decades, Russia has been tied to attempted assassinations both on its own soil and abroad, targeting political opposition leaders, defectors, muckraking journalists, inconvenient business oligarchs, internal whistleblowers, anti-war critics, exiled insurgents and, once, even the president of Ukraine (he survived, despite being disfigured).
Russia’s use of military-developed poisons in tea, applied to door handles, or released in aerosol sprays is infamous, but assassins have also gunned down exiles in Germany and Turkey, and likely bludgeoned an oligarch to death in his Washington, D.C. hotel room in 2015. In December 2020, a Russian FSB internal intelligence agent inadvertently revealed the highly organized nature of a plot to surveil and poison prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny over the phone.
The increasingly transparent involvement of Russia’s intelligence services in these killings (often involving the GRU military intelligence service’s Unit 29155) doesn’t appear to bother Putin, and may in fact be intended to intimidate other potential opponents of Putin. Such killings are even legal, per a 2006 law, as a counter-terrorism measure.
Overall, it seemed unlikely that Putin would let Prigozhin off so lightly for the humiliating coup. Prigozhin must have known that bloody attempted retribution was inevitable—but it seems likely that he wasn’t looking over his shoulder nearly enough.
Shooting down Prigozhin’s plane with a missile—and then bald-facedly claiming that it was an accident, despite contravening eyewitnesses—would be the ultimate way for Putin to establish his impunity to kill any threat to his power, even the one presented by the notorious, outspoken, and reportedly now-deceased mercenary commander.
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