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Convenient crashes: A look at Russia’s history of suspicious aircraft disasters

Yevgeny Prigozhin (FBI/Released) | Russian President Vladimir (Kremlin/Released) Putin

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The Embraer Legacy 600 passenger jet dropped off radar screens around 6:11 p.m. Moscow time on August 23, not long after departing Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport en route to St. Petersburg. Rescuers found the wreckage of the jet a few hours later near the city of Tver, north of Moscow.

Ten people aboard died, according to Russian officials. Purportedly among the dead: the man who posed the gravest challenge to Vladimir Putin in his 23 years as Russia’s dominant political figure:

Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Known as “Putin’s chef,” and now better known for his ruthless mercenary company Wagner Group, Prigozhin is presumed to have been killed in the crash; Russian authorities have not yet confirmed reports from his allies, supporters, and some Russian media that he perished.

If confirmed, however, it wouldn’t be the first time in modern Russia that an aircraft went down, shrouded in suspicion, with wide political implications for Russia.

Here’s what we know about the crash of Prigozhin’s jet and about other recent Russian aviation disasters that also raised eyebrows.

No Shortage Of Reasons

The Embraer jet, tail number RA-02795, was one of a handful widely known to have belonged to Prigozhin, according to aircraft registration records. Russian aviation authorities released a passenger manifesto showing seven passengers on the plane, plus three crew members.

Prigozhin’s name was on the list, as was one of his top lieutenants, a former Russian intelligence operative named Dmitry Utkin, whose nom de guerre was later adopted by the Wagner Group. As of August 24, his death had also not been definitively confirmed.

Initial reports suggested that the jet may have been downed by Russian anti-aircraft defenses. Unconfirmed video posted to social media, meanwhile, showed a plane spiraling out of the sky, trailing smoke.

On August 24, a Telegram channel linked with Russian security agencies said investigators were looking at whether an explosive device had been planted on the jet, in the landing gear.

There’s a myriad of reasons why the Kremlin, or someone in the Defense Ministry, or Russia’s intelligence community, might want Prigozhin dead. Prigozhin has openly, and often profanely, challenged how Russian commanders are conducting the war against Ukraine, frequently insulting Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chairman General Valery Gerasimov by name.

The mutiny Prigozhin launched exactly two months prior to the plane crash, on June 23, meanwhile, was a tectonic political event in Russia, described as “the most direct assault on the Russian state in Vladimir Putin’s 23 years in power,” by the director of the CIA.

But after labeling the mutineers traitors, Putin did little to nothing to prosecute or punish any of them, Prigozhin included. The highest-profile punishment meted out to date appears to be General Sergei Surovikin, who briefly commanded the Ukraine invasion, who was seen as an ally of Prigozhin, and who may have had advance notice of the mutiny. Surovikin was reportedly removed from his command of Russia’s Aerospace Forces this week.

Potential Putin Challenger

Square-jawed, gravely voiced, and known for quippy aphorisms, Aleksandr Lebed first gained attention as an airborne forces general during the 1991 coup attempt, when he refused to order his forces to suppress the resistance led by Boris Yeltsin. He garnered further fame when, as commander of Russia’s 14th Army, he headed off a civil war in 1992 in Moldova, where rival factions were poised for open conflict.

Lebed ran in the controversial 1996 presidential election, coming in third behind Yeltsin and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. He then threw his support to Yeltsin, who returned the favor by appointing Lebed as secretary of the national Security Council, clearing the way for Yeltsin’s reelection.

Lebed then led negotiations with Chechnya’s self-declared president, Aslan Maskhadov, to end the First Chechen War in August 1996. However, the deal was seen as a humiliating capitulation for some hard-liners, and a clash with Yeltsin advisers led to his firing that October.

Two years later, he won election as governor of the sprawling, resource-rich Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, amid speculation that he could run for the presidency in 2000. However, he ended up sitting out the election, which was ultimately won by Putin.

In April 2002, Lebed was on his way to inaugurate a new ski resort in the mountains of southern Krasnoyarsk when the Mi-8 helicopter he was flying in, along with 16 other passengers and crew, crashed. Eight people were killed, including Lebed, who died en route to the hospital. Authorities said the craft went down after running into power lines in foggy conditions and blamed the crew.

