Western suggestions that the Wagner Group mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed on the Russian government’s orders are an “absolute lie”, the Kremlin says.
It declined on Friday to definitively confirm Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash, citing the need to wait for test results.
Russian investigators have recovered 10 bodies and flight recorders from the scene of Wednesday’s crash northwest of Moscow, and investigations are under way.
Prigozhin, who conducted a brief but shocking mutiny in Russia two months ago, hired fighters who are feared in Africa and Syria and played a crucial role in the war in Ukraine.
Some unidentified officials from the West quoted in the media have suggested the plane explosion appears to be vengeance for the Wagner mutiny in June, which posed the biggest challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s 23-year rule.
But Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov flatly rejected the allegations.
“Right now, of course, there are lots of speculation around this plane crash and the tragic deaths of the passengers of the plane, including Yevgeny Prigozhin,” Peskov told reporters in a conference call. “Of course in the West, those speculations are put out under a certain angle, and all of it is a complete lie.”
Prigozhin was listed among those on board the plane.
When asked whether the Kremlin has received an official confirmation of Prigozhin’s death, Peskov referenced Putin’s remarks from a day earlier. “He said that right now all the necessary forensic analyses, including genetic testing, will be carried out. Once some kind of official conclusions are ready to be released, they will be released.”
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin who mediated the deal that ended the mutiny, said he “can’t imagine” the Russian leader ordered Prigozhin’s assassination.
“I know Putin. He is calculating, very calm, even slow,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying by state media. “I cannot imagine that Putin did it, that Putin is to blame. It’s too rough and unprofessional work.”
‘I’m not surprised’
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said the presumed death of Prigozhin could destabilise his Wagner Group of private military contractors.
His “exceptional audacity” and “extreme brutality” permeated the organisation “and are unlikely to be matched by any successor”, it said in a statement.
The private jet crashed soon after taking off from Moscow for St Petersburg, carrying Prigozhin, six other Wagner members and a crew of three, according to the Federal Air Transport Agency.
US President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said he believed Putin was likely behind the crash. “I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised. There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov took offence at that remark. “It is not for the US president, in my opinion, to talk about certain tragic events of this nature,” he said on Friday.
‘A talented man’
The passenger manifest also included Prigozhin’s second-in-command as well as Wagner’s logistics chief and at least one possible bodyguard.
It was not clear why several high-ranking members of Wagner, who were normally exceedingly careful about their security, would have been on the same flight. The purpose of their trip to St Petersburg was unknown.
In his first public comments on the crash, Putin said the passengers had “made a significant contribution” to the fighting in Ukraine.
“We remember this. We know, and we will not forget,” he said in a televised interview with the Russian-installed leader of Ukraine’s partially occupied Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin.
Putin said he had known Prigozhin since the early 1990s and described him as “a man of difficult fate” who had “made serious mistakes in life”.
“And he achieved the results he needed – both for himself and, when I asked him about it, for the common cause as in these last months. He was a talented man, a talented businessman,” Putin said.
Prigozhin was outspoken and critical of how Russian generals were waging the war in Ukraine, where his mercenaries were some of the fiercest fighters. For a long time, Putin appeared content to allow such infighting, but Prigozhin’s brief revolt raised the ante.
Numerous opponents and critics of Putin have been killed or fallen gravely ill in apparent assassination attempts, and US and other Western officials long expected the Russian leader to go after Prigozhin despite promising to drop charges in a deal that ended the June mutiny.
Ekaterina Kotrikadze, a news director and anchor at Russia’s independent Rain TV, said she believes Putin made the statement about the Wagner boss to show stability to the public but also to send a message.
“The whole operation in killing Yevgeny Prigozhin is such an open statement that Putin decided to kill a problem to him. Putin could not pardon him. It was a traitorous action. That’s why he showed to everyone, ‘You should not be against me,’” Kotrikadze told Al Jazeera.
Lukashenko, meanwhile, said Wagner fighters would remain based in Belarus.
“Wagner lived, Wagner is living and Wagner will live in Belarus,” Lukashenko said. “The core remains here. As long as we need this unit, they will live and work with us.”