Russia is investigating the circumstances surrounding the plane crash of a private jet 300 kilometers north of Moscow, in which the head of the Wagner Group mercenaries, Yevgueni Prigozhin, was traveling. Two months earlier, they had taken up arms against the high command of the Russian army, defying Vladimir Putin, sparking in the midst of the conflict with Ukraine the biggest crisis since the Russian president came to power 23 years ago. The memory of the failed rebellion fueled speculation and comments yesterday about the causes of the air disaster, including an assassination managed by the black hand of power.
Russian officials remained silent on the main event of the week until, almost 24 hours later, Putin himself spoke yesterday. In a kind of last goodbye, he had words of praise for who for years moved through the shadows on his behalf.
“I would like to point out that these are people [referring to those on the plane, all of whom are members of Wagner's leadership] who have made a significant contribution to our common cause of fighting the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine. We remember it, we know it and we will not forget it, ”he said at a meeting with Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russian authorities in Donetsk. In addition, he expressed his "deepest condolences to the families of all the victims."
“I have known Prigozhin since the early nineties. He was a man with a difficult fate, and he also made serious mistakes in life, who was looking for the results he needed, both for himself and for a common cause when asked, as in recent months. He was a talented businessman, ”Putin added.
The words contrast with those spoken by the Russian leader two months ago, during the Wagners' abortive rebellion, when they took Rostov-on-Don, a major city in southern Russia, under their control and marched on Moscow. So, the Russian leader spoke of "stab in the back" and "traitors." The coup ended with the mediation of the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and an agreement for Wagner and his leader to go into exile in this former Soviet republic in exchange for not being prosecuted.
The Russian president's intervention yesterday seemed a way to silence the insinuations and theories that pointed to a maneuver from power to get rid of a former collaborator who had turned against his master.
"There's not a lot going on in Russia that Putin isn't behind," US President Joe Biden said when asked on Wednesday.
“It is obvious that Putin does not forgive anyone... The demonstrative removal of Prigozhin and Wagner's command two months after the attempted coup is a signal from Putin to the Russian elites ahead of the 2024 elections. 'Watch out! Disloyalty equals death,'" Mikhailo Podoliak, adviser to President Volodimir Zelensky, wrote on the social network X (former Twitter).
Zelenski also referred to the event, but to mark distances. “We have had nothing to do with this. Everyone realizes who has something to do with it, ”he told reporters in Kyiv.
Different versions were debated on Russian social networks. In canals near Wagner, there was the possibility that a surface-to-air missile had shot down Prigozhin's Embraer Legacy jet. He would have died "as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia," said Gray Zone, a channel used by Wagner's mercenaries, alluding to the Russian secret services.
They are betting on a similar theory in Washington if we listen to two senior officials who told Reuters the US believes it was probably a surface-to-air missile fired from inside Russia that brought down the aircraft.
The Russian portals Mash, Baza or Shot, from Telegram, pointed out that the plane could have been the victim of a bomb attack. Other portals maintain that it was shot down by a Ukrainian drone.
Vladimir Putin promised yesterday that the causes of the incident will be investigated until the end. According to the RBK newspaper, the Instruction Committee is studying three versions: a piloting failure, a technical problem or an external intervention. But the latter is not the priority. Citing a source from the investigators, the Kommersant newspaper assures that they are not currently considering the version of an attack. The bodies of the victims were still undergoing forensic examinations yesterday. In the morning they were taken to the Tver morgue.
According to that newspaper, on the afternoon of August 23, Prigozhin was returning to St. Petersburg after a trip to Africa together with various managers of the Wagner Group. They left Moscow on two planes. In the one that crashed were Prigozhin himself and his right-hand man, Commander Dimitri Utkin.
The Rossaviatsia civil aviation agency confirmed the presence of both on the plane, as well as the names of all the occupants, seven passengers and three crew members. The Emergency Situations Ministry said on Wednesday that all were dead.
In a video broadcast on social networks and verified by the Afp agency, you can see how the plane first spirals and then plummets down to the ground. "They shot it down, it boomed twice, it exploded and it fell," said the woman who filmed and posted the plane's long fall.
Hours after knowing what happened, in the early hours of yesterday admirers and followers began to show their respect to the founder of Wagner. In several cities, memorials were improvised in the street to honor the mercenaries killed in the incident. In St. Petersburg, Prigozhin's hometown, an altar with flowers, candles and flags was created in front of the former offices of the Wagner Group, where the lights in the apartments were turned on.