Yevgeny Prigozhin in fatal plane crash, Russian officials say

An aircraft said to be carrying notorious warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose Wagner group launched a failed mutiny in June, has crashed on a flight from Moscow to St Petersburg, according to Russian officials.

All 10 people on the plane, including three crew members, died in the crash, Russia’s emergency ministry said, according to state newswire RIA Novosti.

Russia’s aviation agency published a list of names of people aboard the jet, including Prigozhin and his right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin.

A social media page linked to Wagner also reported Prigozhin’s death late on Wednesday.

“The head of the Wagner Group, a hero of Russia and true patriot . . . died as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia,” the Grey Zone channel on Telegram said.

“But even in hell, he will be the best! Glory to Russia!” it said.

Prigozhin’s death would mark a spectacular end to his career. After playing a prominent role in Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin in June led his paramilitary force on a historic, abortive mutiny march on Moscow.

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin speaks into a camera at an unknown location
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin speaks into a camera at an unknown location © Razgruzka Vagnera/Telegram/AP

Videos shared on social media channels known to be close to the Russian security services showed graphic images of a crash site in the Tver region north-west of Moscow, near the village of Kuzhenkino. The footage appeared to show emergency services approaching the burning carcass of a plane.

The Russian investigative committee said it had opened a criminal case in relation to the crash. Rosaviatsiya, the Russian aviation agency, said it had launched a commission and was searching for the plane’s black box.

A post by Grey Zone, a Wagner-connected social media channel, claimed Russian anti-aircraft defences had shot down the plane. It said that residents heard “two bursts of characteristic air defence fire” before the crash. “This is confirmed by inversion traces in the sky in one of the videos,” it added.

Mash, a news outlet on social media app Telegram, said locals had heard two loud bangs before the crash.

Putin was speaking at a concert to commemorate the second world war in the Kursk region near the border with Ukraine when the crash was reported.

US president Joe Biden, who is on holiday in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, told reporters he did not “know for a fact what happened” but was “not surprised”. He added: “Not much happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”

A spokeswoman for the US National Security Council said: “If confirmed, no one should be surprised. The disastrous war in Ukraine led to a private army marching on Moscow, and now — it would seem — to this.”

A western official said they had been told the plane had been brought down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile system but could not confirm whether Prigozhin was on board, adding: “Putin doesn’t take prisoners.”

Flightpath of Prigozhin’s plane, shot down en route to St Petersburg

A former Kremlin caterer known as “Putin’s chef”, Prigozhin emerged as one of the most important leaders of Russia’s war effort before souring on the military’s leadership to such an extent that he launched a coup against them in late June.

Although Wagner’s men in effect seized control of two big cities in southern Russia, killing at least 13 soldiers as they downed two helicopters and a plane on their march to Moscow, Putin had appeared to forgive them.

Under an agreement with the Kremlin, Wagner decamped for exile in neighbouring Belarus, whose leader Alexander Lukashenko brokered the truce.

Prigozhin said last month that Wagner’s men would eventually redeploy to Africa, where the group continues to fight as mercenaries in several conflicts. He appeared in a video on Monday saying that he was in Africa on a mission to “make Russia even greater on all continents”.

Although Prigozhin appeared to have been reintegrated into the Russian security establishment, US officials had said they expected he would face retribution.

“Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold,” William Burns, CIA director, said while speaking at the Aspen Security Forum last month. “Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback so I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution.”

The aircraft, an Embraer Legacy, was the same plane that Prigozhin had regularly used to travel around Russia and as far away as Africa, according to flight tracking site Flightradar24. Recently, the jet had been making trips to Belarus.

When the Embraer jet last broadcast its position, it was flying at 28,000ft near Tver and moving at a ground speed of 513 knots. The route appears to be the aircraft’s normal flight path to St Petersburg, a run it last made on July 6.

Video of the crash and its aftermath posted by social media with ties to Russian security services showed the plane rapidly descending from the sky, accompanied by a plume resembling shots fired from anti-aircraft defences, before crashing to the ground in a ball of flames.

Video description

Footage posted on a Wagner-linked Telegram channel shows a plane falling in the sky near the village of Kuzhenkino

A video grab taken from footage posted on a Wagner-linked Telegram channel shows a plane falling in the sky near the village of Kuzhenkino

Footage posted on a Wagner-linked Telegram channel shows a plane falling in the sky near the village of Kuzhenkino © Telegram/@grey_zone/AFP/Reuters

Footage posted on a Wagner-linked Telegram channel shows a plane falling in the sky near the village of Kuzhenkino

However, Mash also reported that security services were investigating the possibility of a “terrorist attack on board” as another potential cause of the blast.

Earlier on Wednesday, it was reported that Russia’s army had dismissed Sergei Surovikin, a prominent general believed to be close to Prigozhin, as head of its aerospace forces amid a crackdown on potential Wagner sympathisers.

State newswire RIA Novosti cited an “informed source” saying Surovikin had been “relieved of his post” and replaced by Viktor Afzalov, the aerospace force chief of staff. Surovikin has not been seen in public since the failed mutiny.

Additional reporting by Chris Cook


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