Analysis: Prigozhin, dead or alive?

In this image taken from video, smoke and flames rise from a crashed private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, reportedly died when a private jet he was said to be on crashed on Aug. 23, 2023, killing all 10 people on board. (AP Photo)

In Russia’s murky world of war and espionage, nothing is as it seems.

A plane dropped out of the sky on Wednesday near the village of Kuzhenkino, about 60 miles north of Moscow, at 6:11 p.m. local time. It plummeted from approximately 28,000 feet according to various flight-tracking organizations. It was missing a wing. There were seven passengers and three crew members aboard. All were killed in a fiery crash.

Yevgeney Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary organization, was listed on the passenger manifest. That is where most of the certainty about that plane and its final flight ends, and the speculation begins.

The Embraer Legacy 600 business jet was believed to have been shot down. Eyewitnesses said they heard two explosions. Video published by Russian state media showed a trail of smoke behind the plane as it fell from the sky.

But many questions persist. Chief among them is this: Was Prigozhin really on that plane? We may never know.

I have heard unsubstantiated reports that a second Wagner plane was allegedly seen circling Moscow and landing after the crash. This kind of intrigue is a part of the backdrop of daily Russian state media narratives.

These reports only fuel conjecture that Prigozhin, who has supposedly cheated death many times, may have done so again. Most recently, in 2019, he allegedly faked his own death by orchestrating a plane crash in central Africa.

Reports of his demise are of key interest to U.S. officials. Remember: He was among 13 Russians and three companies wanted in the U.S. in connection with an expansive 2018 indictment. Court documents revealed a sophisticated network of operatives and systems designed to subvert the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Russia’s infamous internet troll factory was among the elements utilized in that operation. Prigozhin was the founder and financier of the Internet Research Agency, the parent company of the troll factory. It was one of many ventures he built with the help of Vladimir Putin.

But that help very likely ceased after an attempted mutiny this June, which was a source of significant embarrassment for Putin.

Prigozhin and a crew of Wagner forces set out to march into Moscow demanding the firing of top Russian military officials. He had long been unhappy about the way his troops had been treated.

A few miles outside of Moscow, he abruptly aborted what was later described as an attempted coup. He disappeared to Belarus, after Alexander Lukasheno, the iron-fisted strongman who runs that country, offered him an escape route.

One thing that is extremely curious to me about Wednesday’s plane crash is the alleged fact that seven of Wagner’s top leaders were supposedly on that plane, including Prigozhin.

Among them was Dmitry Utkin, a Russian army officer. He was allegedly co-founder and military commander of Wagner. He served as a special forces officer in the GRU, where he held the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Valeriy Chekalov, Prigozhin’s top aide, was on the list. Others included Sergey Propustin, Evgeniy Makaryan, Aleksandr Totmin and Nikolay Matuseev.

If the passenger manifest was accurate, that was Wagner’s entire leadership all on one plane, despite knowing there was a chance, at some point, that Prigozhin might be targeted.

It doesn’t make sense. But in the dark world, very little does.

The only clearly defined narrative this event leaves us with is that Putin is still in power and another individual, a former friend who grew too powerful, is likely dead. This is a message that members of Putin’s circle are not likely to overlook.