By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his first remarks since the deadly crash of the plane thought to be carrying the founder of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, expressed his condolences to the man’s family while also referring to the “serious mistakes” made by the mercenary leader.
“He [Prigozhin] was a talented man,” Putin said on August 24, calling the crash a day earlier just north of Moscow a “tragedy” without specifically stating whether he believed the mercenary leader had been aboard the flight.
Putin called Prigozhin “a man of difficult fate [who had] made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results he needed — both for himself and, when I asked him about it, for the common cause, as in these last months.”
Putin didn’t specify the “mistakes’ made by the man who just two months ago led a short-lived mutiny against the Russian military and presented the most serious challenge to Putin in his more than two decades in power.
“My sincere condolences to the families of all those who perished,” Putin added.
Investigators on August 24 continued to sift through wreckage of a private jet belonging to the Wagner group after it crashed en route to St. Petersburg from Moscow, leaving no survivors among a passenger list containing the names of 10 people, including Prigozhin, who exactly two months earlier led a brief mutiny against Russia’s top army brass.
The Flightradar24 online tracker showed a Brazilian-built Embraer 600 jet dropping off radar screens early in the evening on August 23. Soon after, video on social media appeared to show a plane falling through the sky in an area about 300 kilometers north of Moscow that coincided with the location of the aircraft’s disappearance.
“If they [Wagner leaders] really were aboard — and the preliminary data say that employees of the Wagner company were there — I would like to emphasize that these people had contributed significantly to our common efforts of the [fight in Ukraine],” Putin said.
Questions over whether Prigozhin was on the plane or not and the circumstances surrounding the plane crash have led to speculation that Putin was behind the crash.
Putin’s indirect confirmation of Prigozhin’s death may do little to quell the rumors.
A close ally of Putin for decades, Prigozhin led the June 24 mutiny that saw Wagner fighters seize the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and march to within 200 kilometers of Moscow. A Russian military aircraft was shot down during the mutiny, and altogether 13 Russian Air Force personnel were killed.
U.S. Brigadier General Pat Ryder declined to comment on what U.S. intelligence was indicating about the crash but did play down earlier reports that officials suspected that a surface-to-air missile was responsible.
“Our initial assessment was that Prigozhin was killed…We don’t have any information right now regarding the press reporting stating that there was some kind of surface-to-air missile that took down the plane. We assess that information to be inaccurate,” he told a briefing.
Wagner commander and co-founder Dmitry Utkin was also listed among the seven passengers on the jet, Russia’s aviation authority said, quoting the airline. Two pilots and a flight attendant also were onboard the plane, the aviation authority said, adding an investigation into the incident has been launched.
The channel, Grey Zone, declared Prigozhin a hero and a patriot who it said had died at the hands of unidentified people it called “traitors to Russia.”
Grey Zone also reported that another private jet owned by Prigozhin landed safely in the Moscow region. The information could not be independently verified.
A St. Petersburg building where Wagner offices are located lit up windows at night to form a giant cross while some people stopped near the building to leave flowers and light candles.
“The Commission of the Federal Air Transport Agency is starting initial actions at the scene, and has also begun collecting factual materials on the training of the crew, the technical condition of the aircraft, the meteorological situation on the flight route, the work of dispatch services and ground radio equipment,” the aviation authority said in a statement.
Prigozhin was not arrested or detained at the time of the mutiny, but Putin denounced the insurrection as a “stab in the back” and vowed to punish all “traitors” involved.
“It is unlikely that anyone thinks this is a coincidence. It just so happens that political opponents whom Vladimir Putin considers a threat to his power do not die naturally,” said Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau.
In an attempt to head off conspiracy theories that Kyiv was involved, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine had “nothing to do with it [the crash].”
“Everybody knows who has something to do with it,” he added in a thinly veiled suggestion that Putin ordered the downing of the plane.
The deaths of Prigozhin and Utkin, if proven true, would be a severe blow to the Wagner group, which was key in Russia’s battle to take the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut earlier this year.
Mykhaylo Podolyak, chief adviser in the Ukrainian president’s office, said the incident is a warning sign to anyone else in Russia that wants to challenge Putin’s authority.
“The show-stopping removal of Prigozhin and the Wagner command two months after the coup attempt is Putin’s signal to Russian elites ahead of the 2024 elections: ‘Fight! Disloyalty equals death,'” he said in a statement.
Wagner soldiers have also been deployed to Syria, where Russia supports President Bashar Assad’s government in a civil war and in Libya, where they fought alongside forces of commander Khalifa Hifter. The group has also operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that the Wagner group may become more of a concern for Europe’s security if Prigozhin indeed is found to have died in the accident.
“The Wagner group comes under Putin’s leadership. Let everyone answer the question for themselves: Will the threat be bigger or smaller? For me, that’s a rhetorical question,” he told a news conference in Warsaw.
The Wagner chief’s whereabouts have been largely a mystery since the mutiny. He appeared in his first video since the mutiny earlier this week. In footage possibly shot in Africa and published on August 21 on Telegram channels affiliated with the Wagner group, Prigozhin is seen standing in a desert area in camouflage and with a rifle in his hands.
Earlier he was believed to be moving between Russia and Belarus, where Wagner troops have been setting up camps to train Belarusian armed forces as part of a deal negotiated that helped end the mutiny.
The Wagner insurrection came on the heels of months of intense public infighting with Russia’s military leadership over the war strategy in Ukraine and ammunition supplies.
The head of the U.S. CIA, William Burns, said last month Putin would likely seek retribution against Prigozhin.
“Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback,” he said, speaking on July 20 at the Aspen Security Forum.
He said he would be surprised if Prigozhin escaped further retribution.