Shortly before the crash, the Prigozhin jet disappeared from radar

According to Russian news agencies, the private plane of the head of the Wagner mercenary group crashed. Much is still unclear. DW has compiled what is known about the crash so far.

A private jet belonging to the head of the Russian Wagner mercenary force, Yevgeny Prigozhin, according to official sources, has crashed near the village of Kushenkino in Russia’s Tver region. According to the Russian Ministry of Emergencies, there were ten people on board, including three crew members. The plane was on its way from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

Rozaviatsia, the Russian aviation authority, has since confirmed that Prigozhin was on board the flight and was one of the fatalities.

Information circulating in the Russian Telegram channels, which can be attributed to the Wagner group, says that Prigozhin’s right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin, was said to have been on board the plane and died.

Plane did not descend before crash – it disappeared from radar

There is still no official explanation as to how the crash could have happened. The Telegram channel Gray Zone, which is close to the Wagner group, claims that Prigozhin’s plane was shot down by Russian air defenses. However, there is no reliable evidence for this.

The Telegram channel Baza, which belongs to the Russian police, only reported, citing the website, that the plane had not started to descend before the crash – it disappeared from the radar as it gained altitude.

A second private plane, which also belongs to Prigozhin and took off from Moscow some time after the crashed plane, turned around immediately after the crash and has now landed in Moscow again.

From Africa back to Russia?

On August 21, Yevgeny Prigozhin spoke via video on his Telegram channel for the first time since the Wagner uprising at the end of June. He spoke of wanting to make Russia bigger on all continents and Africa more free. In this video, Prigozhin stands in a desert in camouflage, holding a rifle.

Gunmen and a pickup truck can be seen in the distance. It could not be clearly verified whether the video was really shot in Africa. However, some posts in Wagner-related Telegram channels suggest this conclusion. The Russian journalist Andrei Sakharov also confirmed that Prigozhin is said to have actually flown from Africa to Russia on the day of the crash.

Initially, there had been some confusion as to whether Prigozhin was actually on the crashed private jet. The fact that he was on the passenger list of the private jet that has now crashed did not necessarily mean that he was actually on board. The Wagner boss is known for having several doubles who even have official identification documents with the same name and date of birth as Prigozhin himself.

It is also not the first time that Prigozhin is said to have died in a plane crash. Something similar was reported back in 2019 when it allegedly crashed in Congo. Two Russian citizens were killed at the time, but Prigozhin was not among them.

What are the reactions from Russia?

The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation has opened an investigation into the plane crash. Rosaviatsia has also launched an investigation into the cause of the crash. “All versions of the incident,” it says, “are being considered, including pilot error, technical failure and external influences.”

Some Russian journalists, citing their sources, said early on Wednesday evening on their social media that Prigozhin was actually on board the plane and was among the dead. The independent St. Petersburg medium “Fontanka” also reported on it. Several war bloggers, propagandists and supporters of Prigozhin said they were “shocked and just couldn’t believe it”.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a visit to Kursk, where he handed out medals to veterans live on TV to mark the 80th anniversary of the battle there against Nazi troops in World War II.

Could it have been more than an accident?

It’s entirely possible that the crash wasn’t a simple accident. After nearly a decade in prison, Prigozhin began his career as Putin’s cook. He was later deployed around the world as Putin’s “darling” to the Kremlin to perform military-political tasks, to secure and increase Russian influence with arms. His mercenary group Wagner was active in Syria, several African countries and the Ukraine.

In fact, Prigozhin was so important to Putin and the Kremlin that he was above Russian law. He recruited Russian prisoners for his mercenary force in Ukraine. But Prigozhin became so powerful that he became more than uncomfortable for the Kremlin.

He began provocatively, publicly and, above all, loudly criticizing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian tactics in the war against Ukraine. The whole thing finally culminated in a mutiny in which he and thousands of his soldiers marched towards Moscow in a so-called “March for Justice”.

Vladimir Putin publicly forgave him and promised not to prosecute, but Prigozhin was exiled to Belarus along with his Wagner mercenaries. It was inconceivable to many that he could get away with such an apparent power struggle with Putin. It’s entirely possible that today’s plane crash – exactly two months to the day after the start of his uprising – was more than a simple accident.

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