Öndörkhaan is a sleepy town in Mongolia of around 20,000 people on the windswept plains of the Asian steppe that derives its livelihood mostly from coal mining. At first glance, it seems like an unlikely stage for a drama-filled episode of international intrigue.
Yet in 1971, Öndörkhaan, recently renamed Chinggis City in honor of Mongolia’s legendary ruler Genghis Khan, who was born nearby, became a flashpoint for global intrigue that highlighted the power for revenge within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A plane carrying Lin Biao, the vice premier of the People’s Republic of China and Chairman Mao Zedong’s appointed successor, died in a fiery plane crash near the city, which killed all on board.
Rumors abound as to the reason for the crash. A plane crash is, after all, a plot point featured only in the most dramatic of soap operas and conspiracy theories. The official line from the CCP was that Lin had tried to rally his closest supporters in an attempted assassination against Mao, nicknamed “Project 571.” When this failed, Lin tried to flee Beijing to defect to Moscow, but the pilot failed to carry enough fuel and the plane subsequently nosedived into the Mongolian grasslands.
Unofficial narratives circulated that the plane was shot down by Chinese fighter jets at the order of Premier Zhou Enlai, or even that Lin had been gunned down in his car in Beijing and that his son, Lin Liguo, had attempted to flee in the plane.
Who Was Lin Biao?
Before his mysterious death, Lin Biao helped make Mao into an icon of world revolution and a revered figure for China’s Red Guards and anti-imperialist activists across the globe. By 1969, Lin had risen to the top of the CCP and was largely responsible for masterminding China’s Cultural Revolution. It was Lin who compiled and published Mao’s speeches and writings into the “Little Red Book” brandished by so many during the 1960s and 1970s.
Crucially, Lin’s senior position as a general in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who had led the CCP to numerous victories in the civil war meant that he had the backing of the military. He used that as leverage to push for a change to China’s constitution that named him as Mao’s successor. Lin Biao’s name regularly appears alongside Mao’s in propaganda from the period as a display of his seniority within the party.
Yet Lin’s hold over the military and his push for greater military influence over the party would spell his downfall. While there are numerous threats to the continued rule of any autocratic leader, the greatest threat usually comes from being backstabbed by other elites within the palace. Lin’s alternative power base among the PLA was a direct challenge to Mao’s monopoly on power, not to mention an impediment to his attempts at rapprochement with the United States. This was a threat that Mao could not tolerate. Lin had to go, but in a way that would not provoke a military uprising. A plane crash and a story of defection, combined with a subsequent rounding up of his PLA supporters, proved all too convenient.
In a two-year period, the CCP propaganda machine went from extolling Lin as one of the most senior leaders of the country to excoriating him as a traitor to the revolution, as the party had done previously with other figures deemed no longer aligned with the party’s interests. In doing so, the CCP was able to halt the Cultural Revolution and embrace its former enemy, the United States, in an about-face from its propaganda messaging of the previous 20 years.
Plane Crashes Are a Dramatic Way to Dispose of Rivals, but They Come at a Cost
Autocratic leaders have many levers at their disposal by which to eliminate rivals. A plane crash is a sensationalist option, but that is precisely the point. It is a move that can be chalked up to mechanical failure or other reasons without much evidence of precisely what happened. It is also a way to grab attention with a bang that redirects public attention away from established narratives. For Mao, the plane crash was a way to both depose Lin Biao and to shift the public view of Lin from one of revered leader to that of a traitor.
There is still much that we don’t know about the downing of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plane. Prigozhin was listed as a passenger on the flight, but this does not guarantee that he was on board. Assuming that he was, it is highly unlikely that the crash was an accident, with reports that the aircraft was shot down by Russian anti-aircraft missiles. If Prigozhin was on board the doomed plane, its downing serves a similar goal as Lin’s plane crash: Prigozhin has been disposed of under murky and hard-to-verify circumstances and public attention can be redirected away from earlier narratives of Prigozhin as a powerful challenge to Putin’s rule toward one of Prigozhin as a failed traitor.
Either way, a plane crash is a loud and clear message from Putin to other potential coup plotters: proceed at your own risk.
Certain Russia watchers have speculated that Prigozhin listed his name on the manifest as a cover for his disappearance or the death of a body double in his place. In this case, a plane crash is a convenient way for him to retire or disappear in a manner that allows everyone to save face. Putin cannot allow Prigozhin to walk away consequence-free from his direct challenge to the Kremlin’s power, but he may also be unable to remove Prigozhin entirely. Having the public think that Prigozhin is dead could be a win-win for Russia’s elite, with the other passengers on board as collateral.
In the coming weeks we should expect to see several potential developments. Prigozhin will likely be declared dead – regardless of whether he is or not – as this is the most convenient narrative for the Kremlin. The reasons for the crash will be given as onboard failure, Russian anti-aircraft, or Ukrainian or NATO anti-aircraft fire, depending on how much the Kremlin wants other potential rivals to know their fate if they attempt a similar move to Wagner’s march on Moscow.
And depending on the official explanation, there will either be a narrative that this was a sad accident, a provocation by the Ukrainians, or that Prigozhin was attempting to betray Russia. Whichever narrative the Kremlin chooses, international news will now be focused on the mystery behind Prigozhin’s apparent death rather than Russia’s continuing problems in Ukraine, a win for Moscow’s propaganda machine.
Either way, a plane crash is a dramatic move that requires the trust of those in the know to keep quiet and the guarantee that Prigozhin’s supporters will not rise up in protest. As with many autocratic regimes, there is simply a lot that we don’t know about their secretive inner workings. Looking back to China’s history, however, gives us some clues as to what this move may mean for Putin and Russia’s future.