The Last Hour of Prigozhin’s Plane

Russia tightly controls its information space, making it difficult to obtain accurate information from the country. But open source data offers some clues about the crash.

At about 5:30 pm on August 23, Moscow time, the Embraer Legacy 600 private business jet took off. The 13-seater plane, with a white fuselage and blue tail, took off from an airport near the Russian capital and is linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the brutal Russian mercenary group Vanger Group.

At 5:46 p.m., receivers belonging to flight-tracking network Flightradar24 began picking up signals from the Embraer Legacy plane after the plane left Moscow, an area where location-tracking GPS signals are often blocked. Over the next 34 minutes, Prigozhin’s plane sent data about its altitude, speed and autopilot settings in order to track its movement.

In the meantime, things seem to be going well for the Embraer legacy. It cruised at 28,000 feet before briefly climbing to 30,000 feet and traveling at about 513 knots. Its flight path was heading northwest, away from Moscow, towards St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city.

At 6:19 p.m., about 30 seconds after the plane stopped transmitting data completely, the plane plummeted to the ground from an altitude of 8,000 feet. Its last recorded altitude was 19,725 when it flew over the village of Kuzhenkino in the Tver region. The drop was “dramatic,” according to Flightradar’s analysis.

Since the plane crashed into Earth, killing everyone on board, Aeroflot, a Telegram channel linked to Wanger and the country’s state-controlled media have all reported that Prigozhin was listed as a passenger. The country’s aviation agency lists the Wagner boss as one of 10 people on board the plane, with other senior Wagner members including co-founder Dmitry Utkin and three crew members.

Officials are investigating the accident and its possible cause, and have reportedly recovered the body, according to Russian state media. Speculation is rife that the plane may have been shot down by Russian air defenses, perhaps in response to Prigozhin’s attempted coup two months ago. There has been no evidence to support that claim, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had offered his condolences to the families of the deceased and was investigating what happened. (An anonymous Western intelligence official told The New York Times they believed Prigozhin was on the plane. Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden said, “Putin is not behind everything that’s happening in Russia.”)

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Experts say the verifiable truth about Embraer’s legacy may never be known because of Russia’s heavy-handed censorship and propaganda machine.

Amidst the drama and unfolding events, there has been a blank slate of official information and a plethora of unproven theories. However, the incident underscores just how powerful Russia’s control over its information space is: the country controls its media, bans independent outlets, and heavily censors the internet and online services the country offers. The episode also goes on 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 determining what might have happened. Researchers have examined open source intelligence (OSINT).

FlightRadar is one of the very few sources of verifiable information on the Embraer Legacy 600 and the fate of those on board. Since the aircraft stopped transmitting data, A video surfaced on social media Showing the dramatic fall of debris from an airplane towards Earth.

OSINT investigators have comfirmed That This happened near the Tver regionThe plane’s last known location is determined by comparing landmarks in the video, such as trees and metal towers, with existing photos of the location.Another video from the crash site reportedly shows Some of the wreckage matches previous images Photo of an Embraer Legacy 600 aircraft in Prigozhin. (However, a fake video posted on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter) has been about one million views.)

Elise Thomas, an investigator with the Center for Information Resilience, a nonprofit that works to expose human rights abuses and counter disinformation. Within hours, FlightRadar data and video confirmed by the site provided a glimpse of what might have happened, she said. . “But in the end, we may become somewhat dependent on Russian resources,” she said. These could include Russian government agencies or Telegram channels, which may not be trustworthy. “In some ways, perhaps the most likely outcome is that we never know the absolute truth about what happened,” she said.

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Obtaining real information from Russia is not easy, and it has become even more difficult since the country began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. “The information space has been straining over time,” says digital rights nonprofit Access Now. Over the past decade, Kremlin said, the Kremlin has passed laws and taken other steps to control the internet, censor what people can access, limit the media and clamp down on independent reporting.

According to media freedom group Reporters Without Borders, almost all independent media outlets in Russia have been “banned, blocked” or declared “foreign agents” since last February. “Those companies that survive have been allies of the Kremlin for years, or have been forced into intense self-censorship over banned subjects and terms,” said the report in its 2023 annual rankings. Organizations that track threats to democracy and liberty“ Freedom House ranks Russia as one of the worst countries for internet freedom.

On top of that, Russia has been running disinformation campaigns for years, seemingly lying about public events at home and abroad. Prigozhin runs the notorious Internet Research Agency, which created a flood of fake news and interfered in the 2016 US election. Two Russian agents who broke into the UK in 2018 and poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia later appeared on Russian state television claiming they were only visiting the UK Cathedral in Salisbury, UK. In 2014, when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed, killing 298 people, Russian officials changed their story several times – investigative news organization Bellingcat provided a wealth of open-source evidence.

Russia’s so-called informal network of military bloggers was also involved when it came to Prigozhin and the crash. In the absence of official information about the Russian war, these military journalists appeared on Telegram, sometimes pushing their latest news to more than a million people. The accounts are largely pro-Russian, though they often have different allegiances, which makes things even more confusing. “Some of them worked for Prigoren,” Thomas said. “We know some of them have ties to the FSB or the GRU,” referring to Russian intelligence. “Some of them may have links to Russian security services that we don’t know about.”

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The channels have come up with a range of theories about the crash, claiming to have confirmed Prigozhin’s death and suggesting they Will “March” to Moscow. There were also reports of a possible cause of the crash.according to MedusaThe widely read independent news outlet Telegram in Russia circulated that investigators suspected that the plane may have contained a bomb and that law enforcement may have located the suspect. Neither of these claims has been officially confirmed. Medusa notes.

“It’s not enough to look at what’s available or what’s not available,” said Tanya Lokot, an associate professor of digital media and society at Dublin City University who studies the internet and media freedom. Lokot said the context of any information published by Russian official sources or Telegram channels must be considered. For example, she said, it’s important to scrutinize why certain information, such as lists, might be released at a particular time.

Understanding the motivations of those who control such information and how and when they decide to release it is also important, Lockett said, because it helps shape the larger narrative. “It’s important to understand how they’re presenting this event and the aftermath of that event because it also helps us understand how they’re trying to control the information space to make sure it fits into their broader strategic narrative,” she said. “Ideally at least the strategic narrative is one in which the Russian government wants to show that whatever the circumstances, it remains in control.”

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