By Emmanuel Yashim
Russian President Vladimir Putin has indirectly confirmed the death of the Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, the day after the crash of a jet which authorities said he was travelling in.
In an apparent tribute to his former close confidante – whose fighters played a crucial combat role in Ukraine – Putin called Prigozhin a “talented man,” Russian news agencies reported.
“He was a man of a complicated fate. He made some serious mistakes in his life, but he also achieved the needed results – both for himself and, when I asked him to, for the common cause,” Putin added.
He was speaking at a meeting with the Russian head of the Donetsk administration, Denis Pushilin.
The Russian government agency in charge of civil aviation, Rosaviatsiya, said Prigozhin, as well as top Wagner commander Dmitri Utkin, were among the 10 people on board the Embraer plane that crashed on Wednesday in the Tver Region, about 300 kilometres north-west of the Russian capital.
It said there were no survivors.
No cause was given for the deadly crash, but speculation was rife, in particular after Putin had vowed “inevitable punishment” against the mutiny leaders who he had accused of “treason.”
It took nearly 24 hours for Putin to react publicly to the crash of the business jet.
The Russian leader did not imply that Moscow had any part in the plane crash.
He stressed instead that Prigozhin’s mercenary force had played a decisive role in the fighting in Ukraine, one which would not be forgotten.
The Russian leader expressed his condolences to the relatives of the Kremlin loyalist-turned traitor and added that the crash was being investigated.
Two months ago Prigozhin led a short-lived mutiny against the Russian military leadership, in what was the gravest challenge ever to Putin’s more than two-decade grip on power.
Putin described the revolt as a “stab in the back and said that it could have caused the outbreak of “civil war.”
The background to the day-long uprising – and the deal to end it – remain murky but Putin had vowed “inevitable punishment” against the mutiny leaders.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Kiev had nothing to do with whatever fate befell Prigozhin
“Everyone understands who is involved,” he told journalists, adding that the death of the mercenary leadership benefits Kiev “in a certain sense.”
International leaders have also been cautious in commenting on the crash and the intense speculation around it.
The U.S. believed Prigozhin was dead, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder told a press conference on Thursday.
“Our initial assessment, based on a variety of factors, is that he was likely killed,” Ryder said.
The U.S. Department of Defense currently had no information to suggest that a surface-to-air missile took down the plane, Ryder added.
“We are continuing to assess the situation.”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told Deutschlandfunk radio that the situation was still unclear.
“No quick conclusions can be drawn,” she said.
However, the incident underscored “that a system, that a power, that a dictatorship that is built on violence, will also only recognise violence internally,” she added.
Asked about the future of the mercenary force, Baerbock said she feared “Russia will continue with its cynical game, with or without Wagner, not only in Ukraine but above all in Africa.”
The pro-Kremlin television station Tsargrad TV reported – citing its own sources – that Prigozhin’s body had been provisionally identified, but that DNA analyses were still pending.
Grey Zone, a Telegram channel associated with the Wagner Group, said Prigozhin died and suggested – without evidence – that the plane was shot down.
The Russian Telegram-based news channel SHOT reported, citing investigative circles, that the crash may have been triggered by a bomb in the area of the landing gear.
There has been no official comment on Prigozhin from either the Wagner Group or senior Russian government officials.
Prigozhin’s admirers have reacted with grief and anger.
Flowers were piled high outside the Patriot café in St Petersburg, which many of the city’s residents associate with Prigozhin and Wagner, the daily Kommersant reported.
Known as Putin’s “cook,” the 62-year-old rose to prominence in the city in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse by setting up a number of different businesses and becoming known as a high-end restaurateur. Years later, the Wagner Group’s headquarters were established in St Petersburg.
This year Prigozhin spent months blasting the Russian military leadership as corrupt and incompetent, directing insults and scorn at Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and armed forces chief of staff Valery Gerasimov in particular.
He had complained of inadequate supplies of munitions for his fighters serving on the front lines of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Prigozhin also accused Shoigu of ordering a rocket strike on Wagner camps in Ukraine.
After ordering Wagner troops to storm Moscow, Prigozhin then called for a retreat after negotiations with the Kremlin, in which Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko acted as mediator.
As part of the deal reached to escape prosecution, Prigozhin and his Wagner fighters were offered sanctuary in Belarus. Lukashenko says many of them are now training Belarusian soldiers.
The Kremlin will do little to counter the “image that this is an act of retaliation,” said political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.
“Prigozhin’s death should be a lesson for all potential emulators,” she wrote on Telegram. (dpa/NAN)