KUZHENKINO, RUSSIA - Russian President Vladimir Putin broke his silence on Thursday on the plane crash a day earlier that killed infamous mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and other senior members of the Wagner paramilitary group. In televised comments Putin offered his “sincere condolences to the families of all the victims”, describing the crash as a “tragedy”. As well as Prigozhin, the other nine people on board also died.
Putin’s statement was the first official confirmation that the Wagner boss had been killed.
Wednesday evening’s crash took place exactly two months after Prigozhin led a rebellion against Moscow’s top military brass, considered by some observers to have been the biggest threat to Putin’s long rule.
Although Moscow opened an investigation into violations of air traffic rules, investigators have been silent since, as speculation of a possible assassination has grown. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted Kyiv had nothing to do with the incident. “I think everyone knows who this concerns,” he added, in what appeared to be a reference to Putin.
A ‘COMMON CAUSE’
Moscow had initially said only that the 62-year-old Prigozhin was listed as a passenger on the flight, without confirming his death. But when Putin broke his silence on Thursday he paid a qualified tribute to the mercenary boss and the paramilitary group he led. “I knew Prigozhin for a very long time, since the early 90s. He was a man of complicated fate, and he made serious mistakes in his life, but he achieved the right results,” Putin said.
In an address to Russians during the Wagner rebellion on June 23-24 in which he warned against “civil war”, Putin had called Prigozhin -- once his ally -- a “traitor”.
But on Thursday, he said the Wagner members who had died in the crash had made a “significant contribution” to Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine. They had shared a common cause, Putin said, adding: “We remember that, we know that, and we will not forget that.”
Some Western leaders expressed doubts that the crash had been an accident. “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind,” said US President Joe Biden, after having said he did not know what happened.