Russia Says It Confirmed Wagner Mercenary Leader Prigozhin Died in Plane Crash

Jack Phillips
By Jack Phillips
August 27, 2023Europe
Russia Says It Confirmed Wagner Mercenary Leader Prigozhin Died in Plane Crash
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, speaks to a camera at an unknown location in an image released on Aug. 21, 2023. (Razgruzka_Vagnera telegram channel via AP)

Russian authorities on Sunday confirmed the death of Wagner Group mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin following a plane crash last week that killed everyone on board.

Genetic testing on the 10 bodies recovered at the crash site “conform to the manifest” for the flight, Russian Investigative Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenk said in a statement, according to a translation.

“As part of the investigation of the plane crash in the Tver region, molecular genetic examinations have been completed. Based on their results, the identities of all ten dead have been established, they correspond to the list stated in the flight sheet,” the statement said.

Russian officials previously said that the flight list on the crashed private business jet included Mr. Prigozhin as well as another top Wagner leader, Dmitriy Utkin.  Three members of the flight crew also died.

The Investigative Committee did not indicate what might have caused the business jet to plummet from the sky halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. But the crash’s timing raised suspicions of a possible Kremlin-orchestrated hit, while Mr. Prigozhin’s background allowed for speculation that he wasn’t on the plane or had somehow escaped death.

Residents in the Tver region said they heard an explosion in the air before the plane came down. Telegram accounts associated with the Wagner Group have also alleged that Russian security forces fired surface-to-air missiles at the plane, although U.S. military officials have downplayed those claims in recent statements.

On Aug. 24, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said intelligence suggested that Mr. Prigozhin was on board the crashed plane. However, Mr. Ryder said the United States won’t comment on the cause of the crash or whether the Wagner chief was assassinated by the Kremlin.

“First of all, our initial assessment is that it’s likely Prigozhin was killed,” the Pentagon spokesman told reporters in a press briefing. “We don’t have any information to indicate, right now, the press reporting, stating that there was some type of surface-to-air missile that took down the plane. But, we assess that information to be inaccurate.”

Russia Jet Crash Wagner Chief
Smoke and flames rise from a crashed private jet reportedly carrying Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, near the village of Kuzhenkino, in Russia, on Aug. 23, 2023, in a still from video. (AP Photo)

However, anonymous sources say that a U.S. intelligence assessment found that the Aug. 24 plane crash was caused by an intentional explosion, according to media reports. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has denied suggestions it was involved in the incident and said that it authorized an investigation into the cause.

About a day after the plane went down, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed condolences to the victims’ families and said Mr. Prigozhin made a “significant contribution” to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. “He was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life,” he also said.

Two months ago, Mr. Prigozhin, 62, mounted a short mutiny against Russia’s military, leading his mercenaries from Ukraine toward Moscow. Mr. Putin denounced the act as “treason” and vowed punishment for those involved.

Later, the Kremlin quickly cut a deal with Mr. Prigozhin to end the armed revolt, saying he would be allowed to walk free without facing any charges and to resettle in Belarus. Questions remained about whether the former ally of Russia’s leader would face a comeuppance for the brief uprising that posed the biggest challenge to Mr. Putin’s authority during his 23-year rule.

Shortly before footage emerged of Mr. Prigozhin driving off into the night in Rostov-on-Don, the Kremlin announced a deal to end the mutiny. The mercenary would “retreat to Belarus,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, without elaborating on whether that meant a permanent exile.

Mr. Prigozhin himself went silent, which was unusual for a man who used to release multiple written and spoken statements every day. Responding to an email from The Associated Press on June 25, the day after the mutiny, Wagner’s press service said only that he “says hi to everyone” and would respond to all questions once he gets “proper connection.”

Days later, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told reporters that Mr. Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg—or “maybe he went to Moscow, or maybe somewhere else, but he is not in Belarus.” The remarks came amid media reports that cash and equipment seized during police searches of Mr. Prigozhin’s property were returned to him.

“What will happen to him next? Well, anything can happen in a lifetime. But if you think that Putin is so malicious and vindictive that he will be offed somewhere tomorrow. … No, this will not happen,” Mr. Lukashenko assured.

Some war analysts have said that Wagner essentially achieved Russia’s only military victory this year when it captured the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut several months ago amid heavy casualties on both sides. However, in the midst of the fighting, Mr. Prigozhin started heavily criticizing Russia’s leadership, namely Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, for what he said was poor management of the war effort, coming before he launched the mutiny in June.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

From The Epoch Times

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