Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his first remarks since the crash of a plane thought to be carrying the founder of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, expressed his condolences to the family of the leader of the mercenary group.
“He [Prigozhin] was a talented man,” Putin said on August 24, calling the crash a day earlier just north of Moscow a “tragedy.”
“My sincere condolences to the families of all those perished. It looks like, there were officers of Wagner company [aboard],” he added.
Investigators continued to sift through wreckage of a private jet belonging to the Wagner group on August 24 after it crashed en route to St. Petersburg from Moscow, leaving no survivors among a passenger list said to include Prigozhin, who exactly two months earlier led a brief mutiny against Russia’s top army brass.
The Flightradar24 online tracker showed a Brazilian-built Embraer 600 jet registered to the Wagner group dropping off radar screens early in the evening on August 23. Soon after, video on social media appeared to show a plane falling from the sky in an area about 300 kilometers north of Moscow that coincided with the location of the aircraft’s disappearance.
The Federal Agency for Air Transport of Russia (Rosaviatsiya) said that “according to the passenger list, first and last name of Yevgeny Prigozhin was included” on the flight manifest.
WATCH: Reuters shared footage of a falling aircraft and a photograph of debris on fire in the Tver region, northwest of Moscow.
Emergency services officials quoted by state news agency RIA Novosti said that the bodies of eight people had been found in the wreckage so far but there was no word on whether any of the bodies had been identified and there has been no confirmation that Prigozhin was onboard.
Wagner commander and co-founder Dmitry Utkin was also listed among the seven passengers on the jet, the aviation authority said, quoting the airline. Two pilots and a flight attendant also were onboard the plane, the aviation authority said, adding that an investigation into the incident has been launched.
A Telegram channel linked to Wagner, Grey Zone, declared Prigozhin a hero and a patriot who it said had died at the hands of unidentified people it called “traitors to Russia.”
Grey Zone also reported that another private jet owned by Prigozhin landed safely in the Moscow region. The information could not be independently verified immediately.
A St. Petersburg building where Wagner offices are located lit up windows at night to form a giant cross while some people stopped near the building to leave flowers and light candles.
“The Commission of the Federal Air Transport Agency is starting initial actions at the scene and has also begun collecting factual materials on the training of the crew, the technical condition of the aircraft, the meteorological situation on the flight route, the work of dispatch services and ground radio equipment,” the aviation authority said in a statement early on August 24.
Brazilian airplane maker Embraer said it was compliant with all international sanctions imposed on Russia.
A onetime close ally of President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin led a short-lived mutiny on June 24 that saw Wagner fighters seize the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and march to within 200 kilometers of Moscow. A Russian military aircraft was shot down during the mutiny, and altogether 13 Russian Air Force personnel were killed. It was the most serious challenge to Putin in his more than two decades in power.
Prigozhin was not arrested or detained at the time, but Putin denounced the insurrection as a “stab in the back” and vowed to punish all “traitors” involved.
“All those who consciously chose the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed mutiny, who chose the path of blackmail and terrorism, will suffer an inevitable punishment,” Putin said.
“It is unlikely that anyone thinks this is a coincidence. It just so happens that political opponents whom Vladimir Putin considers a threat to his power do not die naturally,” said Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau.
In an attempt to head off conspiracy theories that Kyiv was involved, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine had “nothing to do with [the crash].”
“Everybody knows who has something to do with it,” he added in a thinly veiled suggestion that Putin ordered the downing of the plane.
If Prigozhin is found to have died on the flight, it would be a severe blow to the Wagner group, which was key in Russia’s battle to take the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut earlier this year.
Wagner soldiers have also been deployed to Syria, where Russia supports President Bashar Assad’s government in a civil war, and in Libya, where they fought alongside forces of commander Khalifa Hifter. The group has also operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that the Wagner group may become more of a concern for Europe’s security if Prigozhin indeed is found to have died in the crash.
“The Wagner group comes under Putin’s leadership. Let everyone answer the question for themselves: Will the threat be bigger or smaller? For me, that’s a rhetorical question,” he told a news conference in Warsaw.
The Wagner chief’s whereabouts have been largely a mystery since the mutiny. He appeared in his first video since the mutiny earlier this week. In footage possibly shot in Africa and published on August 21 on Telegram channels affiliated with the Wagner group, Prigozhin is seen standing in a desert area in camouflage and with a rifle in his hands.
Earlier, he was believed to be moving between Russia and Belarus, where Wagner troops have been setting up camps to train Belarusian armed forces as part of a deal negotiated that helped end the mutiny.
U.S. President Joe Biden said he was “not surprised” at news that Prigozhin might have died in the plane crash.
“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” Biden said, adding, “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind. But I don’t know enough to know the answer.”
The Wagner insurrection came on the heels of months of intense public infighting with Russia’s military leadership over the war strategy in Ukraine and ammunition supplies.
The head of the U.S. CIA, William Burns, said last month that Putin would likely seek retribution against Prigozhin.
“Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback,” he said, speaking on July 20 at the Aspen Security Forum.
He said he would be surprised if Prigozhin escaped further retribution.
“So in that sense, Biden is right. If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster,” Burns added, referring to a quip by Biden earlier that week that if he were Prigozhin, “I’d be careful what I ate.”
Earlier on August 23, RIA Novosti and other media outlets reported that General Sergei Surovikin, a top Russian officer who has ties to Prigzohin, had been relieved of his command of Russia’s Aerospace Forces.
The reports indicated that Surovikin had not been fired nor demoted, nor even imprisoned, as some observers had expected in the wake of the June rebellion.
Surovikin is being replaced temporarily as commander of the Aerospace Forces by General Viktor Aflazov, according RIA Novosti. Aflazov oversaw the forces last year when Surovikin was briefly put in charge of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.