“We need to cover this topic based on facts,” Peskov said condemning what he called “lies” about the incident in the West. “There are not many facts. They are to be found out in the course of investigative actions. Yesterday the president said he was waiting for the results of the investigation, which will be completed in the foreseeable future.”
The often acerbic Kremlin spokesman ridiculed speculation in the West that presented the crash “from a certain angle” as an assassination ordered by Putin — however, among Russia’s elite, many believe the crash was Kremlin-instigated.
Peskov also denied that Putin met with Prigozhin shortly before the Wagner chief’s presumed death, after a report on a Telegram channel known for leaks from Russian security agencies claimed it had taken place.
The suspected assassination has cowed Russia’s elite with many seeing it as a sign that any perceived disloyalty — or even dissent about the war — will not be tolerated in Putin’s increasingly authoritarian state with its long history of jailing, killing or poisoning its critics.
U.S. officials said it was possible that Prigozhin’s Embraer business jet was destroyed by an explosion aboard, noting there was no sign of a missile launch targeting the plane. Similar theories swirled on Russian Telegram channels, focused mainly on the possibility that explosives were planted onboard the jet.
Putin made his first comments Thursday about the plane crash, which is believed to have also killed other senior members of the group, effectively decapitating a force that was once central to Russia’s war in Ukraine and still has fighters deployed across Africa and the Middle East. Putin paid condolences to the victims’ families, but said a full investigation would “take time.”
Prigozhin’s press service has not confirmed his death, although some Wagner affiliated Telegram channels have been mourning his demise.
Russian Telegram outlet E112News, that focuses mainly on crime and accidents, aired video of members of the Russian investigation team, some wearing camouflage, attaching chains to a wing of the downed jet and dragging it roughly out of the forest, bumping against trees, as workers tossed loose fragments onto the wing. The wing appeared to have little or no shrapnel damage. The pieces were then wrapped on canvas and loaded onto trucks.
The U.S. government’s initial assessment was that Prigozhin was likely killed in the crash, the Pentagon said Thursday. Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, declined to address whether the U.S. government believed Prigozhin was assassinated, saying “we’re continuing to assess the situation.”
Despite the Kremlin’s efforts since June to destroy Prigozhin’s reputation and portray him as a greedy rogue out to make money in the war, spontaneous memorials continued to spring up across the country on Thursday and Friday, featuring photographs of the leaders, Prigozhin and his operations commander Dmitry Utkin. People placed flowers and Wagner flags on the displays in a sign of the group’s reputation in Russia as the country’s most capable assault force.
Although Putin has moved to reassert control after the rebellion, Wagner’s lingering popularity remains delicate for the Kremlin, given the widespread speculation within Russia that Putin was behind a crash.
Pro-Kremlin analyst and former Putin adviser, Sergei Markov said Putin’s positive remarks on Thursday about Wagner and to a lesser extent Prigozhin were designed to remove suspicions within Russia that he was behind the plane crash.
“There are spontaneous memorials to Prigozhin and Utkin all over the country,” Markov wrote on Telegram, adding it was obvious that “Prigozhin is a people’s hero. He was truly loved. You can’t organize something like this.”
Globally, he added, “Wagner and Prigozhin are the main manifestation of the strength of Russia and the Russian people, which is seen in the world in the Ukrainian crisis.” But he insisted that Putin could successfully co-opt Wagner’s popularity and its heroic reputation as an effective military force.
“If the funerals of Prigozhin and Utkin and other Wagner leaders are public, then they will turn into a huge manifestation of people’s support for Putin’s political course for the forceful confrontation between Russia and the West and the forceful liquidation of the neo-Nazi Russophobic regime in Ukraine,” Markov maintained.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who brokered the deal between Putin and Prigozhin allowing Wagner to move to Belarus in return for halting the rebellion, said the mercenaries would stay in his country despite Prigozhin’s death. He expected 10,000 members of the group “within a few days.”
“Wagner lived, Wagner is alive and Wagner will live in Belarus,” he said. “Prigozhin and I have built a system, and we will have Wagner.”
He added that he was sure that Putin was not behind the crash.
“I can’t say who did it,” he said, “But I know Putin. He is a calculating, very calm and even slow person, making decisions on other, less complex issues. Therefore, I can’t imagine that Putin did it, that Putin is to blame. Too rough, unprofessional work, for that matter,” he said.
Putin has moved to restore his authority since Prigozhin’s June rebellion with the dismissal of several high-ranking Russian generals who were close to the Wagner leader or who had spoken about the military’s failures, including Gen. Sergei Surovikin, known as “General Armageddon” for his ruthless tactics in Syria and Ukraine.
Hard-line nationalists have also been targeted, including former intelligence officer and military blogger Igor Girkin, who was arrested and jailed last month after attacking Putin for his handling of the war.
After the crash, Russian police raided the families of Wagner Group members, asking questions about possible unrest as a result of the crash, according to Baza media outlet, a Telegram channel close to Russian law enforcement.
Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report
POST AUTHOR: Robyn Dixon, Catherine Belton