Putin Confirms Prigozhin’s Death, Circumstances Remain Murky
A surface-to-air missile or an explosive device are the leading theories behind what brought Prigozhin’s plane down yesterday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of the Wagner mercenary group, describing him as a “talented businessman” who “made some serious mistakes in his life.” However, there are competing theories as to exactly what happened to cause the crash of Prigozhin’s business jet in the Tver region, northwest of Moscow, yesterday.
This was the first time the Russian president had referred directly to Prigozhin’s crash and the first concrete Russian government confirmation that he was dead. Following initial reports of the crash, there had been much speculation as to whether or not Prigozhin — the architect of an attempted coup in Russia in late June — had actually been on board.
You can read our initial report on yesterday’s crash of the Embraer Legacy 600 business jet associated with Prigozhin, as well as subsequent updates, here.
“He was a man with a difficult fate,” Putin said, during a meeting at the Kremlin today. “He achieved the needed results both for himself and for a joint effort that I had asked him about during the last months.”
This was almost certainly a reference to the war in Ukraine and very likely specifically the efforts of mercenaries from the Wagner Group in the months-long battle that led to the capture of the city of Bakhmut.
Putin also offered condolences to the families of all 10 people on board the jet.
Among them was also Dmitry Utkin, right-hand man to Prigozhin, who some suggested may have been the real leader behind the Wagner Group enterprise.
The Russian leader said that Prigozhin had returned to Russia from Africa on Wednesday, after which he had met with “some officials,” although their identities were not specified.
Putin has promised a full investigation into the cause of the crash. Initially, at least, the crash had been widely attributed to a Russian surface-to-air missile, with reports also now highlighting the possibility of some kind of explosive device had been placed aboard the aircraft.
Reuters today reported that unnamed U.S. officials still believed that a surface-to-air missile originating inside Russia likely shot down Prigozhin’s plane.
This hypothesis has now been challenged, however.
During Thursday’s Pentagon briefing, spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder brought the surface-to-air missile theory into serious question.
“We assess that information to be inaccurate,” Ryder said of those reports.
“We’re continuing to assess the situation … I’m not going to have any further information on how or why the airplane crashed,” Ryder added.
There are questions now over whether a bomb may have been placed aboard the Embraer jet, or perhaps some other kind of sabotage undertaken.
A report from the Associated Press, citing anonymous U.S. and Western officials, asserts that a preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment has found that the crash was caused intentionally by an explosion. That would seem to suggest some kind of explosive device on the plane, but no other details have so far been provided.
The onboard explosion theory is also put forward by the New York Times, which reports that U.S. satellite intelligence systems “did not detect a missile launch, and there is no other evidence a surface-to-air weapon took out the plane.”
“The explosion could have been caused by a bomb or other device planted on the aircraft, though other theories, like adulterated fuel, were also being explored,” the New York Times added, again quoting unnamed U.S. officials.
As The War Zone’s Tyler Rogoway observed yesterday, if a missile was fired at Prigozhin’s jet carrying, either from the ground or the air, U.S. intelligence would very likely know about it, thanks to the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) — also likely the system that the New York Times was referring to. You can read more about SBIRS, and how it works, in this previous story, suffice it to say, SBIRS should conceivably have been able to have seen a missile launch and it and the plane exploding if that’s what happened, versus a signature that just shows the plane exploding.
According to a report from the Kyiv Post, relatives of one of the flight attendants on the flight, Kristina Raspopova, had spoken of “strange manipulations with the plane before the last flight.” The relatives, who said they were provided with this information by Raspopova herself, claim that the jet “was taken away for some short-term and incomprehensible repairs.” At this stage, this cannot be independently verified.
All of this speculation, of course, may well feed into the Kremlin’s wider plan to obfuscate what actually happened. Adding to the confusion over the crash would seem to serve Putin’s interests, bearing in mind the recent animosity between him and Prigozhin. Putin had known Prigozhin since the 1990s and he had previously been a close ally. However, tensions between the two came to an extraordinary head following the Wagner putsch in June.
According to a report today in the Wall Street Journal, “Russia’s state-run media has already begun spinning contradictory suggestions — from blaming Ukraine to suggesting that a rival of Prigozhin planted a bomb aboard his plane.”
As for the possibility of foreign interference, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated that his country had nothing to do with the crash. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted Zelensky telling journalists today “We had nothing to do with it. Everybody realizes who has something to do with it.”
The longer-term effects of Prigozhin’s death will take some time to become clear, although it appears there may already have been some developments concerning the operations of the Wagner Group in Belarus, where the private military contractor group set up shop after the failed coup attempt earlier this summer.
Based on recent satellite imagery, there are suggestions that the base used by the private military contractor near the Belarusian city of Asipovichi may have begun to be vacated. However, this may not be directly connected to Prigozhin’s death, with the same analysts suggesting that the camp may have begun to be scaled back several days in advance of the plane crash.
Africa is another geographical location where Wagner has a significant footprint and it remains to be seen just how the group’s operations will continue here, especially bearing in mind the close personal connections that Prigozhin had established with political and industry leaders there.
In particular, the Wagner Group had talked big about its potential influence in Niger, where a coup took place in late July and the situation remains very fluid.
“Clearly, we know the Wagner group … has many tentacles, some military in nature, some criminal in nature … in Africa,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ryder said today.
“I don’t think anybody is going to discount the danger of that group, or the remnants of that group,” Ryder added. He confirmed, too, that U.S. officials will continue to monitor the Wagner Group’s activities in Africa.
Back in Russia, meanwhile, there have already been threats of retaliation over what the group and its supporters see as a Kremlin-orchestrated assassination.
Wagner does still have powerful supporters in Moscow and there is already talk of major fissures within Kremlin circles. Some say that taking out Prigozhin could result in deeper divides that could become increasingly troublesome for Putin. However others question if backlash over Prigozhin's potential assassination could translate into a genuine threat to Putin’s grip on power as the optics of Prigozhin's death could send a chill through those in Russia's power structure that are thinking of defying Putin.
All in all, the fallout from Prigozhin’s death is, as with much in modern-day Russia, extremely hard to predict. But with its global influence as regards Russian warfighting and politicking, the loss of the Wagner Group’s leader will have repercussions far beyond Moscow.
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