The Russian people are skeptical over the circumstances of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death, according to Western-based survey groups that are probing Russian public opinion and gauging the strength of the Kremlin to shape the public narrative.
Prigozhin’s violent death in a plane crash was hardly a surprise given his short-lived armed rebellion against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Critics and enemies of Putin in Russia have a tendency to end up dead or in prison.
Yet many of the circumstances of Prigozhin’s death in the Aug. 23 crash are a mystery, and Russians themselves appear uncertain over what happened.
President Biden has suggested Prigozhin’s death has Putin’s fingerprints on it, and U.S. officials have said they suspect a planned explosion on Prigozhin’s plane caused the aircraft to fall from the sky on a clear, sunny day, killing all 10 people on board.
Speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death has only grown but the circumstances around his death remain a mystery. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP/AP Photo)
But groups monitoring Russian public opinion say narratives on social media and in Russian news articles vary widely between viewing the plane crash as an accident or a sinister attack.
Much of that has to do with the Kremlin’s own efforts, Jonathan Teubner, CEO and founder of FilterLabs.AI, said in an interview with The Hill.
“What we kind of saw was, throughout the 23rd and into the 24th, there was this really concerted effort particularly between news media and social media, which is a pretty standard sign of Kremlin info-ops, and they’re pushing varieties of ‘it was an accident,’” Teubner said.
“And, actually, I think the interesting story here is how quickly it fades and just goes into a general mix.”
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Putin bearing responsibility was the least likely explanation promoted in Russian discourse, the FilterLabs.AI analysis noted. Blaming Ukraine, which Russia invaded in February 2022, was the most dominant theory — even as Putin and other Russian officials have held back from assigning Kyiv as the culprit.
Teubner said it’s in Putin’s interest not to signal Ukraine could have successfully carried out an operation to assassinate Prigozhin, whose mercenary group is responsible for countless killings in that country.
“If I’m right, and fairly confident I am, when Russia is blaming Ukraine for things happening in Russia, they are messaging that to the Europeans, ‘They’re fighting us; they’re going on the offensive.’ When Russia messages about Ukrainian drone warfare in Russia, they message to say they shot them down. They don’t talk about, ‘They successfully attacked us in our territory,’” he said.
Other theories the groups said were being discussed within Russia include that Prigozhin’s plane was taken down by a bomb; that he faked his death; that it was an accident; that his death could be blamed on competing groups in African countries where Wagner forces are utilized; or that he was killed by “the West.”
“Right after the crash was made public, media channels sympathetic to the Wagner Group blamed the Russian government, and even Putin by name,” the FilterLabs.AI analysis read.
“Some state-backed media channels immediately turned their attention to the West. A military correspondent hinted darkly that ‘any forceful actions of the enemy on the ground are always accompanied by information and psychological influence in the media sphere’ — as if the plane had been brought down by Western agents, who were now sowing dissension online.”
In a separate analysis by Russia Watcher, a polling initiative at Princeton University, the dominant response among a survey of 2,000 people was uncertainty, the group wrote in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Two men stand at the grave of Wagner Group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died last week in a plane crash two months after launching his brief rebellion, at the Porokhovskoye cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.
The survey was carried out Aug. 24-28, with a 60 percent response rate. Respondents were only allowed to select one, predetermined survey response.
“A plurality (40%) of our respondents said they either didn’t know or preferred not to answer the question. The second most popular answer was that Prigozhin isn’t actually dead (14%), followed by “operator error or aircraft malfunction’ (13%),” the group wrote.
“About 10% thought the plane had been shot down by [Russian] air defenses, crashed due to foreign sabotage, or was taken down by a ‘[Ukrainian] terrorist attack’. Only 5% thought there was sabotage by a [Russia] actor.”
Victoria Olari, a research assistant based in Moldova with the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council and monitoring Russian information operations, said that the Kremlin benefits from competing theories around Prigozhin’s death “because it keeps the public guessing and confused, thus effectively diverting public attention away from the Kremlin itself.”
Teubner said that a key element of the organization’s monitoring of Russian public opinion is to get a better understanding of the Russian information-operation machine.
“I think we have been, in the West, somewhat lazy in our assessment of it. We went from thinking it was all-powerful, post-2016 [U.S. election], and a lot of that was thanks to Prigozhin,” he said.
The Russian people are skeptical over the circumstances of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death in a fiery plane crash.
While Prigozhin’s public notoriety came as head of the Wagner private military company fighting on the front lines in Ukraine, he was in the crosshairs of the U.S. government for leading the Russian operation that meddled in the 2016 election through his Internet Research Agency (IRA), described as a troll-farm that focused on sowing discontent in the United States.
“What we’re tracking is to see, a much more grated scale of their capabilities, depending on several factors: resources, that are kind of actual people sitting at desks typing messages, like the IRA was, to actually being able to run these accounts, technical facilities and capacity to do it,” Teubner said.
“Are they as capable as we think they are? Are they as powerful as we think they are?”
It’s unclear if the public will ever know the real facts behind Prigozhin’s death.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement, and Russia’s Investigative Committee, the main federal investigating authority, is probing the crash.
The Kremlin has thus far rejected that it will allow an investigation under “international rules,” after Brazil’s Center for Research and Prevention of Aeronautical Accidents (CENIPA) offered to join a Russian-led investigation to improve aircraft safety, Reuters reported.
The plane that crashed in Russia with Prigozhin and nine others on board was a Brazilian-made Embraer jet.
Teubner added that it will be interesting to observe how the Kremlin talks about Prigozhin going forward, in particular to avoid fueling his base of supporters to criticize the Russian military or the war in Ukraine, which is referred to in Russia as a “special military operation.”
“We’ll likely track along the lines of — they’ll want to talk about Prigozhin more when things go better on the battlefield; they’ll want to talk about Prigozhin less when things don’t go as well,” he said.
Putin, who had labeled Prigozhin a “traitor” in the midst of the Wagner leaders’ rebellion in June, eulogized him after his death as a “talented man” who made “serious mistakes,” in the aftermath of his death.
Updated 9/3 9:22 a.m.