Russian government: Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin recorded on plane that crashed without survivors

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Friday, August 25, 2023

Prigozhin in Ulyanovsk in June.
Image: УлПравда ТВ.
RA-02795 in 2022.
Image: Anna Zvereva.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, 62, a Russian businessman whose Wagner Group private military company briefly clashed with government forces and advanced on Moscow in June, was among the ten passengers listed for an Embraer plane that crashed in Tver Oblast Wednesday without survivors, the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency said Wednesday.

The Grey Zone, a Telegram account supportive of Wagner, declared without evidence the jet was "shot down by an anti-aircraft system under the control of the ministry of defence of the Russian Federation." It said: "Today is exactly two months since the march of justice."

Making the flight from Moscow to Saint Petersburg was an Embraer Legacy 600, tail number RA-02795; the US sanctioned the jet in 2019, citing ties to Prigozhin. After approximately half an hour's flight, Flightradar24 data indicated the plane plummeting at almost 8,000 feet per minute by 6:19 PM (15:19 UTC) and ceasing to report its altitude, after rapidly alternating between gaining and losing altitude from a cruise at about 28,000 feet.

The Federal Air Transport Agency said "[a]n investigation has been launched", reporting others recorded aboard were Sergey Propustin, Evgeniy Makaryan, Aleksandr Totmin, Valeriy Chekalov, Dmitry Utkin — an agent of military intelligence who became a Wagner field commander, Nikolay Matuseev, and on the crew Commander Aleksei Levshin, Rustam Karimov, as copilot, and Kristina Raspopova, as a flight attendant.

Today, Russian government spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declared Moscow had nothing to do with the crash: "There has been a lot of speculation around this crash [and] the tragic deaths of the plane's passengers, among them Yevgeny Prigozhin. Of course, the West presents all this speculation from a particular angle. All of that is sheer lies [...] One should rely on facts. For now, there are not many facts, they have yet to be established in the ongoing investigative procedures."

Putin, on television yesterday, offered "sincere condolences to the families of all the victims", including Prigozhin, a "talented businessman" he explained he first met in the early 1990s: "He [Prigozhin] was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life [...] He achieved the results needed both for himself and when I asked him about it - for a common cause, as in these last months."

According to a US official who spoke to ABC News United States today, the working theory is an explosion, perhaps from a bomb, occurred on the Embraer and prompted its crash, while another expressed strong leanings toward a bomb being responsible.

Brigadier General Patrick Ryder of the US yesterday said the "initial assessment, based on a variety of factors" of that nation's intelligence concluded the Wagner head was "likely killed" in the crash, but added the military "doesn't have any information to indicate right now" a surface-to-air missile was responsible. CNN sources in the US government earlier told of officials assessing an explosion as one possibility for why the plane crashed.

US President Joe Biden was vacationing in the Lake Tahoe area, where he told the press he did not "know for a fact what happened, but I'm not surprised.

"There's not much that happens in Russia that Putin's not behind, but I don't know enough to know the answer."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said: "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."

Yevgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed "Putin's chef", was born in 1961 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, then Leningrad. He began a twelve-year sentence for robbery and fraud in 1981; authorities freed him in 1990.

In a comment to Sky News, the Royal Institute of International Affairs' Samantha de Bendern described: "He very quickly got onto the private property/private enterprise bandwagon and ended up being a hot dog seller [...] And this is where things become very mysterious because he transformed himself from hot dog seller to restaurateur to the grand and great of the new post-Soviet Russian elite."

He, his mother, and his stepfather started a hot dog business out of a flea market in the city. Governments awarded him contracts for food provision to schools and the army, and other government enterprises.

The US brought an indictment against him in 2018 over alleged financial aid to the Internet Research Agency, which the US Department of Justice accused of perpetrating a conspiracy to "defraud the United States...for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016," including impersonating US citizens.

According to Prigozhin — who previously denied connection to the organization and sought court relief from journalists suggesting such — he started Wagner in 2014. Wagner participated in the War in Donbas alongside pro-Russian rebels against the Ukrainian government, and has fought in Mali, Mozambique, and Sudan, among other African nations.

By UK and US sources' estimates, in late March 2022 Wagner had 1,000 fighters in Ukraine after the Russian invasion, and 50,000 in December, the US estimating prisoners composed all but 10,000 of the 50,000.

Prigozhin said in November "[a] dog receives a dog's death" of the sledgehammer killing of a Wagner deserter, and the Institute for the Study of War has accused Wagner of war crimes.

As Wagner fighters engaged in combat in Bakhmut, Prigozhin demanded on social media: "[Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu! [Chief of General Staff Valery] Gerasimov! Where's the fucking ammunition?"

After capturing the city, earning Putin's congratulations, Prigozhin said the Russian military did not provide Wagner sufficient ammunition or help on the battlefield, declaring he might withdraw his forces from Bakhmut. In a video, near the corpses of Wagner fighters, he said: "These are someone's fathers and someone's sons [...] The scum that doesn't give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell."

On June 23, Prigozhin demanded military leadership resign, ordering his forces to advance on Moscow and "destroy anyone who stands in our way", prompting clashes that killed perhaps fifteen government soldiers. He had Wagner turn around from 120 miles from Moscow days later; he mentioned a desire for peace. The Russian government announced Belarus secured a deal under which Prigozhin would stand down and he and Wagner forces would depart for Belarus, in exchange for freedom from legal repercussions over the rebellion.

On July 3, Prigozhin said on social media his intent had been "fighting traitors and mobilizing our society": "I think we have achieved a lot of it. In the near future, I am sure that you will see our next victories at the front. Thanks guys."

His first video since the rebellion was labeled as from Monday.