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Embraer ERG 135 aircraft at Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg, Russia

A bomb or a missile? Meduza analyzes the early evidence about what downed Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plane and apparently killed Russia’s most notorious mercenary leader

Source: Meduza
Embraer ERG 135 aircraft at Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg, Russia
Embraer ERG 135 aircraft at Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg, Russia

On Wednesday evening, people northwest of Moscow looked up and saw a plane falling out of the sky. In videos shared on social media, large hunks of metal are visible, plummeting toward Earth as smoke trails the falling objects. Judging by the sound in the footage, at least one of the aircraft’s engines is still working as it falls. Some parts of the plane, including a wing and the tail section, fall separately. A few hours later, Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency confirmed that mercenary leaders Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin — the commanders of Russia’s infamous Wagner Group — were aboard the crashed aircraft. Meduza analyzes the early evidence about what caused the crash: a bomb or a missile?

The footage posted online clearly indicates that some kind of explosion knocked Prigozhin’s plane out of the air. What remains unclear is whether it was a bomb inside the aircraft or a missile attack from outside.

A source at Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency reportedly told the television network Tsargrad that the plane was “blown up,” meaning it was not shot down (though Russian officials say they are still considering all possibilities). There are reasons to doubt the “bomb” explanation, however:

  • One video of the crash captured a cloud that resembles the contrail from a surface-to-air missile.
  • Eyewitnesses in videos shared online talk about two explosions preceding the crash. It’s standard practice to launch two air-defense missiles against a single target in order to increase the odds of scoring a hit.
  • Admittedly low-quality images from the crash site indicate that some of the wreckage contains holes that may have been caused by the preformed fragments of a surface-to-air missile warhead. These holes are not visible on wreckage that fell farther from the plane’s main fuselage. 

There is also evidence suggesting that the explosion occurred inside the plane:

  • According to Flightradar24, the aircraft reached an altitude of 28,000 feet before falling. Many air-defense systems are incapable of hitting planes at this height. For example, the shot would have been virtually impossible for someone on the ground (such as Ukrainian special forces) using a man-portable air-defense system. In fact, any kind of short-range air-defense missile system likely could not have reached a target so high. At a minimum, this would have required a medium-range system (such as a Buk) that was also located near the target plane’s air path. 
  • The powerful missiles launched by these systems with a greater range would likely have caused even more damage to the plane than is visible from eyewitness footage. For example, if a 70-kilogram warhead and its 7,000 submunitions hit an aircraft the size of the Embraer ERJ-135, the fuselage would not likely have fallen to the ground “in one piece.”

There is obvious political significance in determining whether it was a bomb or a missile that downed Prigozhin’s plane. If a surface-to-air missile was the cause, there will be no doubt that the Russian military is responsible for shooting down and killing the country’s most notorious mercenary leader. A bomb aboard the plane, on the other hand, allows for virtually any culprit (which, of course, does not exclude the Russian authorities).

The rules of the International Civil Aviation Organization stipulate that the crash investigation should be conducted by the local authorized agency, the Interstate Aviation Committee, with the participation of the aircraft manufacturer, Brazilian aerospace corporation Embraer S.A.

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