Yevgeny Prigozhin pushed himself into the international spotlight just two months ago. Now, he’s thought to be dead.
While his reputation had been building since autumn last year, he became a household name after leading a failed military coup which aimed to seize control of one of Moscow’s government departments.
Moscow has denied any involvement in the plane crash which reportedly killed 10 people in Russia on Wednesday, but suspicion towards the authoritarian regime has been building.
After all, Prigozhin arguably posed the biggest domestic threat to Vladimir Putin’s regime since the president had first assumed power, more than 20 years ago – and that’s why his sudden (supposed) death has so much mystery around it.
While solid evidence of the Wagner chief’s death is yet to materialise, here’s what specialists believe happened – and their theories as to why.
So, what actually happened that day?
The plane, a private jet belonging to Prigozhin, crashed half an hour after take off from Moscow, while it was on its way to St Petersburg. It’s not clear what the purpose of the trip was.
Rescuers found 10 bodies, but there’s been no official details about who was found, and officials around the world are still trying to find out more about the crash.
If reports are true, and those on board were made up of aviation staff and several high-ranking members of the Wagner group, it’s not clear why they were all flying together. The mercenaries are known for being careful about their security, according to AP news agency.
A preliminary US intelligence assessment claims that the plane fell after an intentional explosion – and that Prigozhin was “very likely” targeted.
Further details about what caused the private jet to explode are unclear.
However, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has denied any allegations that Moscow was involved.
“Of course, in the West those speculations are put out under a certain angle and all of it is a complete lie,” he said.
As of Friday afternoon, the Wagner Council of Commanders had still not released a public statement addressing the plane crash.
What suggests the crash was planned?
Early analyses of the events seems to suggest the circumstances around the crash were a little suspicious, according to the US-based think tank, the Institution for the Study of War (ISW).
Its specialists noted the incident happened exactly two months after the armed rebellion, and that Putin was attending a publicly televised concert at the time.
This even has eerie echoes of when Soviet state TV showed Swan Lake while the Soviet Union was falling, in August 1991.
The ISW also noted that the explosion was probably caused by Russian air defences.
That would mean Russian aviation could directly avenge “what was one of the deadliest days for Russian aviation since the start of the full-scale invasion”, ISW analysis suggests, as 13 Russian Army pilots were killed in the failed Wagner coup.
Was the Russian ministry of defence hoping to ‘eliminate’ the Wagner leader?
There are reportedly 25,000 private mercenaries in the Wagner group, an organisation technically set up outside of Russian law but operating on behalf of the Kremlin since 2014.
However, when Prigozhin started to criticise the Russian ministry of defence, claiming his troops were better than the official Russian forces and more successful on the frontlines of the Ukrainian war, it tried to shut the group down.
That’s when Prigozhin started his 24-hour coup against the government arm.
According to ISW, the Kremlin and the Russian ministry of defence had been trying to shut down Prigozhin’s authority and weaken the group since the rebellion.
It said: “The assassination of Wagner’s top leadership was likely the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organisation.”
The UK’s ministry of defence echoed such messages in the last few months.
The ISW speculated that the Kremlin had stopped offering Wagner fighters jobs, meaning the private military group was running out of money, too.
“Such conditions could have eventually led Wagner to slowly lose fighters and cause Prigozhin to lose his relevancy and influence,” the experts said,
This may have been why he filmed himself in an unnamed African country days before his supposed death, possibly in an effort to find more work or more recruits
The think tank added: “It is possible that Russian officials capitalised on Prigozhin’s panic and impulsivity to eliminate Wagner’s top-most leadership.”
Without Prigozhin – and his rumoured second-in-command Dmitry Utkin, who was also allegedly killed in the plane crash – Wagner would struggle.
And, by Thursday, ISW said the group will no longer exist as a “quasi-independent parallel military structure’, while a report from Reuters suggested Wagner would only exist as an extension of the Kremlin.
Why do experts believe Putin was directly involved?
Although he was initially quiet over Prigozhin’s supposed death, he did acknowledge it on Thursday.
He briefly brushed over the rebellion and said Prigozhin had a “difficult fate” and made”serious mistakes” – while implying the Wagner chief had still been carrying out Putin’s own orders in recent months.
This plays into Prigozhin’s own claims that his coup was never an attack on Putin’s leadership, but on the Russian ministry of defence and its management of the war.
The ISW said: “Prigozhin likely underestimated how seriously his rebellion had personally humiliated Putin. Prigozhin had also apparently overestimated the value of his own loyalty to Putin. ”
That’s why the specialists conclude “Putin almost certainly ordered the Russian military command to shoot down Prigozhin’s plane”.
The think tank explained: “The entirety of the Russian political and security sphere likely viewed Prigozhin’s continued survival following Wagner’s rebellion as at Putin’s discretion.”
The two men were once close allies, with Prigozhin even nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for a time.
Why did the crash happen two months after the coup?
ISW suggested Putin may have decided that Prigozhin was far enough removed from Wagner by then that he could kill him without turning him into a martyr for the group.
Alternatively, Prigozhin’s attempts to establish more influence abroad may have a red line which the two negotiated with Belarus after the attempted coup.
Perhaps it was telling that the incident happened just days after the Wagner chief actually issued his first public appearance in months, through that promotional video in Africa.
CIA director William Burns even predicted last month that the Wagner mercenary leader would face backlash from Putin for the coup – even if the Russian president had to wait a long time to exact his revenge.
He said: “Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold.
“In my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback so I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this.”
The ISW also speculated that this timing could be an ideal distraction for the war, which is not exactly going well for Russia right now.
It said: “The Kremlin may have decided to ostentatiously kill Prigozhin at this time in part to shift focus in the Russian information space away from the frontlines in Ukraine amidst notable Ukrainian advances.”
What happens now?
The Kremlin appears to have ordered an investigation into the incident.
A special commission with the Federal Agency for Air Transport, Rosaviatsiya, was set up to look into what happened in the crash, including the weather and the dispatch services.
The Russian Investigative Committee has initiated a criminal case over traffic safety and air transport, too.
Russian State Duma Deputy, Yevgeniy Popov said in the Russian information space that the incident may be framed as a terrorist act which happened on board.
Meanwhile, the Russian state TV channels have remained pretty quiet about the incident.
And this incident doesn’t mean power is safely back in Putin’s hands, according Emily Ferris, expert on Russian security for the Royal United Service Institute.
She told the Metro that the consequences of Prigozhin’s rebellion are still yet to be felt in Putin’s regime.
“What it may have done is suggest to the political elite that a future without Putin could be considered, and this is a dangerous idea that Putin would be keen to quash. The effects of this have not yet been borne out,” Ferris said.