The apparent downing of the business jet carrying Wagner chief Evgeniy Prigozhin delivered a suitably brutal end to one of Putin’s most ruthless and effective deputies. It also underlined the extent to which Russia has been willing to set aside the niceties of aviation safety in the raw exercise of power.
Throughout the rest of the world, civil aviation is sacrosanct, a highly protected and regulated industry bound by international treaties enforced by powerful agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency in the EU. Passenger safety is paramount. As a result, fatal accidents are exceedingly rare: The United State hasn’t had a fatal crash since 2009.
Russia, in contrast, has a tradition dating back to the Cold War of brushing aside safety concerns for the sake of military or political objectives.
In 1978, the Soviet Union shot down an off-course Korean Air Lines 707, forcing it to crash-land on a frozen lake with the loss of two of the passengers and crew. Five years later, it shot down another off-course Korean Air Lines airliner over the Sea of Japan, killing all 269 aboard. In both cases, Soviet officials claimed that they were acting in self-defense, yet in both fighter jets had approached close enough to their targets to see that they were civilian airliners.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, its successor state, the Russian Federation, modernized its civilian aircraft fleet, and for a time safety improved. But after former KGB agent Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, the Kremlin gradually returned to its old ways. In 2014, as a Russia-backed insurgency raged in the eastern part of Ukraine, a regular Russian army anti-aircraft unit shot down a Malaysian Airlines 777 en route from the Netherlands to Malaysia as it neared the border between Ukraine and Russia. All 298 passengers and crew were killed. To this day, it remains unclear why the plane was shot down, but in the aftermath Ukraine halted its air-force attacks on Russian ground units and its counteroffensive against the invaders stalled.
Less fatally, Russia’s client state Belarus in 2011 forced down an international flight passing through its airspace in order to seize dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. After the Ryanair 737 landed in Minsk, Protasevich was pulled from the plane and jailed, while the aircraft and the rest of its passengers were allowed to proceed to their original destination.
Russia has interfered in aviation safety in subtler ways as well. In recent years, it has periodically tampered with GPS signals so that navigational systems on ships and airplanes suddenly show their locations as hundreds or thousands of miles from where they actually are. Again, it’s not entirely clear why Russia does this, though it may have to do with protecting high-value assets, as GPS is also used in the targeting systems of some high-precision weapons.
The Prigozhin shoot-down occurred two months to the day after the Wagner Group boss launched an apparent coup attempt that left many onlookers wondering how long Prigozhin could survive his boss’s predilection for Game of Thrones–style revenge. The plane, an Embraer 600 business jet, was cruising at 28,000 feet north of Moscow when all data transmission abruptly ceased. Amateur video taken by bystanders on the ground showed a puff of smoke followed by the aircraft’s vertical descent. Footage shot on the ground showed dismembered bodies and burning, scattered debris, some of it apparently punctured by anti-aircraft missile shrapnel.
Putin’s opponents have long had a tendency to meet violent ends. The most common is to fall out of a high window, though others have suffered different unpleasant fates, including being poisoned with exotic toxins. The fact that Prigozhin was dispatched in a such a conspicuous way may come down to the simple fact that, as a military leader well versed in the brutal intrigues of the Russian court, he was too difficult to kill in a subtler manner.
The apparent shoot-down might also have been at least partially symbolic. During the coup, Prigozhin’s troops shot down seven Russian military aircraft that had been deployed against them, killing more than a dozen servicemen. The sole fixed-wing airplane to be shot down was a rare and valuable Ilyushin Il-22M, a small plane used as an airborne command post. All ten aboard were killed — the same number that died on Prigozhin’s plane.