The Kremlin on Friday denied allegations that it was behind a plane crash that is believed to have killed mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose brutal fighters were feared in Ukraine, Africa and Syria and led a brief but shocking mutiny in Russia two months ago.
Prigozhin, who was among those on board the plane, was praised by President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, despite growing suspicions that the Russian leader was behind it an accident The Many saw it as an assassination.
A preliminary US Secret Service assessment concluded that the plane was shot down by a deliberate explosion on Wednesday. One of the US and Western officials who described the US’s initial assessment said it found that Prigozhin was “very likely” to have been targeted and that the blast was consistent with Putin’s “long history of trying to outwit his critics.” to silence” stand.
The officials, who spoke anonymously on condition they were not authorized to comment, gave no details on the causes of the blast, which was widely believed to be revenge for the June mutiny that poses the greatest challenge to Putin’s 23-year rule .
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov flatly rejected the allegations.
“Right now, of course, there is a lot of speculation about this plane crash and the tragic deaths of the plane’s passengers, including Yevgeny Prigozhin,” Peskov told reporters during a conference call. “Of course, in the West, this speculation is conducted from a certain point of view, and it is all a complete lie.”
Asked by the Associated Press whether the Kremlin had received official confirmation of Prigozhin’s death, Peskov referred to Putin’s comments the previous day: “He said that all necessary forensic analysis, including genetic testing, will now be carried out.” Once official conclusions for publication ready, they will be released.”
The British Ministry of Defense declared the presumed death of Prigozhin could destabilize his Wagner group of private military contractors.
“The death of Prigozhin would almost certainly have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the Wagner group. His personal qualities such as hyperactivity, exceptional boldness, results orientation and extreme brutality shaped Wagner and are unlikely to be equaled by any successor,” the ministry said in a statement.
Wagner mercenaries were key elements of the Russian armed forces war in Ukraine, especially in the long struggle to capture the city of Bakhmut, the toughest battle of the conflict. Wagner fighters also played a central role in expanding Russian influence in global trouble spots, first in Africa and then in Syria.
“I can’t tell you anything about the future (of Wagner) – I don’t know,” said Peskow.
According to the Russian Civil Aviation Authority, the plane crashed on Wednesday shortly after taking off from Moscow for St. Petersburg. On board were Prigozhin, six other Wagner members and a crew of three. Rescuers found ten bodies and Russian media quoted anonymous sources in Wagner saying Prigozhin was dead. However, there is no official confirmation.
President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said he believes Putin was likely behind the crash.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but I’m not surprised,” Biden said. “Not much happens in Russia that Putin isn’t behind.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was upset. “In my opinion, it is not the job of the US President to speak about certain tragic events of this nature,” he said on Friday.
Also on the passenger list were Prigozhin’s deputy, whose pseudonym became the group’s name, as well as Wagner’s chief of logistics and at least one possible bodyguard.
It wasn’t clear why several senior members von Wagner, who are normally extremely concerned about their safety, would have been on the same flight. The purpose of her trip to St. Petersburg was unknown.
Russian authorities have launched an investigation into the crash and media reports say the wreckage of the plane has been removed from the crash site.
In that first public comment on the crash, Putin said the passengers made “a significant contribution” to the fighting in Ukraine.
“We remember it, we know it, and we will not forget it,” he said in a TV interview with the Russian-installed leader of Ukraine’s partially occupied Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin.
Putin said he has known Prigozhin since the early 1990s and described him as “a man with a difficult fate” who made “serious mistakes in life and achieved the results he needed – both for himself and as me.” asking him about it, for the common cause, like these last few months. He was a talented man, a talented businessman.”
Sergei Mironov, leader of the pro-Kremlin Fair Russia party and former head of the upper house of parliament, said on his Telegram channel that Prigozhin “has messed with too many people in Russia, Ukraine and the West.”
“It seems that at some point the number of his enemies reached a critical point,” wrote Mironov.
Scores of opponents and critics of Putin were killed or seriously ill in apparent assassination attempts, and U.S. and other Western officials have long expected the Russian leader to act against Prigozhin, despite a deal ending the June 23-24 mutiny ended, having promised to drop the charges.
Prigozhin was open and critical of the way Russian generals were waging the war in Ukraine, where his mercenaries were among the Kremlin’s fiercest fighters. For a long time, Putin seemed content to allow such power struggles, but Prigozhin’s brief revolt upped the ante.
On June 23rd his mercenaries swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there without firing a shot. They then drove to within about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of Moscow and shot down several military planes, killing more than a dozen Russian pilots.
Putin initially labeled the uprising as “treason” and “pride in the back,” but soon struck a deal that would see the mutiny end a day after it began, in exchange for an amnesty for Prigozhin and his mercenaries and permission for them to relocate to Belarus.
According to unconfirmed reports, hundreds of Wagner fighters have fled Belarus since Prigozhin’s presumed death. “Even before August 23, we noticed that the number of mercenaries in Belarus was decreasing, and since August 23 their number has continued to decrease,” Ukrainian border guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko said on Friday.
In the days after the crash, people brought flowers and candles to makeshift memorials near Wagner offices in various cities, including Prigozhin’s hometown of St Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, along with Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Rostov-on-Don. According to media reports.
In a Telegram chat, relatives of Wagner fighters reported long queues for payments at a Wagner office in southern Krasnodar Krai, the base of the private troop.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed.