Wagnerian Ending? Air disaster purportedly claims the life of Prigozhin, Russia's mercenary chief

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian private military group Wagner, is believed to be among the 10 passengers who lost their lives in a private jet crash to the north of Moscow. The authorities are currently investigating the crash's cause, and there has been no official confirmation regarding the discovery of Prigozhin's body.

If it were eventually proven that the mid-air destruction of a plane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin was an intentional act of vengeful retribution by the Kremlin, this event would undoubtedly be etched into Russian history as a stark exemplification of Putin's ruthless pursuit of power and control.

Prigozhin, a former convict, chef, and hot dog salesman turned leader of a mercenary group, commanded a notable following both within his Wagner mercenary ranks and beyond. Many witnessed his warm reception by the public in Rostov-on-Don, where he appeared just two months prior during his brief and thwarted one-day rebellion. However, his influence also drew numerous adversaries in Moscow, particularly among high-ranking figures in the Russian military, whom he frequently and publicly criticized.

His potential downfall might have been precipitated by his clash with President Putin, stemming from his ill-fated march on Moscow on June 23rd. While not explicitly naming Putin, Prigozhin incensed the Kremlin by openly denouncing the official rationale provided for Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. He asserted that the Russian populace had been deceived and that their sons were perishing in the Ukrainian conflict due to inept leadership. Such dissent was regarded as heresy, and Putin's response on that day was charged with acrimony. He branded Prigozhin's march on Moscow as an act of betrayal and backstabbing.

Some time prior to the alleged shootdown, the Director of the CIA, William Burns  had commented on Prigozhin's vulnerability, quipping, "If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn't fire my food taster."

Crash evidence:

Videos circulated by pro-Ukraine accounts capturing the aircraft's descent depict an uncontrolled airframe. Multiple eyewitness accounts collected by news agencies on the ground attested to hearing a "metallic bang," while preliminary sources within Russia's journalism circle indicated suspicions of an air defense missile's involvement. Footage from the ground clearly reveals damage to the plane's tail section, including shrapnel marks in proximity to the Embraer Legacy 600's twin engines. Based on available evidence, it appears that an internal or external factor triggered the separation between the aircraft's tail section and the main fuselage.

Second Plane Theory?

Certain far-right tabloids originating from English-speaking countries swiftly moved to cast uncertainty, with the Daily Express suggesting that a second plane of the same model had returned to Moscow shortly after takeoff, speculating that Prigozhin might have been aboard that aircraft. Meanwhile, both Sky News and Mirror cited eyewitness testimonies of multiple explosions and the presence of a second plane closely tailing the first, exhibiting evasive maneuvers.

The question lingers: Could Prigozhin have survived? In the aftermath of his forces' unsuccessful march towards Moscow, Russian state television unveiled Prigozhin's proclivity for wigs, disguises, and possession of multiple passports, all discovered at one of his residences. It wouldn't be entirely uncharacteristic for Prigozhin, known for orchestrating the notorious "troll farms" implicated in influencing the 2016 US presidential election, to stage his own demise as an elaborate ruse. Russian investigative outlets have reported instances where Prigozhin supposedly employed body doubles.

Flight Attendant’s alleged testimony

Several twitter based sources have confirmed the identity of a civilian casualty, Kristina Rapopova, a flight attendant killed on board the jet. She allegedly noted to friends and family that there were “Unusual Repairs”(sic.) to the aircraft before it departed.

Airport Closures

Moscow’s airport has been closed multiple times in the past weeks as Ukrainian long range drones pummel the capital. At least part of the rationalization for closing the airspace repeatedly was to prevent false-positive identification of civilian aircraft by air defence crews. The armed forces of the Russian federation do also operate an air defence training academy in the region where the aircraft crashed.

Hacking/Spoofing of Air Defence?

Starting from as early as 2007, discussions regarding the utilization of the "Suter" airborne network attack system by Israel have been featured in Aviation Week magazine. The development of this technology was attributed to BAE Systems, with integration into US unmanned aircraft (UCAVs) accomplished by L-3 Communications, as reported by undisclosed individuals from the US aerospace sector and retired military personnel who were interviewed by Aviation Week.

Diverging from the conventional radar signal jamming, Suter adopts a more advanced strategy of "hacking" into adversary defenses. This innovative approach enables users to infiltrate communication networks, replicate the sensory perspective of enemy sensors, and even assume the role of a systems administrator. This manipulation facilitates the repositioning of sensors in such a way that incoming aircraft remain invisible to these sensors. Aviation Week elaborates that this process entails precise identification of enemy signal sources, followed by the redirection of data streams towards these sources. These streams can encompass fabricated targets and deceptive message algorithms.

It's crucial to recognize at least the potential that external actors could have provoked already vigilant Russian air defense crews into engaging a non-combatant target. The incident occurred during a period of heightened preparedness due to ongoing UCAV attacks. As Russia produces air defence systems for export to countries like Syria and Iran, Russian government analysts and crash investigators may be unwilling to even speculate the potential their systems were compromised, lest this give their international clients cause for alarm. In the context of a high profile shootdown with vast geopolitical ramifications this is at the very least, worth considering.

Who was Prigozhin?

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a figure of great utility to the Kremlin and hailed as a national hero by some Russians, founded the Wagner group in 2014. Comprising a core of ex-Russian Special Forces operatives and other soldiers, the group played a significant role in eastern Ukraine, driving the Ukrainian army out of Bakhmut and amassing a formidable reputation unlike the often dilapidated and poorly-led regular Russian military. Wagner's ranks swelled as Prigozhin personally recruited thousands of convicts, including violent offenders, from Russian penal colonies. These individuals were effectively used as expendable forces in eastern Ukraine, repeatedly thrust into intense fire in attempts to overwhelm enemy positions.

Following his notable procession towards Moscow, which threatened upheaval, Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries seemingly adopted an aggressive posture toward potential conflicts in Europe. They deployed along the borders of Poland-Belarus and Lithuania-Belarus in the weeks leading up to the reported incident. Prigozhin's final act as the group's leader involved producing a video, purportedly filmed in Africa, where he pledged Wagner's dedication to safeguarding Russian interests on the continent.

Even prior to the recent plane crash, uncertainties swirled around Wagner's future and its African operations. Insider sources hinted at plans, led by the deputy director of Russia's GRU military intelligence unit, to replace a significant portion of Wagner with a parallel mercenary outfit. Prigozhin was reportedly vehemently opposing this move and hurriedly returned from Mali to Russia in an attempt to thwart the plans.

The Kremlin now grapples with the predicament of handling the 25,000 Wagner fighters scattered across multiple countries, most of whom were believed to owe their allegiance to Prigozhin, Wagner, and Mother Russia, rather than the derided Russian defense ministry. It is odd to say the least that the Kremlin would choose a direct and public method of assassination in a manner which could quite possibly have compounded their political problems.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine affirmed that Ukraine played no role in the reported demise of Yevgeny Prigozhin, stating, "We are not involved in this situation, that's for sure. I think everyone is aware of who is involved." Zelensky conveyed these remarks to journalists in Kyiv.