Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led a brief armed rebellion against the Kremlin earlier this year, was killed Wednesday when a private jet crashed in Russia, killing all 10 people on board, the Wagner Group and Russia’s Aviation Authority said.
On its Telegram group, Wagner said its leader Prigozhin, “Hero of Russia, a true patriot of his Motherland… died as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia.”
Earlier Russian authorities had said Prigozhin was on the passenger list of the jet, but there was initially no confirmation he had been on the plane.
The crash immediately raised suspicions since the fate of the founder of the Wagner private military company had been the subject of intense speculation ever since he mounted the mutiny. The Kremlin said he would be exiled to Belarus, but the mercenary chief, whose troops were some of the best fighting forces for Russia in Ukraine, had since reportedly popped up in Russia.
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.
The plane carrying three pilots and seven passengers that was en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg went down more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the capital, according to officials cited by Russia’s state news agency Tass.
Vladimir Rogov, a Russia-appointed official in the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia region in Ukraine, said he talked to Wagner commanders, who confirmed that Prigozhin and a top associate were on board when the crashed plane.
“We have seen the reports. If confirmed, no one should be surprised,” said US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
BREAKING ⚡️Wagner Leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who launched an attempted coup against Putin in June, along with atleast 10 others, have been killed in a plane crash in Russia's Tver region pic.twitter.com/41Dkq2OzwB
— Megh Updates ????™ (@MeghUpdates) August 23, 2023
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 show a plane plummeting from a large cloud of smoke, twisting widely as it falls. Such freefalls can occur when an aircraft sustains severe damage, and a frame-by-frame analysis by The AP of two videos was consistent with some sort of explosion mid-flight. The images appear to show the plane is missing a wing.
Russia’s Investigative Committee is investigating the crash, on the charges of violation of air safety rules.
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.”
Also this week, Russian media reported, citing anonymous sources, that Gen. Sergei Surovikin was dismissed from his position as the commander of Russia’s air force. Surovikin, who at one point led Russia’s operation in Ukraine, hasn’t been seen in public since the mutiny, when he recorded a video address urging Prigozhin’s forces to pull back.
As the news about the crash was breaking, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at an event commemorating the Battle of Kursk, hailing the heroes of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden was briefed on the crash, and said he did not know for a fact what happened, but that he was “not surprised” by Prigozhin’s death.
“There is not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind, but I don’t know enough to know the answer,” Biden said.