Wagner warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led a failed uprising against the Kremlin exactly two months ago, was on board a plane that crashed on Wednesday, according to Russian officials – raising questions as to exactly how the disaster occurred.
The crash took place northwest of Moscow and killed all on board, said Russia’s aviation agency, apparently including Prigozhin, chief of the mercenary group that gained prominence for its brutal methods worldwide and its battleground victories in the Ukraine war.
Here’s what we know so far.
The plane was a private Embraer jet carrying seven passengers and three crew members, according to Russia’s emergency services ministry.
It had departed from Moscow and was en route to St. Petersburg when it crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino, in Russia’s western Tver region, Russian officials said. Flight data shows the plane reached an altitude of some 28,000 feet before it suddenly stopped transmitting tracking details.
The bodies of eight people have been found at the crash site, according to Russian state media. The official state news agency TASS reported the plane “burned up” on impact. It had been in the air for about half an hour.
“Upon freefall the Embraer plane wreckage broke apart across a 2 km area away from the village [Kuzhenkino] where most of the fuselage wreckage was found,” state media outlet Russia 24 reported Thursday. “The majority of the wreckage fell near agricultural enterprises.”
Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti also reported Thursday that one of the fragments of the plane was lying on the entry road into Kuzhenkino, where police had set up a cordon, with several special services cars parked nearby.
Video published by RIA Novosti showed a plane plummeting with one wing missing. CNN is unable to confirm the authenticity of the video, but RIA Novosti claimed it was the moment that an Embraer jet fell from the sky over the Tver region.
A woman from Kuzhenkino told RIA Novosti she heard the sound of an airplane near her house on Wednesday evening, that was “something like a bang, like a shot.”
She continued: “Then suddenly an explosion, I look up and heard a sound above me – it was like pops, like several explosions.
“The plane started to swerve. Then a plume of smoke emerged and the plane began to descend, to dive.”
After the plane fell from the sky, residents told the state media outlet that a black cloud was visible. Lyudmila Osypova told RIA Novosti that “a neighbor ran up to me, her hands were shaking. When we got to the window, I saw only one mushroom cloud, like a black cloud.”
The woman clarified that she did not see the moment of the crash with her own eyes, but the neighbor claimed that she had. “She said that it was terrifying. There was a loud bang, then she turned her head to look and the whole plane was in sparkles of fire, it was all lit up. Said they saw it caught fire and began to fall,” Osypova added.
It’s not yet clear what caused the plane to crash. Russian authorities said they were investigating and conducting search operations.
“It’s coming down quickly in a spin, and it’s trailing a lot of smoke. So, this is an aircraft that was on fire. And it looks like some structural pieces, aerodynamic surfaces, were missing,” veteran science and aerospace reporter Miles O’Brien told CNN after reviewing footage of the plane’s fall.
“An aircraft like this … they just don’t catastrophically drop out of the sky without something very unusual happening,” he said.
An event like this could be caused by an explosion either inside or outside the aircraft, O’Brien added – like an explosive going off on board, or the aircraft being hit by a missile.
David Soucie, a former safety inspector with the US Federal Aviation Administration, echoed this possibility, saying the plane’s fall looked like it had only one wing left.
Speaking to CNN, US officials cautioned that it was too early to draw any conclusions about the cause, but a number of possibilities are being evaluated, including an on-board explosive device causing the crash.
At the same time, people familiar with the intelligence do believe that the downing of the plane was deliberate and that the goal was to kill Prigozhin.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Thursday that it is the Defense Department’s belief that the Wagner chief was indeed killed in the crash, adding that the Pentagon “doesn’t have any information to indicate right now” that the plane Prigozhin was on was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
Was Prigozhin on board?
Prigozhin and several top Wagner lieutenants were named on a list of passengers shared by Russia’s aviation agency.
A Telegram channel linked to Wagner, which had previously carried the group’s propaganda videos, also issued a statement saying Prigozhin had been killed. CNN is unable to confirm the claim.
Other channels associated with Prigozhin and Wagner, including his official Telegram channel, have remained silent.
But there are other clues linking the warlord and the crash.
