Wagner-linked media has reported that its chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has been killed in a private jet crash and blamed Russia for the jet’s downing. Moscow aviation authorities confirmed that Prigozhin was on board.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the mercenary Wagner Group, was on a business jet that crashed in Russia on Wednesday, Wagner-linked media said. Russian aviation authorities also said Prigozhin was on the flight.
All 10 people on board including three crew members were killed in the crash. Eight bodies were found at the crash site following the first investigations, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
“According to the airline, the following passengers were on board the Embraer – 135 (EBM-135BJ) aircraft:… Prigozhin, Yevgeny,” said Rosaviatsia, Russia’s aviation agency.
Leader of Wagner group Yevgeny Prigozhin thought to be dead
Rosaviatsia also said Dmitry Utkin, an associate of Prigozhin and shadowy figure who managed Wagner’s operations, was also traveling on the plane with the Wagner chief.
Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel Grey Zone confirmed Prigozhin’s death, calling him a hero and a patriot. The post also claimed he had died at the hands of unidentified people it called “traitors to Russia.”
“An investigation has been launched into the Embraer plane crash that occurred tonight in the Tver region. According to the passenger list, among them is the name and surname of Yevgeny Prigozhin,” Rosaviatsia, the Russian civil aviation authority, said regarding the plane’s crashing.
The jet was reportedly en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg when it crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in Tver, a region over 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the Russian capital.
The Embraer jet model has only recorded one accident in over 20 years of service, and that was not related to mechanical failure.
Russian officials: Prigozhin killed in plane crash
“It may well be that this crash was not a tragic accident,” said DW Russia bureau chief Juri Rescheto. “He became very important for the Kremlin. He became so powerful he was extremely inconvenient and dared to publicly and loudly doubt the sense of the war in Ukraine.”
If Prigozhin’s death is confirmed, “I can imagine that the Wagner Group will no longer exist as a fighting force,” Rescheto added.
There have been many questions about Prigozhin’s whereabouts since he led his mercenary soldiers on a short-lived mutiny against Moscow on June 23.
A video, allegedly of Prigozhin, was released just two days ago on Telegram and appeared to show him in Africa. It would be his first video since the abandoned mutiny.
White House: Prigozhin’s death ‘no surprise’
The White House also acknowledged the news and President Joe Biden spoke with reporters candidly on the matter as he was leaving a fitness studio, while on vacation.
Prigozhin reported dead
“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” Biden said, adding “there’s not much that happens in Russia that (President) Putin’s not behind. But I don’t know enough to know the answer.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukrainian presidential adviser, reacted to the news on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, saying it was “obvious” Putin would make an example of Prigozhin.
“The demonstrative elimination of Prigozhin and the Wagner command two months after the coup attempt is a signal from Putin to Russia’s elites ahead of the 2024 elections,” Podolyak added.
Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau on state news channel TVP Info said Prigozhin’s death could not be a coincidence. “It so happens that political opponents whom Vladimir Putin considers a threat to his power do not die naturally,” he added.
“If true, it shows Putin will eliminate opponents and that scares anyone who is thinking of expressing an opinion different than his,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told CNN.
Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?
Wagner forces were involved in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, having played a key role in the battle for Bakhmut. However, disputes between the mercenary group and the official Russian army built up until Prigozhin decided to pull his troops out of Ukraine and march on Moscow, taking the key city of Rostov-on-Don in the process.
The 62-year-old had railed against Russia’s military leadership in the months beforehand, verbally attacking Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov in particular. He complained about a lack of supplies for his forces and eventually said that Russian forces had fired on Wagner mercenaries.
The rebellion was brought to an end following negotiations mediated by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and the agreement that the mercenary leader would go to Belarus with his forces. However, conflicting reports suggested that he left Belarus shortly afterward.
Prigozhin led short-lived mutiny against Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin described Prigozhin’s actions as “treason” in a public address that came hours after the mercenaries began their march.
Prior to that, Prigozhin had been a key ally to Putin, having once served as his private caterer. He used his position to launch numerous businesses, including the Wagner Group.
His open challenge to the Kremlin and the Russian president’s rule was one of the greatest since Putin first came to power over 20 years ago.