Wagner private military group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is believed to have been killed in a plane crash. The flight, owned by Prigozhin himself, was headed to St. Petersburg from Moscow, carrying seven passengers and three crew members.

None survived the crash, which occurred in the Tver region.

Russian aviation authorities reported that the aircraft caught fire and crashed shortly after being airborne for less than 30 minutes. Grey Zone Telegram channel, believed to be linked to the Wagner group, alleged that the plane was deliberately shot down by the Russian military. The wreckage was found scattered across a wide area. Russian authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the incident.

Russian aviation authorities, in line with claims made by a Wagner-affiliated Telegram group, maintain that Prigozhin’s name was on the passenger list of the ill-fated plane.

Once considered a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin experienced a significant falling out with the Kremlin after leading an unsuccessful uprising against Russian military leaders in June. Since then, Prigozhin continued to capture international attention.

At the time of the incident, Russian President Putin was participating in a historic event in Kursk. The event was held to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in a monumental battle in 1943.

Putin made no reference to the incident.

Prigozhin earned “Putin’s chef” moniker as he extended his catering services to the Kremlin. The mutiny he orchestrated in June was a short-lived attempt to challenge the Russian military leadership.

During the mutiny, Prigozhin’s troops briefly seized control of Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia, and advanced toward Moscow with the intent of toppling military leadership. A negotiated resolution facilitated by Belarus Leader Alexander Lukashenko halted the mutiny’s advancement. Prigozhin’s charges were dropped, and he was offered asylum in Belarus.

Putin’s possible role in the plane crash

US President Joe Biden suggested the potential involvement of Vladimir Putin in the plane crash.

“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised. There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind,” Biden remarked.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, an aide to the Ukrainian president, said that the plane crash on Wednesday evening was a message from the Russian president to his country’s elites. Podolyak said that the crash was a warning to those who are disloyal to Putin and that it could be seen as a sign that Putin is preparing for the 2024 presidential election.

Former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov said that the Russian establishment has come to believe that it is impossible to oppose Putin, as he is too powerful and vindictive.

Outside the headquarters of the Wagner private military group in St. Petersburg, a display of tribute has materialised. Flowers have been laid in remembrance of the late Prigozhin.

Prigozhin’s sudden death coincides with the removal of one of his key allies in the Russian military, General Sergei Surovikin. Surovikin has been rumoured to be under house arrest, interrogated, or even imprisoned in Lefortovo prison. His whereabouts are unknown. Surovikin is the highest-ranking military commander to be removed from his position since Prigozhin’s failed coup attempt in June.

Potential deception

In the meantime, Russia-focused Research Expert Keir Giles points out that while a passenger named Yevgeny Prigozhin was listed on the plane’s manifest, it’s a well-known tactic that multiple individuals have adopted the name Yevgeny Prigozhin to obscure Prigozhin’s actual travel activities. This strategy has been utilised to throw off investigators and maintain a veil of secrecy around his movements.

The research expert goes on to suggest that the absence of independent verification regarding Prigozhin’s fate should lead to cautious analysis. He emphasises that until there is irrefutable evidence confirming the true identity of the individual in question, it wouldn’t be surprising if Prigozhin resurfaces in the near future through a new video or communication from Africa or any other location he might have chosen to hide in.