For some, it was in itself remarkable that Yevgeny Prigozhin had lasted so long after his aborted mutiny against the Kremlin two months ago.
After images of him triumphantly crossing Rostov-on-Don, some 1,000 kilometers from Moscow, captured the world’s attention, this complex character seems to have met his end at the hands of the man whose life he disputed. ‘authority.
So how much closer are we to understanding exactly what happened in his final hours?
Witnesses to the crash heard a loud bang before seeing the plane “fall from the sky” – locals shared these images of the aftermath on social media.
A Russian serviceman inspects part of a crashed private plane near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region
An uprising that shocked the world
On the night of Saturday June 24, a smiling Eugene Prigozhin greeted his loyal supporters in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.
The gruesome 62-year-old with a shaved head was an unlikely folk hero, but after leading a rebellion, albeit brief, against the Kremlin, he had the crowds in the palm of his hand.
This moment, on a mild summer evening, proved its apotheosis. The former convict had achieved an unlikely rise to command of Wagner, arguably the world’s first Private Military Company (PMC).
He had also brokered a most generous deal with Vladimir Putin, one that made the furious president appear weaker than at any time in his two decades in office.
His only punishment for leading an uprising that threatened to plunge Russia into civil war would be political exile in Belarus. To Western intelligence analysts, that appeared to be true.
The African Summit
Prigozhin was rarely seen in Belarus and on July 28 he joined President Putin and African political leaders at a summit in his hometown of St. Petersburg.
To the outside world, it seemed the outspoken warlord had made peace with Putin and was back in the political fold.
Dressed casually and looking rested, he was photographed rubbing shoulders with presidents and prime ministers who deliberately traded their countries’ natural resources for Wagner’s political services and protection. Prigozhin was in his element.
The last video
After keeping a low profile for several weeks, Prigozhin reappeared Tuesday in a promotional video for Wagner, shot in North Africa.
Posing in his military fatigues, including a rather ridiculous camouflage hat, and clutching an assault rifle, he bragged about how his PMC was improving security on the mainland and making life a nightmare for ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
People carry a body bag away from the wreckage of a crashed private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino in Russia’s Tver region on August 24.
Flight attendant Kristina Raspopova, killed aboard Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private jet on August 23
All seemed well in his world. While under investigation for alleged corruption, it didn’t seem to matter since he wielded such a powerful weapon, while wearing a bulletproof vest and spare magazines full of cartridges. caliber 7.62mm. Prigozhin always looked like a globe-trotting warlord, the man who had dared to thumb his nose at the Kremlin and, remarkably, got away with it.
Apparently he was too influential even for his ruthless old adversary, Vladimir Putin, to get rid of.
The fatal flight
Prigozhin and other senior Wagner officials, including PMC co-founder and right-hand man Dmitry Utkin, 53, returned to Russia in the evening.
They were accompanied by Valery Chekalov, 47, a veteran of the Ukraine campaign; Sergey Propustin, 44, who fought alongside Prigozhin in the Battle of Bakhmut; and two other mercenaries, Alexander Totmin, 30, and Yevgeniy Makaryan, who took part in Wagner’s brutal crackdown on opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Their bodyguards were also in tow.
On Wednesday, their final flight, from Moscow to Prigozhin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, was delayed, reportedly due to mechanical issues with their Embraer Legacy private jet.
With free time, flight attendant Kristina Raspopova, 39, swiped her smartphone and opened her Facebook page.
She posted a photo of her meal at the airport, consisting of white bread, pâté and butter, and told relatives that the plane was being “fixed”.
With free time, flight attendant Raspopova, 39, swiped her smartphone and opened her Facebook page
Whatever the cause, shortly after 6 p.m. local time the plane was seen flying over the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region north of the Russian capital. Her engines were on fire and one of her wings was badly damaged.
A relative said: “She said she was in Moscow. The aircraft was under maintenance or urgent repair. It looked like she had been there for a while. It’s been at least a few days.
“They were waiting for the order to take off.”
Apparently the issues that delayed their departure were resolved, and on Wednesday afternoon the luxury plane climbed for 12 minutes after takeoff, eventually reaching an altitude of 28,000ft.
Suddenly he disappeared from radar. What happened next is unconfirmed.
Either the plane was destroyed by an explosive device hidden on board or it was targeted by a surface-to-air missile – smoke trails seen by eyewitnesses suggest the latter, but intelligence officials American yesterday questioned this theory.
Whatever the cause, shortly after 6 p.m. local time it was spotted circling above the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region north of the Russian capital.
Her engines were on fire and one of her wings was badly damaged. Then, to the horror of passers-by below, who were filming the incident, the plane nose-dived into the ground, crashing into a ball of flame. Within 30 seconds, the aircraft had plunged to over 8,000 feet.
All ten people on board were found dead at the scene.
The second flight
About ten minutes after the crash, a second Embraer Legacy 650, also chartered by Wagner, landed safely in St. Petersburg. It was following a flight path similar to that of the aircraft in distress.
This led to speculation that Prigozhin might have survived the assassination attempt by flying on the other plane.
But that was not to be the case. The assassin’s choice of the right plane indicated insider knowledge of Chief Wagner’s travel plans, which had often been subject to last-minute changes for security reasons.
Russia’s Investigative Committee released a photo of the alleged crash site on Wednesday after the fire was extinguished.
Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg appeared to be illuminated in the shape of a cross
Western intelligence assessments
US and Western officials said preliminary intelligence reports lead them to believe an explosion on board caused the plane to go down.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it may be some time before Western intelligence agencies can say with absolute certainty that Prigozhin was on board.
Russian investigators plan to question a pilot as it appears the private plane exploded due to a bomb planted near the lavatory.
Baza, a channel from Russian social media app Telegram with ties to the country’s security services, reported that Artyom Stepanov was wanted and may have gained access to the plane before it started its final flight. .
But this development has been viewed with skepticism by Western officials.
The West believes that Putin is most likely to be responsible for the deaths of Prigozhin and his top aides. US President Joe Biden said yesterday: “Not much happens in Russia without Putin behind it. »
The bomb theory and the release of Mr. Stepanov’s name could be an attempt by the Kremlin to put some distance between itself and the state-sponsored assassination allegations.