Air crash in Russia kills top Wagner officials: What we know

By: sam doak&
jurijs svirko&
August 24 2023

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Air crash in Russia kills top Wagner officials: What we know

Source: REUTERS/Marina Lystseva

An Embraer Legacy 600 associated with Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed Wednesday afternoon near Tver after departing from Moscow. As Prigozhin's death was not initially confirmed at an official level, speculation was rife that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the downing of his plane. World leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden, strongly suggested the Russian president was to blame. 

The unexplained air crash in central Russia occurred two months after Prigozhin's attempted mutiny against Putin and his defense minister Sergei Shoigu. In June 2023, Wagner troops seized the city of Rostov-on-Don and several military sites as they marched toward Moscow, stopping about 200 kilometers from the Kremlin, which seemed to have lost control over its regular army. 

The mutiny ended with a deal between the Kremlin and Wagner Group, which was relocated to neighboring Belarus and received Putin's guarantees that the organizers and participants would not be prosecuted. However, many Russian experts had previously opined that Putin would likely kill Prigozhin soon. 

In a recorded address issued on August 24, Putin said, "I have known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the beginning of 1990s. He was a man with a complicated destiny; there were serious mistakes in his life, and he achieved the desired results both for himself and – when I asked him – for our common cause, as in these last months. A talented businessman who also worked outside the Russian Federation."

Russia's Federal Air Transport Agency published the names of three crew members and seven passengers on board Prigozhin's plane in its Telegram channel. In addition to Prigozhin, several other well-known figures were listed on the manifest, including Dmitry "Wagner" Utkin and Valery Chekalov

The agency's official website did not report the crash at all. Only the Tver Region's official website issued the following brief notice. 

Brief from Tver Region’s website, which reads, “On August 23, a civil aircraft crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino, Bologovsky District. The situation was taken under control by the Governor of the Tver Region Igor Rudenya. Currently, representatives of law enforcement agencies and the Ministry of Emergency Situations are working on the spot.”

A particular difficulty in determining what exactly happened is the scarcity of independent, reliable sources of information in Russia. Speaking to Logically Facts, Bellingcat's Training & Research Director Aric Toler stated that unpicking this event is "mostly about separating out sources by reliability."

"The Russian Aviation Authority isn't necessarily a bad source. Of course, they're a government body, and it's not like Russia has been super reliable with state information about plane crashes over the last decade. But their information about the passenger lists and such have been, by all accounts coming out of Russia, accurate," Toler said. "The bigger trap people fall into is taking these milblogger/"insider" Telegram accounts at their word. Often one channel posts a rumor, then 20 others report the same thing, and then it gathers its momentum."

Theories on the cause of the incident

Most commentators currently believe the plane carrying Prigozhin was shot down or bombed. "A western official said they were told the plane had been brought down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile system but could not confirm whether Prigozhin was on board, adding: 'Putin doesn't take prisoners,'" the Financial Times reported

In the absence of concrete information, Insider accounts of the category described by Toler began sharing unverified narratives. One Telegram channel, SHOT, citing an unnamed source, suggested that Russian investigators are also considering the possibility that an explosive device was planted in the aircraft's landing gear compartment. This has not been verified as a possible cause in any official outlets, but this speculation continues to spread across other channels.

A screenshot from Telegram channel SHOT, which states, “Source: an explosive device was planted in the landing gear compartment of Prigozhin’s plane - this is one of the versions.”

Another Telegram channel, VChK-OGPU, claimed law enforcement agencies have their sights on a suspect – Prigozhin's personal pilot and the former founder of MNT Aero, the company that owns the plane – Artem Stepanov. According to the channel, he had access to the plane, but this theory has not appeared in any official sources. 

While it cannot be reported with exact certainty where responsibility for this incident lies, the dominant narrative emerging appears to be that Putin ordered the downing of Prigozhin's flight. 

"We don't know. I mean, for something this significant – the assassination of Prigozhin by taking out his plane – you would assume it would have to be approved from the very top. But we'll never know for sure, though it's a safe enough assumption analysts can probably make," Toler told Logically Facts.

