Bomb, missile, or technical failure: what could have caused Prigozhin’s plane crash?

Expert takes on the reported death of the mercenary boss

Bomb, missile, or technical failure: what could have caused Prigozhin’s plane crash?

The crash site of the Embraer Legacy 600 business jet, which was allegedly carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin. Photo: Wagner Telegram Account / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

A private jet carrying Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and his associates from Moscow to St. Petersburg crashed in Russia’s Tver region on 23 August. The air traffic tracker Flightradar24 received the first data from the Embraer Legacy at 14:46 UTC and managed to track its position from 14:59 UTC to 15:11 UTC. At 15:20 UTC, the plane’s transponder stopped its transmission.

Novaya-Europe interviewed several experts who presented their versions of events.

Mark Solonin

Former aviation engineer

“The aircraft dropped like a stone. It is hard to discern signs of damage either from a small explosive charge inside the aircraft or from an anti-aircraft missile using the videos currently available. So [the crash] may equally likely be the result of an explosion from inside and an anti-aircraft missile hit. Data from Flightradar24, which shows the aircraft was flying at an altitude of 8.5 to 9 kilometres, completely disproves the version that it was downed by MANPADs. If it was shot down from the ground, then by something hefty, like a Buk missile system. The aircraft stopped transmitting after it descended/dropped to an altitude of six kilometres, meaning that the heavy damage knocked out the power supply.”

Roman Svitan

Flight instructor, Ukrainian reserve colonel

“Taking into account all the circumstances, we have two main versions to consider — an explosion on board or an external impact. There is an air defence unit about 50 kilometres away from the crash site. So you had people that could shoot the plane down if such an order was given. 

The explosion of a serious surface-to-air missile would have penetrated the aircraft and everything inside it with thousands of identical damage agents. It is impossible to hide their traces.

An explosion from the inside could cause an instant shutdown of many of the aircraft’s systems. The footage from the crash scene shows that the jet was completely out of control. 

The Russians will not be able to hide the results of the investigation completely. After all, among the dozens and possibly hundreds of specialists that will be in the investigative commission there will also be someone from the manufacturer. So they will have to publish at least the general causes of the disaster, including the place and nature of the explosion.

I think that we will start seeing a lot of misinformation soon — claiming that, for instance, the Wagnerites were carrying weapons and explosives and could have caused the crash themselves.”

Sergey Migdal

former Israeli police and intelligence officer

“I am inclined to believe the version of an explosion inside the aircraft. Judging by the fact that the plane’s tail fell off in the explosion, that is where the explosive device was hidden. Such aeroplanes usually have a luggage compartment in the back.

It is obvious that, on Russian soil, the FSB has access to anything that flies. One kilogramme of properly placed explosives would suffice.

Less plausible theories include ground-to-air or air-to-air missiles. A missile fired by a fighter jet normally homes in on the heat of the engines in the plane’s tail section, meaning the crew would have had time to make a distress call.

If the aircraft was shot down by air defence or a fighter jet, Western intelligence will very likely know about it. So far, only the Financial Times has written citing an anonymous source that the plane was destroyed by a Russian air defence missile.

Of all the possible ways to kill Prigozhin, this was the most demonstrative, noisy, and dangerous. Thankfully, the plane did not fall on a populated area where there would have been many casualties. Crew members and a flight attendant were killed in the process. Such a move is reminiscent of the high-profile assassination attempts by the Sicilian Mafia. It is a lesson in [the regime’s] absolute impunity.

The internal blast version may give the Russian authorities the opportunity to turn the tables. Pro-Russian media outlets and bloggers are already saying that Prigozhin’s murder may have been ordered by Ukrainian military intel chief [Kyrylo] Budanov, the CIA, or the Islamic State.”

David Sharp

Israeli military expert

There are a lot of people who could have organised such a murder. Prigozhin had many enemies. Six months ago, I would have said that Ukraine was most likely involved. But now it is clear that this was either an order from the very top or a plot by one of Prigozhin’s many enemies. He was hated by both Russian pilots and the top brass at the Defence Ministry. The Russian security services had many opportunities to execute such an order.

After the failed mutiny, many speculated that Putin, known for his vengefulness, would not forgive Prigozhin’s open rebellion. I also believed that his life was in danger. But after Putin met with Prigozhin and officially pardoned him, I thought the threat had somewhat subsided. If the Kremlin indeed sanctioned Prigozhin’s removal, it would imply an incredible level of cunning.

If we imagine that the Russian authorities are not behind this disaster, we can assume that the investigation will be as open as possible and all the fragments of the wreckage will be shown to the public.”

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