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A law enforcement officer works at the site of a plane crash near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, on 24 August 2023. Russian state-run news agencies on 23 August 2023 said that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group that led a mutiny against Russia's army in June, was on the list of passengers of a plane that crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region. (Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Wagner Leader Prigozhin Presumed Dead in Plane Crash

A business jet traveling on Wednesday from Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, Russia, to St. Petersburg crashed in the Tver region, killing all 10 people on board, according to the Russian Ministry of Emergency Services.

Among the list of three crew members and seven passengers reportedly on the flight was Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the Wagner mercenary group and former ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Russian military bloggers and a senior Western intelligence official who spoke to The New York Times. Official confirmation of Prigozhin's death, however, has not yet been obtained.

“Russian officials and the Wagner Group have yet to officially confirm the fate of [Prigozhin],” according to The Washington Post.

But Russia’s civilian aviation agency, Rosaviatsia, and a Russia-appointed official in an occupied region of Ukraine claim that Prigozhin was on board the plane, according to NPR.  

Also reportedly on the Embraer jet plane was Prigozhin’s second-in-command, Dmitry Utkin, and another associate, Valery Chekalov. The other passengers were identified as Sergei Propustin, Yevgeny Makaryan, Alexander Totmin, and Nikolai Matuseyev, according to BBC News.

“The bodies of eight people have been found at the crash site, state media outlet Russia 24 reported,” according to CNN.

Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti posted a video showing a plane falling with one wing missing, however, the video’s authenticity has not yet been confirmed. 

Keir Giles, a Russia expert with Chatham House, has expressed hesitation to accept the reports that Prigozhin is dead. In an interview with NPR, Giles said “multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeny Prigozhin, as part of his efforts to obfuscate his travels.” 

In late June 2023, Prigozhin led a day-long armed rebellion attempting to overthrow Russia’s defense minister. The rebellion was allegedly in response to a Russian missile attack against Wagner forces because of a dispute about how the Russian military was handling the war with Ukraine.

Putin labeled Prigozhin and his force’s actions as treason. Ultimately, an agreement between Prigozhin and the Russian government resulted in dropping the charges against Prigozhin (although he remains under investigation for treason), Wagner forces halting their march on Moscow, and Prigozhin moving to Belarus while his troops were ordered to return to Ukraine. 

Prigozhin most recently made a public appearance on Monday in a video message where he announced a recruitment drive for Wagner with the promise that the group would be expanding its presence in Africa.

“Even if confirmed, Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to have an effect on Russia’s war in Ukraine, where his forces fought some of the fiercest battles over the last 18 months,” NPR noted. Most Wagner forces had already left Ukraine in favor of operations in other nations.

Given the soured relationship between Prigozhin—who did not remain in Belarus—and Putin, speculations about the cause of the crash have risen.

“Wagner-linked Telegram channel Grey Zone reported the jet had been shot down by the Russian military—although it provided no evidence to support its claim,” according to BBC News.

The Russian government has not issued a statement on the cause of the crash.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky affirmed that Ukraine was not involved in the plane crash.

Russia’s Investigative Committee has opened a criminal investigation into the cause of the crash, citing charges of air safety rule violations, with the governor of the Tver region leading the probe.