In a recent development, speculations have arisen over whether Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized the Russian military command to shoot down a plane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the controversial mercenary organization known as the Wagner Group. These suspicions have been highlighted in the daily report of the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
The aircraft, carrying Prigozhin, crashed on Wednesday evening in the Tver region of Russia. Authorities are currently investigating the circumstances surrounding the crash, with some suggestions indicating the possibility of the plane being deliberately targeted.
The ISW report points to allegations suggesting that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, head of the Russian armed forces’ general staff, would unlikely have acted without explicit directives from President Putin himself.
Experts suggest that Putin may have aimed to distance Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, from his mercenary organization to avoid turning him into a martyr. This view is supported by the fact that several Wagner Group commanders have transitioned to the private military company Redut, directly associated with the Russian Ministry of Defence. Additionally, financial struggles within the Wagner Group reportedly eroded trust among mercenaries due to reduced salaries, further weakening Prigozhin’s leadership.
Two Theories Arise The ISW report presents two primary theories. First, it suggests that Prigozhin potentially violated an agreement involving Putin and Lukashenko that called for a substantial reduction in Wagner Group activities. This includes claims that Prigozhin continued operations in Africa despite the agreed-upon withdrawal, thus crossing a metaphorical “red line.” Alleged videos of Prigozhin recruiting mercenaries in Africa conflicted with the agreement, causing tension.
The second theory posits that Putin may have been contemplating Prigozhin’s elimination for a while, and the plane’s downing could have been an “accidental” event. Analysts, however, tend to dismiss this theory due to the timing of the dismissal of air force chief Sergei Surovikin, who had ties to the Wagner Group.
A Symbolic Message Experts speculate that Putin’s potential involvement in the plane incident could signify his assertion of authority and a form of retribution for the embarrassment caused by the Wagner Group’s earlier attempted coup. During the coup, Prigozhin’s challenge to high-ranking Russian military officials raised concerns, prompting Putin to make a statement through this incident.
Telegram channel Grey Zone, which is linked to the Wagners, said that at the time of the shoot-down, two “flashes” of air defence and “inversion” trails were seen in the sky. Another Russian wire service, Mash, linked to by The Financial Times (FT), agrees, saying that local residents heard two “loud explosions” at the time the plane went down.
Fragments of the downed aircraft were found near the town of Kuzhenkino, approximately two kilometers from the crash site. Preliminary identifications of the bodies of Prigozhin and Utkin have been reported by sources including the Russian-language BBC and the VCH-OGPU wire service, with DNA verification procedures ongoing at the morgue.