Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and some of his top lieutenants were presumed dead in a plane crash — widely seen Thursday as an assassination to avenge a mutiny that challenged President Vladimir Putin’s authority.
The founder of the Wagner military company and six other passengers were on a private jet that crashed Wednesday, soon after taking off from Moscow with a crew of three, according to Russia's civil aviation authority. Rescuers found 10 bodies, and Russian media cited anonymous sources in Wagner who said Prigozhin was dead. But there has been no official confirmation.
At Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, lights were turned on in the shape of a large cross, and Prigozhin supporters built a makeshift memorial, piling red and white flowers outside the building Thursday, along with company flags and candles.
Putin remained silent as speculation swirled, addressing the BRICS summit in Johannesburg via videolink without mentioning the crash. Russian state media also have not covered it extensively, instead focusing on the summit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Police, meanwhile, cordoned off the field where the plane went down in Kuzhenkino, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) northwest of Moscow, as investigators studied its wreckage. Vehicles took away the bodies.
Several Russian social media channels reported that the bodies were burned or disfigured beyond recognition and would need to be identified by DNA. The reports were picked up by independent Russian media, but the Associated Press was not able to independently confirm them.
Prigozhin supporters claimed on pro-Wagner messaging app channels that the plane was deliberately downed, including suggesting it could have been hit by an air defense missile or targeted by a bomb on board. Those claims could not be independently verified.
Russian authorities have said the cause of the crash is under investigation.
Kuzhenkino resident Anastasia Bukharova, 27, said she was walking with her children Wednesday when she saw the jet, “and then — boom! — it exploded in the sky and began to fall down.” She said she was scared it would hit houses in the village and ran with the children, but it ended up crashing into a field.
“Something sort of was torn from it in the air, and it began to go down and down,” she added.
Numerous opponents and critics of Putin have been killed or gravely sickened in apparent assassination attempts, and U.S. and other Western officials long expected the Russian leader to go after Prigozhin, despite promising to drop charges in a deal that ended the June 23-24 mutiny.
"It is no coincidence that the whole world immediately looks at the Kremlin when a disgraced ex-confidant of Putin suddenly falls from the sky, two months after he attempted an uprising,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, while acknowledging that the facts were still unclear.
“We know this pattern … in Putin’s Russia — deaths and dubious suicides, falls from windows that all ultimately remain unexplained,” she added.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also pointed the finger. “We have nothing to do with this. Everyone understands who does,” he said.
Further fueling speculation that the plane crash was a strike at the heart of Wagner, among those aboard was a top Prigozhin associate, Dmitry Utkin, according to the civil aviation authority. Utkin's call sign was Wagner, which became the company’s name.
The crash also came the same week that Russian media reported that Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a former top commander in Ukraine who was reportedly linked to Prigozhin, was dismissed from his post as commander of Russia’s air force.
Prigozhin was long outspoken and critical of how Russian generals were waging the war in Ukraine, where his mercenaries were some of the fiercest fighters for the Kremlin. For a long time, Putin appeared content to allow such infighting — and Prigozhin seemed to have unusual latitude to speak his mind.
But Prigozhin's brief revolt raised the ante. His mercenaries swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there without firing a shot. They then drove to within about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of Moscow and downed several military aircraft, killing more than a dozen Russian pilots.
Putin first denounced the rebellion — the most serious challenge to his authority of his 23-year rule — as “treason” and a “stab in the back.” He vowed to punish its perpetrators — and the world waited for Putin's move, particularly since Prigozhin had publicly questioned the Russian leader's justifications for the war in Ukraine, seen as a red line.
But instead Putin made a deal that saw an end to the mutiny in exchange for an amnesty for Prigozhin and his mercenaries and permission for them to move to Belarus.
Now many are suggesting the punishment has finally come.
“The downing of the plane was certainly no mere coincidence,” Janis Sarts, director of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, told Latvian television.
Even if confirmed, Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to have an effect on Russia’s war in Ukraine. His forces fought some of the bloodiest battles over the last 18 months, but pulled back from the frontline after capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut in late May. After the rebellion, Russian officials said his fighters would only be able to return to Ukraine as part of the regular army.
The Institute for the Study of War argued that Russian authorities likely moved against Prigozhin and his top associates as “the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organization.”
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.
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, one of its wings apparently missing. A freefall like that typically occurs 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.
Updated August 24, 2023 at 10:10 a.m. ET with latest details.