If Russia’s propaganda machine seemed caught off guard by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny, its reaction to his death in a plane crash has been far more disciplined.
Take Margarita Simonyan, the normally outspoken editor-in-chief of the state broadcaster RT. As Prigozhin’s Wagner troops marched on Moscow in late June, her social media accounts were silent. Only days later, after calm had been restored, did she resurface, saying she’d been digitally detoxing while on a trip down the Volga River.
But Wednesday evening, when news broke that a plane reportedly carrying Prigozhin had plummeted to the ground, her take was swift: “Among the versions being discussed is that this is a fake,” she wrote on Telegram. “But I personally am leaning towards the more obvious.”
Across the state apparatus, the narrative is clear: The crash is likely a technical affair and Prigozhin is, indeed, dead. Nothing much to see here.
It took less than two hours after the plane disappeared from flight radars for Russia’s federal aviation agency to confirm the crash and announce the St. Petersburg warlord as having been among those on board.
Later that evening, Russia’s Investigative Committee announced it was investigating the possible violation of transport and safety rules. And on Thursday morning, the Russian Orthodox channel Tsargrad reported Prigozhin’s body had been identified — although there has of yet been no formal confirmation.
In a meeting with Denis Pushilin, the Kremlin-appointed head of Russia’s occupation administration in Ukraine’s Donetsk region Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Investigative Committee of Russia were looking into the crash. He urged people to wait for the results. “Let’s see what the investigators say,” he said.
The government’s message discipline stood in marked contrast to the rumors washing around online.
The GreyZone Telegram channel linked to Wagner was first to report on Wednesday that a second plane belonging to Prigozhin was intact and circling above Moscow, eventually landing at Vnukovo airport, fueling suspicion Prigozhin might have escaped death.
“A burnt-out plane provides a suitable opportunity to disappear forever, one of many spare passports on hand. No bones for ravens to pick at, limbs reduced to ashes, the trail gone cold,” independent political analyst Yekaterina Schulmann wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
Prigozhin — a lover of the theatrical and a Houdini-style master of trickery and deceit — offered myriad reasons to suspect a final twist in an eventful life.
After finally stepping out of the shadows as the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, his public performances became increasingly dramatic, erratic and surreal.
When he spouted insults at Russia’s top military brass, many wondered whether he was simply a paid lightning rod for tension among those disappointed in Moscow’s military achievements. And when his men recorded a video featuring what appeared to be an extrajudicial execution of a Wagner fighter who had crossed over to Ukraine with a sledgehammer, many wondered whether the whole thing had been carried as a spectacle to keep others in line.
Prigozhin’s mutiny and its murky aftermath did little to provide clarity. He was called a traitor by Putin on state television, only to be offered an exit to Belarus. And even then, he continued to be sighted in Russia, and according to Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, even had an audience in the Kremlin with Putin after he was meant to have been exiled.
Law enforcement official raiding his St. Petersburg mansion uncovered fake passports and photos of Prigozhin in a variety of wigs, adding to earlier reports he had several lookalikes on his payroll whom he took on his travels to confuse potential enemies.
Even the notion of him dying in a plane crash is not new.
In October 2019, the warlord was reported to have been on a plane that crashed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With no sign of life from Prigozhin himself, it was left to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti to refute the reports, citing a person close to him as saying he had been in Russia at the time of the crash, not Africa, and was “very surprised, to be considered dead.”
The only certainty when it comes to Prigozhin is that it wouldn’t be beyond him to stage his death.
“It fits his style,” Christo Grozev, a journalist with the investigative website Bellingcat, told the Popular Politics YouTube channel run by allies of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday.
Grozev wasn’t the only one to raise questions. “I understand that Russia is claiming that Prigozhin has died,” Krišjānis Kariņš, outgoing Latvia prime minister, told POLITICO on Thursday. “I’ll let the facts establish themselves … Either he has been killed or he has not been killed.”
It doesn’t help that there are still different versions as to the cause of the crash. According to some independent military analysts and the majority of those posting on Wagner-linked social media, the plane was downed by Russian air defenses; others have suggested a blast onboard is to blame.
And then there’s the question of who killed him.
Among Kremlin critics there is very little doubt that an attack on Prigozhin could only have been ordered, or at least approved, by Putin personally and is an act of revenge.
“The [Russian] establishment is now convinced that there is no way to act out against Putin while staying in the clear,” wrote Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter. “Putin is still strong enough and capable of enacting his revenge.”
Kremlin propagandists have been quick to counter that narrative, pointing the finger at Ukraine (President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has denied the country was involved) and the United States.
“Putin gave his word, he forgave [Wagner]. He has never been caught at breaking his word. Putin values his reputation,” popular state television anchor Vladimir Solovyov said in his broadcast Wednesday evening.
In general, state media appeared to downplay the event and its consequences. State television ignored the crash or only mentioned it in passing. News agencies generally did not highlight the news on their home pages, avoided using Prigozhin’s name in headlines and framed updates in terms of a “crash in the Tver region.”
But even the most Putin-friendly outlets couldn’t deny that this isn’t a story that would quickly fade away.
In an interview with the pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, Yevgeny Minchenko, a prominent political consultant close to the Kremlin, compared the mystery surrounding Prigozhin’s death to that of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
“In all likelihood, this will be one of those deaths that will always remain unsolved,” he said. “Тhere might never be a final version that is acceptable to everyone.”