Evgenij Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenaries, was left for dead by the Russian media after a plane belonging to him was shot down near Moscow on 23 August 2023.
According to the passenger list circulated after the crash, Prigozhin’s number two and number three, Dmitry Utkin, the neo-Nazi commander of the private militia and originator of the name Wagner, and Valery Chekalov, the logistics manager in charge of the Concord group, the civilian front company for the mercenaries’ operations, were also on the plane.
Who was in the downed plane
In short, in one fell swoop, the Russian regime’s leadership would have managed to get rid of the triad at the head of the Wagner group for good, exactly two months after the mutiny that had brought Prigozhin’s troops to within a few kilometres of Moscow last 24 June.
In addition, four of the militia’s most important commanders were apparently also on the plane. Sergei Propustin, who fought in the Second Chechen War, Evgenij Makaryan, Alexander Totmin and Nikolai Matyuseev, all former fighters during the war in Syria.
However, despite the fact that it may seem like a perfect operation to cut off the heads of the militia and leave it without a line of command, so that it can be reabsorbed into the regular army, the use of conditionality remains obligatory on this whole affair.
In fact, there is a lack of evidence and independent sources to verify the facts. And certain circumstances surrounding the affair raise several doubts. Such as, the presence in flight over Moscow of a second Prigozhin plane, which landed safely just as the other was shot down.
Who was on this second plane and what happened to it has not been disclosed to anyone. The Kremlin’s press agency, Tass, has only made it known that the names of Prigozhin and the other Wagner chiefs were on the first flight, citing the Federal Air Transport Agency.
Not even an hour after the crash, Tass then stated that the bodies of Prigozhin and Utkin had been identified and that the Russian authorities were in the process of carrying out some DNA tests to verify the hypothesis.
But the fact that the Russians were the only ones who had access to the remains and recognised the bodies leaves an aura of uncertainty about the affair.
It seems, however, that Prigozhin’s leadership was deeply disliked by most of Moscow’s leaders. Who reportedly showed clear satisfaction when the news arrived.
As reported by the independent Russian magazine Verstka, which managed to collect the first impressions of some deputies of the Russian parliament, many politicians would have welcomed the news of Prigozhin’s death by celebrating. And the Defence Minister, Sergei Sojgu, an opponent of the mercenary leader, would have been the first to spread the news ‘running’ between the offices.
The three hypotheses
It therefore remains very difficult to disentangle Russia’s dense propaganda network, which includes both rumours and official communiqués.
At the same time, the Wagner channels cannot be taken as reliable either, because after the mutiny it is unclear how much the Kremlin managed to increase its presence within the organisation.
In any case, the Wagners confirmed Prigozhin’s death, blaming ‘traitors to Russia’ for the incident. While the Ministry of Defence made no official statement.
In the midst of this chaos, there are three possible explanations for what might have really happened.
1. Putin ordered the attack
According to the Institute for the study of war, the most credible hypothesis is that the Russian authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, personally ordered the Wagner plane to be shot down.
Many observers were astonished to see the mercenary leader still alive after the June 2023 mutiny, and Putin has a long history of having people murdered because they came into conflict with him. Even the CIA, as Business Insider reports, had suggested that Prigozhin’s days were numbered less than a month ago.
As to how it was done, there are those who speak of a bomb on the plane. But several analysts from open intelligence sources (osint) have noted the trail of an anti-aircraft missile visible in some videos of the downing of the flight and some shrapnel traceable to the same type of missile on the remains of the plane’s wings.
2. Prigozhin was killed by one of his rivals
The second hypothesis claims that the Russian Defence Minister Sojgu, fiercely criticised by Prigozhin throughout the Wagner’s stay in Ukraine, may have been behind the attack.
The doubt arises because the leader of the mercenaries has never directly attacked or criticised Putin, of whom he is said to have remained a close ally.
Indeed, despite the mutiny, for the past two months Prigozhin has enjoyed immunity, the charges against him have been cleared and he has been able to move freely between Moscow, St Petersburg, Belarus, Africa and who knows where else.
3. Prigozhin is not dead
The latest hypothesis is that it is all a set-up, perhaps created by Prigozhin himself in order to ‘retire’ for good without fear of being caught by a Russian, Ukrainian or African killer.
The Wagner boss is in fact full of enemies and at 62 years of age has perhaps preferred to end his career as a criminal in his own way.
This theory is based on the knowledge, revealed by the Pentagon to the New York Times, of Prigozhin’s frequent use of impersonators and disguises in the past and the mystery surrounding the second plane that landed safely in Moscow.