‘An absolute lie’: Kremlin hits back at claim it killed Prigozhin, experts point to explosion
The Kremlin says Western suggestions Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin had been killed on its orders in a plane crash were an “absolute lie” while declining to definitively confirm his death, citing the need to wait for test results.
Russia was reported as saying on Saturday that 10 bodies and flight recorders have been recovered from the scene.
Russia’s aviation authority has said Prigozhin was on board the private jet when it went down with no survivors – two months after Prigozhin led a mutiny against army chiefs.
Western politicians and commentators have suggested, without evidence, that Putin ordered Prigozhin killed to punish him for launching a failed June 23-34 mutiny against the army’s top brass which also represented the biggest challenge to Putin’s own rule since he came to power in 1999.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the accusation and many others like it were false.
“Of course, in the West, all this speculation is presented from a well-known angle, Peskov told reporters on Friday.
“All of this is an absolute lie, and here, when covering this issue, it is necessary to base yourself on facts.
“There are not many facts yet.
“They need to be established in the course of investigative actions.”
Russian investigators have opened a probe into what happened, but have not yet said what they suspect caused the plane to suddenly fall from the sky northwest of Moscow.
Nor have they officially confirmed the identities of the 10 bodies recovered from the wreckage.
Asked if the Kremlin had received official confirmation of Prigozhin’s death, Peskov said: “If you listened carefully to the Russian president’s statement, he said that all the necessary tests, including genetic tests, will now be carried out.”
Peskov, who said Putin had not met Prigozhin recently, said “official results” would be published “as soon as they are ready”.
He said it was unclear how long the tests and investigative work would take.
It was therefore impossible to start talking about whether Putin would attend Prigozhin’s funeral, Peskov said in answer to a question on the subject.
Asked about the future of the Wagner Group, which has a series of lucrative contracts across Africa but now appears leaderless, Peskov was concise.
“I can’t tell you anything now,” he said.
“I don’t know.”
Peskov said Wagner Group had made a “big contribution” to Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, and praised its fighters’ “heroism”.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said on Friday there was not yet definitive proof Prigozhin was onboard the downed plane but it was “highly likely” he was dead.
It said Prigozhin’s demise would “almost certainly have a deeply destabilising effect on the Wagner Group”.
“His personal attributes of hyper-activity, exceptional audacity, a drive for results and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor,” it said.
“Wagner’s leadership vacuum would be compounded by the reports that founder and field commander Dimitry Utkin and logistics chief Valery Chekalov also died.”
Experts suggest explosion the likely cause
According to an analysis by CNN, available evidence indicates that the crash was unlikely to have been caused by a mechanical failure.
“The dramatic descent of the plane, the way that it broke apart in the air and the extent of the debris field point to an explosion,” the news agency reported after reviewing flight data and videos, and interviewing aviation and explosive experts.
“The analysis suggests that the private aircraft experienced at least one ‘catastrophic inflight incident’ before it dropped out of the sky.”
Available video does not show that catastrophic event, CNN reported said.
One of the experts interviewed was Markus Schiller, a Europe-based missile expert who has worked on analysis for NATO and the European Union.
“He said the available videos and the fact that multiple debris fields were spread over a wide area point to a ‘forceful explosion,’ the agency reported.
“The plane’s tail and wing can only have been separated from the plane by an explosion”.
Belarus leader urged Prigozhin to ‘watch out’
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko says he warned Russian mercenary chiefs Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin to watch out for possible threats to their lives, and he insists that Wagner fighters will remain in Belarus.
Russian President Vladimir Putin initially vowed to crush Prigozhin’s June mutiny, comparing it to the wartime turmoil that ushered in the revolution of 1917, but hours later a deal was clinched to allow Prigozhin and some of his fighters to go to Belarus.
Lukashenko, who helped broker the deal, used prison slang shortly after the mutiny to say that he had persuaded Putin not to “wipe out” the mercenary who was listed as a passenger on a private jet which crashed on Wednesday north of Moscow.
Prigozhin, Lukashenko said on Friday, had twice dismissed concerns raised by the Belarusian leader about possible threats to his life.
Lukashenko said that during the mutiny he had warned Prigozhin that he would “die” if he continued to march on Moscow, to which he said Prigozhin had answered:
“‘To hell with it – I will die’.”
Then, Lukashenko said, when Prigozhin and Utkin, who helped found Wagner and was also listed as a passenger on the plane which crashed, had come to see him, he had warned them both:
“Lads – you watch out”.
It was not exactly clear from Lukashenko’s words, which were reported by state news agency BELTA, when that conversation took place.
Lukashenko, both an old acquaintance of Prigozhin and close ally of Russia, said that Putin had nothing to do with the plane crash.
“I know Putin: he is calculating, very calm, even tardy,” Lukashenko said.
“I cannot imagine that Putin did it, that Putin is to blame. It’s just too rough and unprofessional a job.”
Lukashenko said Wagner fighters would remain 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,” he said.