Available flight data 

Flightradar24 map showing the route of Prigozhin’s flight 

Publicly available flight data sheds some light on the moments preceding the incident and is currently some of the only concrete information available. According to Swedish-based flight-tracking service FlightRadar24, the aircraft was initially detected at 14:46 UTC. 

Between 14:59 and 15:11, FlightRadar24 recorded the positions of the plane, as it traveled in a northwesterly direction at a cruising altitude of 28,000 feet. At 15:20, at which point it was close to the recorded crash site near the town of Krivtsovo, it stopped transmitting data. 

Details concerning the aircraft's altitude paint a slightly fuller picture. Data by FlightRadar24 shows that the plane cruised at a stable altitude of 28,000 feet before climbing to 30,100 feet and descending to 27,500 feet. It then climbed to 29,300 feet before rapidly descending to 19,725 feet, after which it ceased to transmit. Information on what caused these sudden shifts in altitude, which occurred within a minute, is not yet available. 

Reaction among Wagner Group supporters

In the hours since the crash, Wagner-aligned Telegram channels were quick to decry the loss of the organization's commander. One such channel, with a following of over 11,000 users, described the event as a "great tragedy for the Fatherland" and implied Prigozhin's death was premeditated, stating, "Probably the one who arranged it thinks that he won, but it's not. If this is done by an external enemy, which is unlikely, it only brings closer and aggravates his inevitable defeat." Broadly similar sentiment has been echoed across numerous accounts. 

A Wagner-aligned Telegram channel shares an image of St. Petersburg offices

Outside of social media, there have been some public displays of mourning within Russia. Staff at the Wagner Group’s offices in St. Petersburg responded to Prigozhin’s reported demise by switching on lights to form a cross visible from the streets below. Videos showing a makeshift memorial close to this location have also circulated. According to images shared by the Wagner-aligned Telegram channel GRAY ZONE, which is not affiliated with the English-language outlet of the same name, this included the placement of candles and symbols associated with the group. 

A pro-Wagner Telegram Channel shares images of a memorial in St. Petersburg

On the long-term effects that Prigozhin's death is likely to have in relation to Wagner's rank and file, Kyle Walter, head of research at Logically, commented, "There is a pretty significant chance that PMC Wagner troops, particularly those involved in the attempted rebellion earlier this year, will be further disenfranchised with the Russian government. It's important to note that many were largely frustrated to begin with, which was much of the reason for the attempted rebellion. This will likely exacerbate those tensions."

While Prigozhin's death appears to have been mourned by some of his supporters, such sentiments will not be universal. Prior to his death, Prigozhin had become an increasingly polarising figure in Russia following his public feud with the country's military establishment and role in the Wagner Group's mutiny earlier in the summer.  

The future of the Wagner Group

"I think Wagner, as was, has gone," former British Army intelligence officer Colonel Philip Ingram told Logically Facts. "If anything, the fighters and staff will be absorbed into another PMC – possibly closely linked to the GRU."

According to Ingram, Prigozhin's death will have little or no impact on the Russian military since the Wagner troops weren't liked on account of being paid more and having better weapons and support. Addressing the factionalism present at higher levels of the Russian military establishment, he noted, "Shoigu and the Russian overall commander General Gerasimov will both breathe a sigh of relief as they did not see eye to eye with Prigzohin. However, commanders like General Surovikin will have a different view and may cause trouble, which is why he has been sidelined."

Since its withdrawal from the Ukrainian frontlines, the Wagner Group's importance to the Russian state has largely stemmed from its presence in numerous countries across Africa. For those hoping Prigozhin's death will lead to a decline in Russian influence on the continent, however, the odds do not seem overwhelmingly favorable. 

"The death of Prigozhin will likely surprise many of the individuals and nations PMC Wagner has been associated with. Realistically, the future-looking vision of Russian influence in Africa is in motion and is unlikely to change. But if significant domestic instability arises, it could lead to more questions," Walter told Logically Facts.

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