Lebed’s associates, and at least one member of the Russian parliament, however, alleged the craft was sabotaged. One persistent theory, never confirmed, claimed that explosives had been placed on the chopper’s blades.

Lebed’s death stunned the small, national following he had built over the years, as well as his supporters in Russia’s military and intelligence agencies. With Putin already moving to consolidate his power, some journalists and political allies speculated that Lebed would have made a formidable challenger to Putin. He had also made enemies among business interests who were vying for control of Krasnoyarsk’s valuable aluminum and nickel industry.

The 1940 massacre of thousands of Polish military officers and elites in the Katyn forest near Smolensk had been a festering wound between Warsaw and Moscow for years.

In the 1980s and ’90s, evidence revealed by Soviet and Russian historians that Soviet secret police, not Nazi guards, had committed the killings had helped ease tensions. On April 10, 2010, a Polish Air Force jet carrying 96 members of Poland’s government and their relatives flew from Warsaw to Smolensk to mark the 70th anniversary of the killings — a landmark event in the two countries’ relations.

The Tupolev jet, however, crashed in foggy conditions on approach to the Smolensk airport. All 96 people onboard died, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski, the chief of the Polish General Staff, and dozens of military officials, lawmakers, clergy, and others.

The event was traumatic for Poland, with echoes of Polish elite being killed in 1940.

Both Polish and Russian investigators found no technical problems with the jet. Blame fell heavily on the pilots, and possibly on military officials onboard, who are said to have resisted diverting the plane to another airfield. Polish authorities later found fault in the Polish military unit responsible for official flights.

Over time, however, the Russian and Polish conclusions diverged, with some in Poland alleging that the crash was intentional, blaming Russian air-traffic controllers and speculating about the presence of explosive traces. Russia, meanwhile, refused to turn over the plane’s flight recorders. Some officials in Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party embraced the theory that the crash was an assassination, and even accused a rival Polish politician, Donald Tusk, of orchestrating a cover-up.

In April 2023, Lech Kaczynski’s surviving twin brother, Jaroslav — who had become one of Poland’s most powerful politicians — suggested Russian complicity in the crash, labeling it an assassination.

Top Secret

In the late 1980s, under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of glasnost, or openness, independent journalists began to carve out a niche for themselves as muckraking investigators. Artyom Borovik was a pioneer in this effort, doing exclusive reporting from Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion.

Following the Soviet collapse, he built an investigative newspaper, Sovershenno Sekretno, into a popular multimedia empire, digging into corruption among Russia’s elite.

Borovik also was critical of the conduct of the First Chechen War and was highly skeptical of the 1999 Russian apartment bombings that helped pave the way for the Second Chechen War. Officials blamed Chechen terrorists for the blasts, which killed dozens of people.

Officials blamed Chechen terrorists for the blasts, which killed dozens of people. However, a small, persistent group of journalists and independent investigators have pointed to evidence that Russian security services may have been behind the blasts — a plot aimed at both justifying a new invasion of Chechnya but also to propel Putin to the presidency.

In 2000, Borovik was investigating a rumor that Putin’s birth mother had not been a Russian woman in St. Petersburg after World War II, but was, in fact, a woman who was living in poverty in a rural Georgian village.

On March 9, Borovik, along with a Chechen businessman, planned to fly to Kyiv as part of that investigation. The plane, a Yakovlev Yak-40 carrying nine passengers, crashed seconds after taking off from Sheremetyevo Airport from a height of just 50 meters, according to press reports at the time.

Russian authorities blamed pilot error and said the plane’s wings were not deiced before takeoff. Speculation was rampant that the crash was deliberate, perhaps aimed at killing another Chechen businessman who was on the flight who was known to have financed Chechen separatist fighters.

Borovik’s colleagues at Sovershenno Sekretno, however, pointed out that he had repeatedly received death threats and that he had been finalizing an article about Putin’s alleged Georgian mother.

Other journalists and historians later linked Borovik’s death specifically to his Putin research and to the article he had planned to publish days before the March 26, 2000, presidential election, in which Putin was running for the first time.

Putin ended up winning decidedly.