The power environment in Russia was silent for hours about the plane crash that claimed the life of the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, until Thursday afternoon, almost a day later, when the Russian president spoke out , Vladimir Putin. This was the moment of praise for the former ally who, nevertheless, challenged him two months ago with a rebellion, quickly aborted, but which shook the country. Having completed the obligatory condolences to the families, yesterday Friday it was time to counter the versions that, from Western governments and from Russian social networks, point to conspiracies or involve the Russian leader in a plan to kill Prigozhin.
The Kremlin denied killing the head of Russia's main mercenary group and called theories from intelligence services or Western leaders "lies."
Prigozhin had been carrying out the Kremlin's most secret assignments for years, but when he rose up in arms to demand the head of the Russian army's high command in June, Putin reacted by calling him "traitors", "stabbed by the 'back' and danger of 'civil war'. This background is what has fueled all these theories.
Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, yesterday rejected what he called Western "speculations". "All this is a lie", he assured.
"There is a lot of speculation regarding this disaster, the tragic death of the plane's passengers, including Yevgeny Prigozhin," Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said yesterday. "Of course, in the West, all these speculations are presented from a certain angle. All this is an absolute lie", he emphasized.
"When addressing this problem, it is necessary to base it solely on the facts. These are still few, because the investigations that are being carried out have not yet been clarified. Yesterday (Thursday) the president said he was waiting for the results of the investigation, which will be completed in the not too distant future", he added.
On the afternoon of August 23, Prigozhin was returning to St. Petersburg from Moscow after a trip to Africa, accompanied by senior officers of his mercenary army, including his right-hand man, Commander Dimitri Utkin.
The plane, an Embraer Legacy owned by the oligarch himself, crashed near the village of Kujénkino, in Tver Oblast, 300 kilometers north of Moscow. Several neighbors filmed what had happened and posted it on social networks. Some witnesses claimed to have heard explosions before the plane began to plunge towards the ground.
There were 10 people on board the plane, seven passengers and three crew members, as reported by the Russian civil aviation agency Rossaviatsia. The Ministry of Emergency Situations confirmed that all occupants died.
The bodies recovered from the scene of the disaster were taken to the morgue in Tver, the capital of this region, where autopsies and the DNA analyzes necessary to identify them will be carried out. Putin's words about Prigozhin served as official confirmation of his death. The Kremlin chief praised the founder of the Wagner Group, whom he said he had known since the early 1990s, highlighting his role in the Russian offensive in Ukraine and describing him as "a talented businessman", who "met its objectives". But he also indicated that he made "serious mistakes".
Western intelligence officials have told the media that an explosion on board the plane planted on Putin's orders was most likely what killed Prigozhin. The President of the United States, Joe Biden, said after hearing the news that "there is nothing that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind."
In Ukraine they interpreted Prigozhin's death as a "warning" to the Russian elites. "It is obvious that Putin spares no one... The demonstrative elimination of Prigozhin (...) is Putin's signal to the Russian elites before the 2024 elections. Watch out! Disloyalty equals death," Mijailo Podoliak, advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, wrote on the social network X (former Twitter).
Different versions of the events were discussed on Russian Telegram channels, including a bomb attack, a surface-to-air missile or a Ukrainian drone.
It is true that external intervention is one of the lines of investigation followed by the Instruction Committee, but it is not the priority. According to the newspaper RBK, the researchers are also studying the possibility that there was a failure of the pilot or that the plane had suffered a technical problem.