The US military believes Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a passenger jet crash northwest of Moscow on 23 August, but is pushing back on reports the aircraft was brought down by a surface-launched missile.

The Pentagon assessed as “inaccurate” media reports claiming a Russian military surface-to-air missile destroyed the aircraft, which the Kremlin claims was carrying Wagner private military corporation chief executive Prigozhin.

However, the USA does believe that Prigozhin died in the crash.

Prigozhin crash

Source: X/RIA Novosti

The cause of the Embraer Legacy crash that killed 10 remains unclear, although the US military says there is no indication that a surface-to-air missile shot was responsible

“Our initial assessment is that it’s likely Prigozhin was killed,” said Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder on 24 August.

“[There is] nothing to indicate, no information to suggest that there was a surface-to-air missile,” Ryder adds. “We assess that information to be inaccurate.”

The Pentagon is “continuing to assess the situation”, Ryder says, declining to address questions about sabotage or a bomb being placed onboard the Embraer Legacy business jet, which went down in the Tver region of Russia.

Following the incident on 23 August, civil aviation authorities in Moscow quickly stated publicly that the name of Yevgeny Prigozhin was listed on the flight’s passenger manifest. The jet was travelling from Moscow to St Petersburg.

None of the flight’s 10 passengers survived, according to Moscow.

Prigozhin in June led his Wagner fighters in what has been alternatively described as a mutiny and attempted coup against the Kremlin government. The short-lived revolt saw Wagner occupy at least one major Russian city before the mercenary troops reversed course on their march to Moscow.

Wagner mercenaries have seen some of the heaviest fighting of Moscow’s 18-month war in Ukraine, with correspondingly high casualties. Prigozhin at the time claimed the revolt was meant to draw attention to Russian military leadership’s poor handling of the unprovoked invasion.

After the two-day mutiny, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly reached some kind of amnesty deal with Prigozhin, who had since appeared in Belarus and Africa alongside Wagner troops.

The Russian head of state on 24 August gave his first reaction to the death of his former lieutenant, with Putin offering condolences to the families of the crash victims.

“I had known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the start of the 90s,” Putin says. “He was a man with a difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life.” 

The remarks were reported by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. Putin adds that technical and genetic examinations of the crash site are being carried out.

The apparent death of the rebellious mercenary leader in Russia does not come as a shock, amid the deaths of numerous Russian journalists, business tycoons and political dissidents in recent years.

The official reaction from civilian leaders in Washington has been largely muted.

“We have seen the reports,” Adrienne Watson of the White House National Security Council posted on the social media site X shortly after the crash. “If confirmed, no one should be surprised.”

US President Joe Biden himself appeared nonplussed by the development, when asked about Prigozhin’s apparent death on 24 August.

“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” Biden says. “There is not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind, but I don’t know enough to know the answer.”