Flightradar24 map showing flight path of Embraer Legacy 650 aircraft carrying Wagner group leader.

Russian Mercenary Leader's Jet Crashes

Suspicions raised as Putin opponent dies in an Embraer Legacy 600.

Russian authorities are investigating the crash of an Embraer Legacy 600 yesterday that reportedly killed Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his close associates. Airspace tracking service Flightradar24 said the aircraft made a “dramatic” descent nine minutes after leveling off at 28,000 feet, having departed Moskva-Sheremetyevo Airport (UUEE) just after 6 p.m. local time to fly to Saint Petersburg-Pulkovo Airport (ULLI).

A report by Flightradar24 indicates the aircraft descended by more than 8,000 feet in around 30 seconds. TRosaviatsiya, Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency, confirmed the Legacy 600 was registered under the tail number RA-02795 to MNT Aero, a leasing group that appears to have been operating it for the Wagner group. The agency said the flight manifest listed seven passengers and three crew.

Passengers on board were reportedly Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner Group co-founder Dmitry Utkin, along with Sergey Propustin, Yevgeny Makaryan, Alexander Totmin, Valeriy Chekalov, and Nikolay Matuseyev. The crewmembers were identified as Alexei Levshin, Rustam Karimov, and flight attendant Kristina Raspopova.

The crash occurred exactly two months after the mercenary leader led a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership over their conduct of the war in Ukraine. Prgozhin’s widely reported confrontations with Russian President Vladimir Putin have prompted observers to question whether the country’s accident investigators will be able to provide an objective and transparent explanation for the fatal accident.

The Legacy 600—MSN 14501008, according to Aviation Safety Network (ASN)—crashed around 60 miles north of the Russian capital and burst into flames. “In the Tver region, near the village of Kuzhenkino, a private Embraer Legacy aircraft crashed while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg,” the Ministry of Emergency Situations said in a statement. “There were 10 people on board, including three crewmembers. According to preliminary information, all on board were killed.”

The Grey Zone, a Wagner-linked Telegram channel, posted an obituary: “The head of the Wagner Group, hero of Russia, a true patriot of his Motherland—Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin—died as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia.”

Several Western observers, however, urged caution on identifying the passengers because Prigozhin was known to have numerous passports and body doubles who traveled under his name. “Until we know for certain it’s the right Prigozhin, let’s not be surprised if he pops up shortly in a new video from Africa,” Keir Giles, Russia analyst at the London-based Chatham House think tank, told he Washington Post. “We are unlikely ever to know the true cause of the crash,” he noted, because “there is no chance of any investigation that will be either transparent or reliable.”

At this time, it is unclear whether the Brazilian manufacturer will be invited to join Russia’s investigation of the crash, as is customary in civil aviation accident investigations. In a short statement to BJT sister publication AIN, the company said: “Embraer is aware of the accident that occurred with the Legacy 600 in Russia, but so far does not have any further information about the case. The company has complied and continues to comply with international sanctions imposed on Russia leading to the suspension of the plane’s support services starting in 2019.”

Soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, leading Western nations imposed sanctions intended to block the export of aircraft and parts to Russia. Prigozhin has been subject to U.S. sanctions since 2019, and many other wealthy associates of Putin have also been personally sanctioned since then in moves that have completely isolated Russia's business aviation community.

However, according to research into customs records published this week by Reuters, at least $1.2 billion worth of spare parts have been delivered to Russian aircraft operators since May 2022. The news agency indicated that the sanctions have been evaded by various intermediary dealers in countries that have remained close to the Putin regime including the UAE, Turkey, China, and Kyrgyzstan.

The Legacy 600 executive jet, which entered service in 2002, has an excellent safety record. According to Air Safety Network, the Wagner jet is the first Legacy 600 to suffer a fatal crash and there has been only one other recorded accident involving the type, which occurred in 2006 when one crashed midair into a Gol Boeing 737-800 scheduled to be delivered from the Embraer factory at São José dos Campos Airport to the U.S.

Rosaviatsia said RA-02795 belonged to MNT-AERO, which has leasing of aircraft and aircraft equipment listed as its core activity. It also confirmed that the “flight of the Embraer [EMB-135BJ Legacy] was carried out on the basis of a permit for the use of airspace issued in accordance with the established procedure” and that a specially created commission has begun investigating the circumstances and causes of the accident.

“The Commission of the Federal Air Transport Agency is starting initial actions at the scene of the accident and has also begun collecting factual materials on the training of the crew, the technical condition of the aircraft, the meteorological situation on the flight route, the work of dispatch services and ground radio equipment,” Rosaviatsia said in a statement.

Widespread speculation that the Wagner aircraft was destroyed by missiles will likely be viewed in the context of the Russian government’s role in the 2014 attack on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine after departing Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur. In November 2022, a Dutch court in The Hague found two former Russian intelligence officers and a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian separatist to be responsible for shooting down the Boeing 777 airliner with Buk anti-aircraft missiles. The Putin administration refused to cooperate with the court order to arrest the men to serve life sentences in prison.

Just a few hours before the crash of the Wagner aircraft, state-controlled news agency RIA Novosti reported sources close to the Kremlin as confirming the firing of the head of the Russian Air Force, General Sergei Surovikin. Little has been seen of Surovikin since soon after an attempted coup in May by Prigozhin, who had expressed public support for the general after berating other senior military leaders.

Earlier this week, Rosaviatsia reported that flights in and out of Moscow’s four main airports—Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo, Vnukovo, and Zhukovsky—were disrupted due to airspace closures imposed by defense forces in response to alleged drone attacks from Ukraine. The Russian government has repeatedly accused its enemy of being behind reported drone attacks around the capital, a claim that has yet to be independently verified.

Today, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denied any involvement in the crash, seemingly anticipating Kremlin attempts to deflect suspicion from President Putin. "Everybody realizes who had something to do with it," Zelensky told reporters.

French government spokesman Olivier Veran commented, “We don't yet know the circumstance in which the crash took place, [but] we can have reasonable doubts.”