Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led a brief armed rebellion against the Russian military earlier this year, was presumed dead Wednesday after a plane crash north of Moscow that killed all 10 people on board.
Prigozhin was on the plane, according to Russia's civil aviation agency, which cited the airline. The crash immediately raised suspicions since the fate of the founder of the Wagner private military company has been the subject of intense speculation ever since he mounted the mutiny.
At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the rebellion as "treason" and a "stab in the back" and vowed to avenge it. But the charges against Prigozhin were soon dropped. The Wagner chief, whose troops were some of the best forces fighting for Russia in Ukraine, was allowed to retreat to Belarus, while reportedly popping up in Russia from time to time.
There was no official comment Wednesday from the Kremlin or the Defence Ministry on the fate of Prigozhin.
The crash also comes after Russian media reported that a top general linked to Prigozhin was dismissed from his position as commander of the air force.
The plane, carrying three pilots and seven passengers, was en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg and went down almost 300 kilometres north of the capital, according to officials cited by Russia's state news agency Tass.
Russia's civilian aviation regulator, Rosaviatsia, quickly reported that Prigozhin was on the manifest and later said that, according to airline, he was indeed on board.
Earlier, Vladimir Rogov, a Russia-appointed official in the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia region in Ukraine, said he talked to Wagner commanders, who confirmed that Prigozhin was aboard, as was his top associate Dmitry Utkin, whose call sign "Wagner" became the company's name.
U.S. President Joe Biden said he was not surprised by the news, saying not much happens in Russia that Putin is not behind.
"I don't know for a fact what happened but I'm not surprised," he said.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told reporters Wednesday that officials in Ottawa were "assessing the situation" and that she would be talking to Canada's ambassador to Russia.
Keir Giles, a Russia expert and senior consulting fellow with the U.K.-based think-tank Chatham House told CBC's Power & Politics that Prigozhin had long taken strict security precautions, including having people who travelled under his name to divert attention from his true whereabouts.
As such, until there is "cast-iron certainty" that Prigozhin is dead, Giles said "we shouldn't be writing him off."
Yet Giles was not expecting Russia to be forthcoming about what happened to the downed plane.
"Even if this wasn't such a politically charged event, the chances of there being a transparent investigation which had reliable findings within Russia are really pretty slim," he said.
Signal disappeared after takeoff
Flight tracking data reviewed by The Associated Press shows a private jet registered to Wagner that Prigozhin had used previously took off from Moscow on Wednesday evening and its transponder signal disappeared minutes later.
The signal stopped suddenly while the plane was at altitude and travelling at speed. In an image posted by a pro-Wagner social media account showing burning wreckage, a partial tail number matching a jet previously used by Prigozhin could be seen.
Videos shared by the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone show a plane dropping like a stone from a large cloud of smoke, twisting as it falls. Such freefalls can occur when an aircraft sustains severe damage, and a frame-by-frame analysis by The AP of two videos are consistent with some sort of explosion mid-flight. The images appear to show the plane is missing a wing.
Russia's Investigative Committee opened a probe into the crash on charges of violating air safety rules, as is typical when they open such probes. Interfax, citing emergency officials, reported early Thursday that all 10 bodies had been recovered at the site of the crash and the search operation had ended.
Prigozhin's forces fought some of the fiercest battles in Russia's war in Ukraine over the last 18 months.
His troops pulled back from front-line action after capturing Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donetsk region, in late May. Bakhmut had been the subject of arguably the bloodiest battles in the entire war, with the Russian forces struggling to seize it for months.
After the rebellion, Russian officials said his fighters would only be able to return to Ukraine as part of the regular army.
This week, Prigozhin posted his first recruitment video since the mutiny, saying that Wagner is conducting reconnaissance and search activities, and "making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free."
Also this week, Russian media reported, citing anonymous sources, that a top Russian general linked to Prigozhin — Gen. Sergei Surovikin — was dismissed from his position as commander of Russia's air force.
Surovikin, who at one point led Russia's operation in Ukraine, hasn't been seen in public since the mutiny, when he recorded a video address urging Prigozhin's forces to pull back.
As the news about the crash was breaking, Putin spoke at an event commemorating the Battle of Kursk, lauding what he calls the heroes of Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said on Telegram that "no matter what caused the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of vengeance and retribution" by the Kremlin, and that "the Kremlin wouldn't really stand in the way of that."
"From Putin's point of view, as well as the security forces and the military — Prigozhin's death must be a lesson to any potential followers," Stanovaya said.
According to her, after the mutiny, Prigozhin "stopped being the authorities' partner and could not, under any circumstances, get that status back." "He also wasn't forgiven," Stanovaya wrote.
With files from CBC News and Reuters