While Moscow has been content to refer to the alleged death of Putin ally turned insurgent leader Yevgeny Prigozhin as a “crash” and “incident”, Western governments have treated the event with cynicism, treating the view that the crash was deliberate with some consideration.
The bodies of all ten bodies of those onboard the Embraer jet that crashed north of Moscow Wednesday have now been recovered, and a Federal investigation has been launched, Russian media reports. The latest report out of Russia on the claimed death of Prigozhin and nine fellow passengers and crew aboard the private jet is that it acted erratically in its final seconds of flight, rapidly changing altitude and speed.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was listed as a passenger in a plane crash with no survivors, Russian authorities said. The Wagner Group had incurred President Vladimir Putin's wrath after staging an abortive armed mutiny against the army's top brass https://t.co/eRIu8XnreN pic.twitter.com/qEsrpGbkRi
— Reuters (@Reuters) August 24, 2023
Whether this implies the jet was suffering engine troubles, was experiencing problems aboard, or was attempting aggressive evasive manoeuvres, or some other reason is not hinted at. TASS, the Russian state wire service reported, citing Flightradar:
“[The plane] gained and lost altitude several times in a short period of time before starting to fall… the aircraft was at an altitude of about 8.5 km until 18:19 Moscow time Wednesday, then its vertical speed dropped sharply, it lost altitude. After that, the aircraft reached a maximum altitude of about 9.15 km, and then dropped to 8.4 km. Then he leveled the height at around 8.9 km, after which he began to decline sharply… All these changes happened in 32 seconds.”
Swedish-based Flightradar24 said they were able to piece together the last moments of the jet’s flight despite local radio jamming taking out GPS and its Russian analogue GLONASS using other transponder receivers and available data.
While Russia has called this an “incident” and a “crash”, some Western observers have treated the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary leader who just two months ago redirected his private army from the Ukraine war to begin a march to Moscow on a mission, he said, to force out corrupt officials at the Ministry of Defence with more cynicism. First among them was President Joe Biden, who suggested Putin’s involvement in the crash.
Video footage published by the Associated Press shows the President shuffling towards a bank of journalists while holding a fruit drink in hand, before recalling a previous comment he made after the Wagner insurgency, when he hypothetically counselled Prigozhin to be mindful of what he drank, and what vehicles he rode in going forward.
Excusing himself from having the full story to hand as he’d been “working out for the last hour and a half”, President Biden nevertheless said: “I don’t know for a fact about 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.”
Others joined this line, and while avoiding saying outright this was an assassination of a top Russian figure who had ceased to be useful to the Putin regime, certainly implied it seemed possible. French government spokesman Olivier Véran said the truth of the crash had not been established, but nevertheless, they weren’t ready to accept the official account of an accident yet.
Véran said: “We do not yet know the conditions under which this crash took place. We can have reasonable doubts”.
This view was buttressed by former French ambassador to France Sylvie Bermann, who was cited by newspaper Le Figaro as having said Thursday morning: “Anything is possible, but the most likely version remains execution by the FSB and the air force, ordered by Putin and his desire for revenge… It is a warning to those who might be tempted to rebel against him”.
She noted quite a few Russian oligarchs had met sudden death since the war began — often by falling out of high windows — but to shoot a powerful mercenary leader out of the sky was nevertheless “quite spectacular” in scope.
The Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) that Prigozhin once led was more certain about what happened, however. As reported yesterday, a Telegram channel widely acknowledged by Western media as being closely associated with the Wagner group outright claimed the jet was brought down by the Russian government’s anti-aircraft fire. Local witnesses heard the “characteristic” sound of anti-aircraft weapons working when the jet crashed, they said.