On Wednesday, Russian officials said Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin died in a plane crash.
An aviation expert laid out to Insider what investigators would look for in terms of evidence.
That’s provided that a fair investigation can happen, given Prigozhin’s failed rebellion.
The plane said to be carrying Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin to his demise appeared to be engulfed in flames at the crash site, which could give investigators immediate clues as to what happened during the flight’s last moments, an aviation expert who analyzed a purported video of the crash told Insider.
On Wednesday, Russian state media reported Prigozhin was among 10 passengers who died after their business jet crashed in the Tver region outside of Moscow.
The outlet RIA Novosti shared a video, saying that it showed the airplane in descent before it hit the ground. Photos on social media have also surfaced showing a fiery wreckage at the crash site. Insider has not been able to verify the photos or videos emanating from the crash yet.
Wagner-affiliated sources initially claimed the plane had been struck by unidentified antiaircraft missiles, The Wall Street Journal reported. But in the 24 hours after Prigozhin’s death US officials and other intelligence officials have addressed some of the possibilities as to how the Wagner Group leader was taken out.
With murky details, answers may lie in the ‘four corners’
Crucial insights — such as whether the plane was targeted — can be gleaned from the footage of the fiery wreckage and an unusual flight path — provided that a transparent investigation can even happen.
“You start off at the crash site and then you work your way backward, trying to piece things together,” Anthony Brickhouse, a former investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board and an associate professor in applied aviation sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told Insider. “Investigators don’t figure it out in the minutes and hours after the crash.”
Brickhouse said that in typical crash investigations, the immediate areas of interest would be data about the plane’s flight path, how fiery the crash site was, and how much of the plane is able to be recovered.
CNN reported flight-tracking data showed a sharp descent for the plane ahead of the crash.
Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency said on Wednesday the bodies of the 10 deceased passengers were retrieved from the crash site, signaling a moving investigation.
“In early stages, the most important thing is to get on scene and secure the wreckage, so that it can’t be tampered with,” Brickhouse told Insider. “The bent pieces of metal are going to tell you a story.”
Brickhouse added that the crash site, engulfed in flames, could point to a plane that went down with a full gas tank. If the aircraft ran out of fuel, there would be little to no fire, he added.
Most importantly, he said, investigators would look to see whether the “four corners” of the plane are intact: the nose, the tail, and the two wings.
“If you get to the crash site and you have those four things, it’s a good indication that the aircraft was together when it impacted the ground,” Brickhouse told Insider, pointing more to some kind of operational failure rather than something like a direct missile attack.
On Thursday, a Pentagon spokesperson said that there was no information yet as to whether a surface-to-air missile had struck the aircraft, according to Reuters.
According to the AP, the primary theory among Western intelligence sources is that a bomb planted on the plane exploded in mid-air, causing the crash. Another theory US officials are looking at is whether the plane’s fuel source had been contaminated.
UK defense sources told the BBC that the FSB, Russia’s security agency, may have been behind the crash, adding a new wrinkle to the accusations.
Of course, it’s not yet known whether an impartial investigation into the Wagner Group founder’s death will even happen, Brickhouse said.
Prigozhin had challenged Putin earlier in the summer, going from friend to foe after mounting a short-lived mutiny with his Wagner troops.
In late June, after months of Wagner troops battling Ukrainian troops on behalf of Russia, Prigozhin said Russia’s defense ministry had carried out a missile strike against Wagner positions at an undisclosed location in Ukraine, which he said had killed a “huge amount” of mercenaries.
In his tirade, Prigozhin said Russia’s defense ministry “must be stopped” and the individuals responsible for the death of Wagner fighters must be punished. Moscow’s security services responded by announcing a criminal case against Prigozhin, charging him with inciting an armed rebellion — a case which was later dropped.
Within a day of Prigozhin’s announcement, Wagner fighters captured the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, a central command for its war in Ukraine, and headed toward Moscow. Days later, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a peace deal, forcing Prigozhin to call off the rebellion in exchange for immunity in Belarus.
Since the mutiny, Prigozhin’s exact whereabouts have been unknown. Earlier this week, he appeared in a video purported to be shot in Africa, where Wagner troops have had a presence in several countries.
August 24, 2023: This story has been updated with reports on the possible reasons for the crash.
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