At around 5:30 pm Moscow time on August 23, the Embraer Legacy 600 private business jet took to the skies. Launching from an airport near the Russian capital, the 13-seater plane, which has a white body and blue tail, has been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the brutal Russian mercenary outfit Wagner Group.
At 5:46 pm, once the plane was clear of Moscow—an area where location-tracking GPS signals are frequently blocked—receivers belonging to flight-tracking network Flightradar24 started picking up signals from the Embraer Legacy. For the next 34 minutes, Prigozhin’s plane was sending out data about its altitude, speed, and autopilot settings that allowed its movements to be tracked.
During this time, the Embraer Legacy appeared to be fine. It reached a cruising altitude of 28,000 feet before briefly climbing to 30,000 feet, and it was traveling at around a ground speed of around 513 knots. Its flight path headed northwest, away from Moscow and in the direction of Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg.
At 6:19 pm, around 30 seconds before the plane stopped transmitting data altogether, it plunged 8,000 feet toward the ground. Its last recorded altitude was 19,725, as it flew by the Kuzhenkino village in the Tver Region. The descent was “dramatic,” according to Flightradar’s analysis.
Since the plane smashed into the earth, killing all those onboard, Russian aviation services, Telegram channels linked to Wagner, and the country’s state-controlled media have reported that Prigozhin was listed as a passenger. The country’s aviation agency named the Wagner boss among 10 people on the plane, along with other senior Wagner members, including cofounder Dmitri Utkin and three crew members.
Officials, according to Russian state media, are investigating the crash and what may have caused it, and have reportedly recovered the bodies. It has been widely speculated that the plane could have been shot down by Russian air defenses, perhaps in response to Prigozhin’s attempted coup two months ago. No evidence to back this up has been presented yet, with Russian president Vladimir Putin saying he has sent his condolences to the families of the dead and investigations are looking into what happened. (One anonymous Western intelligence official told The New York Times that they believe Prigozhin was on the plane. Meanwhile, US president Joe Biden has said there is “not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.“)
Thanks to Russia’s heavy censorship and propaganda machines, the verifiable truth of what happened to the Embraer Legacy may never be known, experts say.
Amid the dramatic and unfolding incident, there has been a void of official information and a swirl of unconfirmed theories. However, the event highlights how powerful Russia’s grip on its information space is: The country controls its media, has banned independent outlets, and tightly censors the internet and online services available in the country. The episode also continues to show how useful even small amounts of open source information—such as photos or videos posted to social media and open source data, such as flight information—can be in establishing what may have happened. Open source intelligence, known as OSINT, is already being inspected by researchers.