By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — A private jet belonging to the Wagner mercenary group has crashed en route to St. Petersburg from Moscow, with officials saying the company’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was one of 10 people on the passenger list.
“An Embraer Legacy private jet has crashed outside the Kuzhenkino populated locality in the Tver region. Ten people, including three crew members, were on board. According to preliminary reports, everyone on board was killed,” the Emergency Ministry’s press service said in a statement on August 23.
The Federal Agency for Air Transport of Russia (Rosaviatsiya) added that “according to the passenger list, first and last name of Yevgeny Prigozhin was included.” However, there has been no confirmation that Prigozhin was actually onboard.
Prigozhin and Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin were listed among seven passengers on the jet, the aviation authority said, quoting the airline. Two pilots and a flight attendant also were onboard the plane, the aviation authority said.
Rosaviatsiya said an investigation into the incident has been launched.
“The Commission of the Federal Air Transport Agency is starting initial actions at the scene and has also begun collecting factual materials on the training of the crew, the technical condition of the aircraft, the meteorological situation on the flight route, the work of dispatch services and ground radio equipment,” the aviation authority’s statement said.
There has been no official confirmation from the Kremlin or the Defense Ministry that Prigozhin and Utkin died, but a Telegram channel linked to Wagner pronounced Prigozhin dead.
The channel, Grey Zone, declared Prigozhin a hero and a patriot who it said had died at the hands of unidentified people it called “traitors to Russia.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said he was “not surprised” at news that Prigozhin might have died in the plane crash.
“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 Vladimir] Putin’s not behind. But I don’t know enough to know the answer.”
Emergency services officials quoted by state news agency RIA Novosti said that the bodies of eight people have been found in the wreckage. The agency did not say whether any of the bodies had been identified.
Officials did not comment on any possible reason for the crash.
A onetime close ally of Putin, Prigozhin led a short-lived mutiny on June 24 that saw Wagner fighters seize the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and march to within 200 kilometers of Moscow. A Russian military aircraft was shot down during the mutiny and altogether 13 Russian Air Force personnel were killed. It was the most serious challenge to Putin in his more than two decades in power.
Prigozhin was not arrested or detained at the time, but Putin denounced the insurrection as a “stab in the back” and vowed to punish all “traitors” involved.
“All those who consciously chose the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed mutiny, who chose the path of blackmail and terrorism, will suffer an inevitable punishment,” Putin said.
The Wagner chief’s whereabouts have been largely a mystery since the mutiny.
He appeared in his first video since the mutiny earlier this week. In footage possibly shot in Africa and published on August 21 on Telegram channels affiliated with the Wagner group, Prigozhin is seen standing in a desert area in camouflage and with a rifle in his hands.
Earlier, he was believed to be moving between Russia and Belarus, where Wagner troops have been setting up camps to train Belarusian armed forces as part of a deal negotiated to help end the mutiny.
The insurrection came on the heels of months of intense public infighting with Russia’s military leadership over the war strategy in Ukraine and ammunition supplies.
The head of the U.S. CIA, William Burns, said last month that Putin would likely seek retribution against Prigozhin.
“Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback,” he said, speaking on July 20 at the Aspen Security Forum.
He said he would be surprised if Prigozhin escaped further retribution.
“So in that sense, [President Joe] Biden is right. If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster,” Burns added, referring to a quip by Biden earlier that week that if he were Prigozhin, “I’d be careful what I ate.”
Earlier on August 23, RIA Novosti and other media outlets reported that General Sergei Surovikin, a top Russian officer who has ties to Prigzohin, had been relieved of his command of Russia’s Aerospace Forces.
The reports indicated that Surovikin had not been fired nor demoted, nor even imprisoned, as some observers had expected in the wake of the June rebellion.
Surovikin is being replaced temporarily as commander of the Aerospace Forces by General Viktor Aflazov, according RIA Novosti. Aflazov oversaw the forces last year when Surovikin was briefly put in charge of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.