Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group which in June attempted to topple Russia's military leadership, was on board a plane that crashed on Wednesday, with all passengers killed, Russian officials have said.

Though official identification of Prigozhin’s body has not yet been confirmed, a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel, Grey Zone, said he was dead, hailing him a hero and a patriot killed by unidentified people it called “traitors to Russia.”

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UPDATE: Russian media has reported that Prigozhin’s body has been positively identified.

Let’s start with the most pressing question first…

Who did it? 

Officially, we don’t know. 

Unofficially, if it wasn’t President Putin it will be one of the biggest plot twists of the long-running Wagner saga.

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Prigozhin’s short-lived rebellion was seen as the biggest challenge to Putin's authority since he came to power and is more than enough motive for a man who is no stranger to assassinations.

International reaction to the plane crash was neither cautious nor subtle.

“I don't know for a fact what happened, but I'm not surprised," United States President Joe Biden said.

“There's not much that happens in Russia that (President) Putin's not behind. But I don't know enough to know the answer.”

Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said on social media that the plane crash was “a signal from Putin to Russia's elites ahead of the 2024 elections. 'Beware! Disloyalty equals death'.”

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The Institute for the Study of War (ISW)said Putin “almost certainly” ordered the death of Prigozhin, adding: “Elements of the Russian military, especially Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, would be extremely unlikely to execute Prigozhin without Putin’s order.”

What has Putin said?

Nothing so far. Putin has given a speech for the 80th anniversary of the Kursk battle in World War II but did not mention the crash and hailed “all our soldiers who are fighting bravely and resolutely” in the special military operation in Ukraine.

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The Kremlin and the defence ministry were yet to react.

What was the cause of the crash?

What caused the plane to plummet from the sky pouring smoke is not known for certain at this stage, but according to flight tracking data the aircraft appeared fine until a precipitous drop in its final 30 seconds.

“Whatever happened, happened quickly,” Ian Petchenik of Flightradar24 told Reuters.

 The plane – a Brazilian Embraer (EMBR3.SA) Legacy 600 executive jet – has a pretty solid safety record, recording only one accident in over 20 years of service.

 Videos posted to social media show what some have claimed is the smoke trail of an anti-aircraft missile though this theory has not yet been confirmed.

What do we know for sure?

 Russia's ministry for emergency situations on Wednesday announced the crash of a private plane travelling between Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

According to preliminary information, all 10 people on board died, including three crew members, the ministry said.

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Russia's aviation agency later said the Wagner chief was on board the plane.

“According to the airline, the following passengers were on board the Embraer-135 (EBM-135BJ) aircraft:... Prigozhin, Yevgeny,” said Rosaviatsia.

It also listed Dmitry Utkin, a shadowy figure who managed Wagner's operations and allegedly served in Russian military intelligence.

The bodies of eight people have been found so far at the site of the crash, RIA Novosti said citing the emergency services.

Footage posted to social media purportedly showed the wreckage of the plane burning in a field.

Russian law enforcement officials were standing guard at the crash site near the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region early on Thursday, AFP images showed.

How are Russians reacting? 

In Saint Petersburg, people laid flowers and patches bearing the Wagner skull logo at a makeshift memorial outside the private mercenary group's headquarters, AFP journalists said.

“Guys, we just have no words right now,” said a masked man and alleged members of Wagner at the site.

“Let's support Yevgeny Viktorovich (Prigozhin) and all our commanders. We need your support now.”

Will there be an official investigation?

Rosaviatsia said it set up a special commission to investigate the crash of the aircraft belonging to MNT-Aero.

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Russia's Investigative Committee, which probes serious crimes, said it opened an investigation into the crash.

Background 

Prigozhin came into the spotlight during Russia's offensive in Ukraine, launched on February 24, 2022, having previously operated in the shadows.

He spearheaded the capture of several Ukrainian towns including Bakhmut, and harshly criticised Russia's conventional military leadership.

But Prigozhin was locked in a bitter months-long power struggle with Russia's defence ministry, which he accused of trying to “steal” Wagner's victories.

Tensions degenerated into a short-lived rebellion on June 23 and 24.

Thousands of mercenaries took up weapons and marched from southern Russia towards Moscow aiming to topple the country's military leaders.

The mutiny ended with a deal under which Prigozhin was expected to move to neighbouring Belarus with some of his men, where they began training the ex-Soviet country's special forces.

But the fate of Prigozhin remained unclear: he seemed to enjoy a certain amount of freedom and took part in a meeting at the Kremlin where he refused to cede command of his mercenary group.

Still, he mostly remained out of the public eye.

 His Telegram channel – where he usually communicated – has been inactive since the end of June. Wagner-linked Telegram channels instead purportedly relayed rare messages.

On Monday, video footage circulated showing Prigozhin apparently in Africa, which he vowed to make "freer".

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The mercenary group maintains a strong military presence on the continent, where it has partnered with several nations, including Mali and the Central African Republic.

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Comments (2)

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Christopher Zylstra
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"Shoigu! Where are my missles, Shoiguuuu!"

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

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Dude
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Distance from Moscow center, to Kuzhenkino: 317km.

Distance from Kuzhenkino to St Petersburg center: 317km.

Seems like a pretty obvious willful hint, it was not an accident, hitting the plane right in the middle...

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