The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the plane crash near Moscow that is believed to have killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group that ran afoul of President Vladimir Putin by launching a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s top army brass over how the war against Ukraine was being conducted.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told a news conference on August 25 that tests to identify the 10 victims and an investigation were still being carried out into the crash, a day after Putin broke his silence on the August 23 accident, referring to Prigozhin in the past tense while sending his condolences to the families of those who perished.
Russia’s Investigative Committee on August 25 said the plane’s flight recorder and all 10 bodies had been recovered, with DNA testing now under way.
Prigozhin’s name was on the plane’s manifest but it has not yet been officially confirmed that he was on the plane, which mysteriously crashed north of Moscow.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said on August 25 that while there is not yet “definitive proof” that Prigozhin was onboard and he is known to exercise “exceptional” security measures, “it is highly likely that he is indeed dead.”
Putin called Prigozhin “a talented man,” who made “serious mistakes,” though he didn’t elaborate on the miscues made by the man who just two months earlier led a short-lived mutiny against the Russian military and presented the most serious challenge to the Russian leader in his more than two decades in power.
Prigozhin, for years a close ally of Putin, was not arrested or detained at the time of the mutiny, but the president denounced the insurrection as a “stab in the back” and vowed to punish all “traitors” involved.
“There is now a great deal of speculation surrounding this plane crash and the tragic deaths of the plane’s passengers, including Yevgeny Prigozhin. Of course, in the West, all this speculation is presented from a well-known angle,” Peskov said.
“All of this is an absolute lie, and here, when covering this issue, it is necessary to base yourself on facts. There are not many facts yet. They need to be established in the course of investigative actions,” he said.
Wagner commander and co-founder Dmitry Utkin was also listed among the seven passengers on the Wagner jet, Russia’s aviation authority said, quoting the airline. Two pilots and a flight attendant also were onboard the plane, the aviation authority said, adding an investigation into the incident has been launched.
While there has been no official confirmation from the Kremlin or the Defense Ministry that Prigozhin and Utkin died, a Telegram channel linked to Wagner has pronounced him dead.
The channel, 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.
However, Reuters on August 25 quoted the CEO of the aircraft operator of that plane as saying it does not have any connection to the mercenary group.
“Neither the plane itself nor its passengers are related to Wagner and never have been,” Jetica’s CEO Sergey Trifonov told Reuters.
The ownership of the second plane could not immediately be independently verified.
The deaths of Prigozhin and Utkin, if proven true, 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.
“The demise of Prigozhin would almost certainly have a deeply destabilizing effect on the Wagner Group,” the British Defense Ministry said.
“His personal attributes of hyper-activity, exceptional audacity, a drive for results and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor…. Wagner’s leadership vacuum would be compounded by the reports that founder and field commander Dimitry Utkin and logistics chief Valery Chekalov also died.”
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.
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.