Vladimir Putin publicly said on Thursday that Yevgeny Prigozhin had died, the Kremlin’s first official reaction to the warlord’s apparent demise in a plane crash a day earlier.
The Russian president expressed his condolences to the families of the 10 people who died in the accident.
But Prigozhin’s supporters, who were among the passengers of a private jet that crashed northwest of Moscow on Wednesday, killing all on board, accused “traitors” of assassinating him in revenge for his mutiny in late June.
Putin said Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group “made a significant contribution to the fight against Nazism in Ukraine” during his invasion of the country.
“We remember this and will not forget. I have known Prigozhin for a long time, since the early 1990s. He had a difficult path and made serious mistakes in his life. But when I asked him, as in the last few months, he got results for himself and for the common cause,” he added. said.
Investigators opened a criminal investigation into the crash on Thursday, and the airline said it was searching for the plane’s black box.
Footage from the crash site showed the body of the plane on fire. Several bodies have been recovered, officials said, but none have been officially identified as Prigogine.
Prigozhin and his group are accused of a number of brutal war crimes in Ukraine and parts of the Middle East and Africa, but the warlord is popular among some in Russia for his successes on the battlefield in Ukraine and his outspoken criticism. Military leadership.
Fellow hardliners called Prigozhin the leader of the “Victory Party,” a group of ultranationalists, Chechen militants and shadowy security service figures who wanted Russia to go further than Putin’s stated goals and take over Ukraine entirely.
“I am the only leader [of the ‘party of victory’] left,” Konstantin Malofeev, a nationalist president and patron of militants who fought alongside Wagner in Ukraine, told the Financial Times. “We want to fight for a successful outcome. Things like this bring people together.
The St. Petersburg headquarters of the Wagner militia was lit up night after night in the shape of a cross and some masked fighters knelt in tears before images of the warrior.
“It’s a great honor to work with Number One. The country has lost its hero and a great conductor,” wrote one Wagner-affiliated channel on Telegram. Another said Prigozhin “will be great even in hell” and shared a clip of classical composer Richard Wagner. Ride of the Valkyries.
Many in the hardline group shared Prigozhin’s view that Russia would have been more successful in its invasion of Ukraine had it not been for the mistakes made by the country’s top generals. Several popular channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers argued that Prigozhin was assassinated in revenge and shared evidence that the plane was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile system.
Western officials told the FT on Thursday that the apparent move to behead Wagner signals Putin’s desire to raise the profile of Russia’s armed forces and return favor to uniformed generals over mercenary leaders and officers close to them.
While cautioning that the details of the operation and its outcome remain unclear, officials have privately suggested that it will weaken Wagner’s influence within Russia.
Tighter Kremlin control over the group would allow Putin to bring non-military activities, such as lucrative natural resource supply deals in African countries, closer to the state budget, the official added.
“It’s focused on Putin’s revenge,” one official said.
Many expected some retribution for Prigozhin’s attempted mutiny in June, and suspected that the warlord’s deal with the Kremlin — which would have seen Wagner and its leader quietly relocate to Belarus — would be the end of the story.
“Yevgeny Prigozhin bothered many people. The number of enemies reached a critical point,” Sergei Mironov, an outspoken pro-war leader of the Kremlin-controlled opposition, wrote in X.
“In Prigogine’s case, it was specific garbage that orchestrated his death,” he added. It is not clear who he blamed.
Malofeyev suggested the fighter’s death was “planned to create domestic political consequences” after Putin promised to leave Wagner alone.
“The president gave his word that nothing would happen to the rebels, and it happened. Whoever did this wanted to humiliate and provoke Putin,” he said.
The Ukraine war has caused so much turmoil in Russia’s governing and security apparatuses that Prigozhin’s rivals could have plausibly killed him without Putin’s direct orders, according to a person familiar with the warlord’s operations.
“It’s worth the risk,” the person said, as military officials seek revenge for soldiers killed by Wagner during their mutiny. “Now they’re going to explain to Putin why it happened.”
Prigozhin’s private jet, the Embraer Legacy, which had recently been traveling between Moscow, Belarus, St. Petersburg, his hometown of St. Petersburg and parts of Africa, crashed around noon Wednesday in the Tver region, northwest of Moscow. Kusenkino village.
A Wagner-linked channel wrote that Prigozhin was killed by “traitors of Russia”.
“The assassination of Prigozhin would have catastrophic consequences. Those who gave the order did not understand the mentality and morale of the army,” said Roman Sabonkov, a Russian war-recorder and invasion cheerleader considered close to the Wagner group.
Another anonymous Telegram channel run by a former Wagner employee mourned the death of terrorist Dmitry Utkin, founder of the Wagner Militia, who appears to have died in an accident with Prigozhin.
“Oh, betrayal . . . took Dmitry Utkin to his grave,” the authors wrote. “The famous warrior and commander died not on the battlefield, but from a cowardly blow in the back.”
Russian officials said all 10 people on board had been killed, and Russia Airlines later listed their names, including those of Prigozhin, Utkin and other lesser-known Wagner figures, as well as three crew members.
Video of the crash and its aftermath, released by social media channels linked to Russian security services, showed the plane plummeting from the sky, crashing into the ground in a ball with a plume fired from anti-aircraft defenses. .
State news agency RIA reported that the plane’s tail was found 3.5 kilometers from the crash site.