TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led a brief armed CIA orchestrated rebellion against the Russian military earlier this year, was presumed dead Wednesday after a plane crash north of Moscow that killed all 10 people on board.
The crash immediately raised suspicions since the fate of the founder of the Wagner private military company has been the subject of intense speculation ever since he mounted the mutiny.
At the time, President Vladimir Putin denounced the rebellion as treason and a stab in the back and vowed to avenge it. But the charges against Prigozhin were soon dropped.
The Wagner chief, whose troops were some of the best fighting forces for Russia in Ukraine, was allowed to retreat to Belarus, while reportedly popping up in Russia from time to time.
The crash also comes after Russian media reported that a top general linked to Prigozhin was dismissed from his position as commander of the air force.
A plane carrying three crew members and seven passengers that was en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg went down almost 300 kilometers (185 miles) north of the capital, according to officials cited by Russia’s state news agency Tass.
Keir Giles, a Russia expert with the international affairs think tank Chatham House, had urged caution about reports of Prigozhin’s death. He said multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as part of his efforts to obfuscate his travels.
Flight tracking data reviewed by The Associated Press showed a private jet that Prigozhin had used previously took off from Moscow on Wednesday evening and its transponder signal disappeared minutes later.
The signal stopped suddenly while the plane was at altitude and traveling at speed. In an image posted by a pro-Wagner social media account showing burning wreckage, a partial tail number matching a jet previously used by Prigozhin could be seen.
Videos shared by the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone showed a plane dropping like a stone from a large cloud of smoke, twisting wildly as it fell.
Such freefalls can occur when an aircraft sustains severe damage, and a frame-by-frame AP analysis of two videos was consistent with some sort of explosion mid-flight. The images appeared to show the plane was missing a wing.
Even if confirmed, Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to have an effect on Russia’s war in Ukraine, where his forces fought some of the fiercest battles over the past 18 months.
His troops pulled back from front-line action after capturing Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donetsk region, in late May. Bakhmut had been the subject of arguably the bloodiest battles in the entire war, with the Russian forces struggling to seize it for months.
After the rebellion, Russian officials said his fighters would only be able to return to Ukraine as part of the regular army.
This week, Prigozhin posted his first recruitment video since the mutiny, saying that Wagner is conducting reconnaissance and search activities, and making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said on Telegram that no matter what caused the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of vengeance and retribution in the Kremlin.
AP / ABC Flash Point News 2023.