An explosion on a plane believed to be carrying Russian mercenary leader Eugene V. Prigozhin likely brought the plane down on Wednesday, killing all passengers on board, according to U.S. and Western officials citing preliminary intelligence.
No firm conclusions have yet been drawn, but an explosion is the main theory behind what caused a private plane to crash in a field between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The explosion could have been caused by a bomb or other device placed on the plane, although other theories, such as that of adulterated fuel, are also under investigation, said the officials, who spoke under on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
US officials seemed increasingly certain, both publicly and privately, that Mr. Prigozhin was dead and that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had ordered the assassination, intending to eliminate a figure who had led a short mutiny in June that was seen. as the most serious challenge to Mr. Putin’s power in decades.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said the US’ initial assessment, based on a “variety of factors”, was that Mr Prigozhin was likely killed in the crash.
General Ryder did not offer a theory about the accident, but said the United States had no information indicating that a surface-to-air missile had shot down the plane. Other officials said US satellite intelligence did not detect a missile launch and there was no other evidence to suggest a surface-to-air weapon destroyed the plane. Western governments continue to explore the possibility that an air-to-air missile may have been used, although an onboard explosion remained the most likely scenario.
The New York Times’ analysis of flight data and video of the crash indicates that there was most likely at least one catastrophic in-flight event that occurred several minutes before the private jet flew. crashes. Experts say the steep drop and widespread debris suggest a sudden explosion or rupture of the plane rather than a mechanical failure.
Officials said it seemed likely that Mr Putin ordered Mr Prigozhin’s assassination at the same time or shortly after the Russian president removed General Sergei Surovikin from his military command.
The plane crash happened just hours after Russian authorities announced that General Surovikin had been removed from his post. General Surovikin, like Mr. Prigozhin, was considered to be ruthlessly effective in the war in Ukraine. As an ally of Mr. Prigozhin, General Surovikin was at least aware of the plans of the mercenary leader and could even have contributed to the rebellion, according to American officials.
During the mutiny, forces of the paramilitary group Wagner, founded by Mr Prigozhin, took control of a key southern town and an armed convoy of mercenaries marched towards Moscow. While Mr Putin denounced Mr Prigozhin and the rebellion’s organizers for “betraying their country”, some analysts said the episode made Mr Putin look weak.
In public comments on Thursday, Mr Putin did not explicitly confirm the death of the Wagner leader, but he offered his condolences to the families of those who perished in the accident and said Russian investigators would continue the investigation. ” until the end “. »
Mr. Putin referred to Mr. Prigozhin in the past tense: “He was a person with a complicated fate. He made serious mistakes in life, but he also achieved the necessary results.
Rather than focus on Mr. Prigozhin’s failed mutiny, Mr. Putin spoke about Wagner’s efforts in Ukraine. Under Mr. Prigozhin’s leadership, the paramilitary group played a key role in the capture of Bakhmut, the most important Russian advance in Ukraine since last summer.
On Thursday, Russian media and propaganda efforts focused on the idea that the crashed plane was brought down in an accident. The information campaign gradually spread across Russian social media, overwhelming posts speculating that Mr. Prigozhin was killed on the orders of Mr. Putin or by a bomb on the plane, according to Jonathan Teubner, managing director of FilterLabs AI, which tracks public information. feeling in Russia.
Russian internet posts also contained clues as to what might have brought the plane down.
Videos posted on the Telegram messaging app show wreckage of the plane at three locations spanning three kilometres. A website contains the aircraft’s main fuselage, an Embraer Legacy 600, we contain the tail section, and a third contains a piece of smaller debris. Debris locations roughly line up with the direction of aircraft travel.
Raw Flight Tracking Data from FlightRadar24 shows that the plane suffered a sudden drop in altitude around 6:19 p.m. local time. The plane remained in the air for some time before falling free from the sky about 30 miles (48 kilometers), according to an analysis of video capturing the crash and the debris fields.
“Having such a large debris field is unusual if the aircraft suffered no structural damage during its flight,” said Ian Williams, deputy director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Times analysis did not confirm exactly what caused the plane to go down, but found no evidence of routine mechanical malfunction.
“Airplanes don’t often fall straight out of the sky like this unless there’s something to stop their momentum,” Mr Williams said.
US officials are watching closely what the Wagner Group might become without Mr. Prigozhin and other key leaders. Besides Mr. Prigozhin, Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces and intelligence officer who was Wagner’s second-in-command, is believed to have died in the plane crash, along with other senior members of the mercenary group.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there would most likely be repercussions in countries where Wagner sent troops.
“If the Wagner leaders are suddenly killed, there will be an effect,” General Milley said. “What is this impact, I don’t know yet.”
While Mr. Prigozhin has withdrawn his forces from combat in Ukraine, Wagner remains active in Africa, one of the main ways in which Russia has extended its influence on the continent.
Although Mr. Prigozhin is considered an enemy of the United States, US officials have watched with interest how Mr. Prigozhin has become a thorn in Mr. Putin’s side. As a result, according to US officials, Mr Putin clearly believed he had no choice but to act.
But officials were divided on Thursday over whether Mr Putin would emerge stronger or weaker in Russia, and some simply did not want to address the issue.
Officials were carefully considering how much of the Wagner group Mr. Putin would be able to place under his command. One of the causes of the mutiny was the Russian Defense Ministry’s attempt to demand that all Russians fighting in Ukraine work for the government. Since the rebellion, the Kremlin has worked to bring Wagner’s forces under its control.
A US official said that after Mr Prigozhin’s presumed death, Mr Putin may find it difficult to name an ally in charge. Wagner, the official said, would likely choose his new leader – most likely one loyal to Mr. Prigozhin.
Anton Troianovsky contributed reporting from London, and John Ismay from Washington.