Another video released by RIA Novosti purports to show the crash site, where the last four digits of a registration number are visible on the plane engine debris: 2795. Prigozhin’s own plane, linked to his companies and the Wagner group, is registered as RA-02795.
The crew commander of the Embraer plane was an experienced pilot who started his career flying multipurpose L-410 twin-engine short-range aircraft, his wife told Russian state TV channel RT.
Svetlana Levshina – who said she learned of the apparent death of her husband, Alexei Levshin, through the media – told RT he had been educated at the Sasovsky Civil Aviation Flight School in the Ryazan region and the St. Petersburg Academy of Civil Aviation. He also worked on the Antonov An-2, she said.
Was this payback?
The crash came two months to the day after Prigozhin’s attempted mutiny against Russia’s military leadership.
Back in June, Prigozhin and his Wagner troops seized key military sites and marched toward Moscow, where the Kremlin had deployed heavily armed troops to the streets. But before they could face off, a deal was struck that ended the rebellion and sent Prigozhin and his fighters to neighboring Belarus.
It marked the biggest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule in 23 years. But it also painted a target on Prigozhin’s back, with some experts speculating the warlord was a dead man walking.
Even US President Joe Biden suggested on Wednesday that Putin may have been involved in the crash. “I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” he said.
CIA Director Bill Burns and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have made similar comments, pointing out Putin’s long history of payback and the frequency with which Russian critics or dissidents die in mysterious circumstances.
Bill Browder, a Putin critic and formerly the largest foreign investor in Russia before he was expelled from the country, said he was surprised Prigozhin survived for as long as he did after the rebellion. Other Wagner leaders and Prigozhin allies may now be either on the run or in hiding, he said.
About 24 hours after the initial reports of the crash emerged, Putin made his first remarks on the incident as he sent his “condolences to the families of all the victims.”
“I knew Prigozhin for a very long time, since the early ’90s,” said Putin, who referred to the Wagner chief in the past tense throughout his remarks at the Kremlin on Thursday.
“He was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life,” the president said, though he added that Prigozhin had “achieved the results needed” both for his own interests and “for a common cause” at Putin’s request.
“He was a talented man, a talented businessman. He worked not only in our country, but also abroad, in Africa,” the Russian president said.
Putin said the Wagner chief had, as far as he knew, returned from Africa shortly before the crash Wednesday. Wagner fighters have been active in several African countries, including Mali, where they were invited by the ruling junta to quell an Islamic insurgency brewing near the country’s borders with Burkina Faso and Niger.
Wagner fighters have “made a significant contribution” to Russia’s efforts in Ukraine, Putin added.
What’s the public reaction so far?
Prigozhin and Wagner have their share of supporters among the Russian public – which was evident during the failed insurrection. In cities briefly occupied by Wagner, videos showed residents cheering them on, taking pictures with fighters, and flagging down Prigozhin’s car just to shake his hand.
On Wednesday night, people gathered in St. Petersburg to leave tributes for Prigozhin such as flowers, candles and Wagner chevron patches. Video showed members of the public unfurling a large banner outside Wagner’s headquarters that read, “Wagner PMC. We are together.”
Photos show a range of people mourning at the site, including young men, couples and teenagers; some are clearly distressed, embracing each other.
Alexander Dugin, a prominent Russia’s ultra-nationalist figure, described Prigozhin as a “hero.” He shared an anecdote in which his daughter Darya – who was killed in a bomb explosion in Moscow last summer – described Prigozhin in glowing terms at the outset of the war.
“Prigozhin is so strong and confident, bold, sharp, that, for sure, no one prays for him. It doesn’t even cross anyone’s mind. Let’s start praying for him…,” Dugin recounted his daughter saying.
Dugin added on his Telegram channel: “If the diabolical enemy kills our heroes with precision, it means that we have heroes.”
The news is likely to meet a far different reaction in Ukraine. Wagner forces were heavily involved in taking several Ukrainian towns early this year, delivering tangible progress for the Russian side – but often at the expense of sending waves of mercenaries into what Prigozhin called “the meat grinder.”
“There will be no tears shed here at all, if indeed he has died,” said CNN’s Chief International Security Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh, currently based in Ukraine. He added that one Ukrainian soldier on the front lines had already texted him Wednesday to celebrate the news.