August 24, 2023

Sitrep for Aug. 23–24, 2023 (as of 8:30 a.m.)

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Last Flight

On Aug. 23, a private jet crashed in the Tver region. It was carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin [owner of the Wagner Group], Dmitry Utkin [commander of the Wagner Group] and several other high-ranking members of the Wagner Group.

According to data from FlightRadar24, a service tracking aircraft transponder data, the first signal from Prigozhin’s jet was received at 5:46 p.m. Moscow Time. By 6:11 p.m., the plane had reached a cruising altitude of around 8,500 meters (27,900 ft) and continued to transmit signals until 6:20 p.m. In its final minutes, the plane’s vertical speed fluctuated dramatically, alternating between rapid climbs and dives. The last location ping sent out by the plane placed it at an altitude of 6,000 meters (19,700 ft), suggesting it was already falling by that point.

Rumors suggesting that another jet belonging to Prigozhin, which took off a short while after the plane he was in, intentionally disabled its transponder seem unfounded to us. Aircraft data on FlightRadar24, and other similar services, can occasionally disappear. This might not only be due to deactivated transponders, but also due to radios operated by volunteers not picking up aircraft transmissions, or lacking sufficient sensitivity.

Two videos capturing the plane’s descent stand out amongst all of the footage that has been published in the last 24 hours.

The first one, filmed by a woman, shows a cloud resembling a contrail in the sky, and an airplane falling uncontrollably in the distance. The jet appears to have lost one of its wings and most likely its tail fins. These fragments were later found some distance away from the rest of the burned-out fuselage. The woman mentions hearing two bangs at the start of the video, before the plane starts falling from the sky.

In the second video, a man speaks of hearing three bangs. He subsequently discovers a piece of fuselage near his home, and notices smoke in the distance emanating from the jet’s crash site.

The fact that the aircraft’s fuselage began to break apart while still in the air indicates that the crash was not caused by a technical malfunction. There most likely was an explosion on board or the business jet was shot down by an air defense missile. If an explosive device had detonated inside the plane, witnesses would have heard only one explosion in the air and another upon impact, which contradicts eyewitness accounts. By comparison, in the case of a surface-to-air missile system, it is possible to hear the missile launch (if one is close to the launch site), followed by the sonic boom produced by the supersonic anti-aircraft missile (similar to the thunderous sound heard in a supersonic fighter jet flyby), and finally, the explosion of the warhead near the target. Furthermore, the cloud in the sky captured in the first video resembles the contrail or explosion left by an air defense missile.

The photo of the tail fin area does not show any traces of damage from such a missile, but in the video from the crash site, it is possible to see both the bodies of the victims and perforations in certain parts of the fuselage that resemble marks left by prefabricated fragments contained in missile warheads (the video quality does not allow for a definitive assessment).

At present, the version suggesting that Prigozhin’s aircraft was shot down by an air defense system seems the most plausible to our team. According to FlightRadar24 data, the final moments of normal flight occurred at an altitude of around 8,5000 meters (27,900 ft), which rules out a hit from MANPADS by a hypothetical Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group. Incidentally, the Khotilovo airfield in the Tver region is not far from the crash site, where units of the 6th Air Force and Air Defense Army are stationed. As far as we know, there are surface-to-air missile systems, including the S-300 SAM system, deployed on that base.

We do not seriously consider the version suggesting that Prigozhin staged his own death, as the Russian authorities would not be deceived by such a ploy (the remains will be DNA tested), especially since they were the ones posing a threat to Prigozhin after the armed rebellion. For many investigators and observers, including ourselves, the death of Prigozhin was one of the most anticipated scenarios. The public assassination of Prigozhin also appears logical in light of Putin's attitude towards those he considers traitors (he tends to ensure they do not remain alive, as demonstrated by the poisoning of Litvinenko and Skripal).

It is unclear whether the deaths of Prigozhin and Utkin will affect the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries in African countries. In the past month, various Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels have reported that someone on behalf of PMCs Redut, Convoy, and other companies had contacted former Wagner Group fighters, offering them work in Africa. It is also known that some commanders, such as "Sedoy" (Andrey Troshev) have transferred to the Russian Ministry of Defense. We assume that a significant portion of the mercenaries will be now forced to continue working under MoD-controlled structures such as Redut.

The fate of the Wagner Group's camp in Belarus remains unclear. On the evening of Aug. 23, the Belarusian Hajun monitoring project reported that an Ilyushin Il-76 had arrived there, sparking rumors of mercenaries being evacuated.

It is worth noting that there are no official confirmations of Prigozhin's death yet, but there have been no denials either. Telegram channels closely associated with the Wagner Group, like Grey Zone, have published obituaries for Prigozhin and Utkin, stating that they were killed as a result of the actions of Russia traitors.

Frontline Situation Update

Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi published a video showing the Ukrainian flag hoisted over the last house in the south of Robotyne on the Zaporizhzhia axis. Complete liberation of the village has not been announced yet, but we believe it will be done today, on Independence Day of Ukraine. The AFU are expected to advance further towards Novoprokopivka, 1.5 kilometers south of Robotyne.

The Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine has published a video showing a strike on an air defense system in Crimea on the Tarkhankut Peninsula. The Ukrainian side claims that an S-400 SAM system launcher was destroyed, but Rybar, a prominent pro-Russian Telegram channel, claims that it was an S-300 SAM system. In their opinion, a new type of drone was used for filming, which managed to reach the territory of Crimea unnoticed.

Sabotage and reconnaissance group sorties continue in the border regions of Russia. On Aug. 22 there was an attack by saboteurs in the Bryansk region, during which up to four RuAF servicemen might have been killed. According to the Ostorozhno, Novosti [Beware the news] Telegram channel, at least seven Russian military and intelligence services personnel were injured as a result of mine explosions. An obituary has been published for Senior Lieutenant of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Border Guard Service Aleksandr Nikolaev killed on Aug. 22 in the Bryansk region in a skirmish with a sabotage group.

Strikes on Ukrainian and Russian Territory

According to Governor of the Belgorod region Vyacheslav Gladkov, an uncrewed aerial vehicle flew over a health resort in the village of Lavy, Valuyki district, which is 20 km off the border with Ukraine, where evacuated civilians from border areas were accommodated and dropped two grenades, killing two evacuees and a resort staff member, as well as shattering windows and causing damage to the walls.

On the morning of Aug. 23, the city of Kherson was subjected to an attack which injured six individuals, destroyed a nursery school and damaged some residential buildings.

Also, on Aug 23, Russian forces launched a missile attack on the city of Romny, Sumy region, hitting a school. As a result, four staff members were killed and four passers-by injured.

A peculiar story has occurred, involving a Mil Mi-8 helicopter of the Russian Aerospace Forces which in some strange way found itself in an AFU-controlled area. There are various versions of how it could have happened.

According to Ukrainian journalist Yurii Butusov, the helicopter and its crew flew to Ukraine and surrendered to the AFU. Any reports of a so-called "navigation mistake" are false, since landing on a Poltava air-field that is located 100 km away from the Russian border and 300 km from the frontline could only have been intentional.

The pro-Russian Telegram channel Fighterbomber [associated with the Russian Air and Space Force], claims that the crew lost orientation for unknown reasons, crossed the border, and its navigation system subsequently failed, possibly as a result of jamming devices. Spotting an airfield from the air, the crew made a landing, ultimately in Poltava. Upon realizing their mistake, the crew attempted to take off but came under fire from soldiers on the ground. The onboard engineer and copilot are presumed dead, while the commander is wounded.

Citing sources within the Main Directorate of Intelligence, Ukrainska Pravda [Ukrainian media outlet] describes the incident as a "special operation" conducted by Ukrainian intelligence, spanning over six months. The helicopter pilot, transporting parts for Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30SM fighter jets, intentionally flew into territory under Ukrainian control. The pilot’s family had been evacuated from Russia to Ukraine in advance and are now residing there.

According to the Helicopterpilot Telegram channel, on Aug. 9, the crew stopped communicating their position along the declared route, prompting "an unsuccessful search and the involvement of competent authorities." On the same day, information was received from a source that a lost Russian helicopter had made a landing to regain its bearings in the AFU-controlled village of Ohirtseve near Vovchansk (Kharkiv region). A week later (August 15-16), it turned out that one of the two crew members had been killed for an unknown reason, and a few days later it was reported that the helicopter had been seen in the village of Revoliutsiine. Finally, according to a Ukrainian source, on Aug. 19, a Russian helicopter landed in Poltava; the crew's fate is unknown.

What actually happened, where the commander is and what happened to the copilot is unclear, however what is for certain is that Ukraine now has one more Mi-8 helicopter.

If there was no prior agreement and the crew did get lost, the helicopter could not have been shot down by the Ukrainian air defense due to its insufficient density, as it is not possible to shoot down an aircraft flying at an extremely low altitude from the ground. Also, negligence should not be ruled out. Moreover, since both sides have Mil Mi-8 helicopters, air defenses might have intentionally refrained from shooting it down, fearing to hit their own.

Additional information has surfaced regarding the Russian Ministry of Defense's claim that a Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jet destroyed an AFU boat near Snake Island. A newly published drone video reveals that there were at least four boats. A video from one of the boats shows the impact of munitions on the water, but no visible damage to the boats. Another video from a boat shows MANPADS being used from a boat, but the jet was not hit either. Thus, there was both an attempt by a Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter to hit the boats, and an effort to shoot it down with MANPADS, however neither endeavor was successful.

The Bar Association of the Voronezh region has instructed its members to recruit their clients for the war. In a statement issued by the Association in connection with a "working meeting" held on Aug. 16, it is stipulated that attorneys, when offering legal assistance, must inform their clients about the regulations enabling convicts to opt for military service instead of serving their sentences in correctional facilities, and comprehensively explain their implications. The statement does not specify the consequences for attorneys who fail to provide such explanations.

Western Assistance

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda has stated that two NASAMS air defense system launchers, purchased by Lithuania, will arrive in Ukraine in September.

The European Union is preparing a multi-year plan of support for Ukraine worth over 50 billion euros, President of the European Council Charles Michel has said in a video address to the Third Summit of the Crimea Platform. The timeline for providing this support remains undisclosed. Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged up to 7 billion dollars to Ukraine and committed to contribute to the nation's post-war reconstruction efforts.