The Kremlin labeled as “an absolute lie” on Friday the Western conjecture that Russian President Vladimir Putin masterminded Yevgeny Prigozhin’s reported death.
The chief of the mercenary Wagner Group reportedly was on the jet that crashed Wednesday evening just outside of Moscow.
Prigozhin’s name was on the passenger manifest, and he reportedly was among the 10 people aboard who died in the crash. Putin cited “preliminary information” saying that Prigozhin and his top associates in the Wagner mercenary group all had been killed.
Earlier on Friday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov scolded U.S. President Joe Biden for suggesting that the Russian president had orchestrated Prigozhin’s death.
“It is not for the U.S. president, in my opinion, to talk about certain tragic events of this nature,” Ryabkov said Friday.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Biden said he was not surprised by Prigozhin’s reported death. “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind,” he said.
Asked by The Associated Press whether the Kremlin has received an official confirmation of Prigozhin’s death, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referenced Putin’s remarks from a day earlier.
“He said that right now, all the necessary forensic analyses, including genetic testing, will be carried out. Once some kind of official conclusions are ready to be released, they will be released,” Peskov said.
According to a preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment, the plane was downed by an intentional explosion. One of the U.S. and Western officials who described the assessment said it determined that Prigozhin was “very likely” targeted and that the explosion falls in line with Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics.”
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, did not offer any details about what caused the explosion. It is believed to be in retaliation for the mutiny in June that posed the biggest challenge to Putin’s 23-year rule.
Ukrainian, Turkish leaders confer
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held talks Friday in Kyiv with Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Hakan Fidan regarding the Black Sea grain deal and other related topics.
“Many important issues were discussed. [Ukraine’s] Peace Formula. Preparations for the Global Peace Summit. Risks posed by the Russian blockade of the Black Sea grain corridor,” Zelenskyy wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Turkey is trying to persuade Russia to return to the negotiating table regarding the U.N.-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative that was guaranteeing the safety of cargo vessels passing through the Black Sea corridor.
Russia has threatened to treat all vessels as potential military targets after pulling out of a U.N.-backed safe passage deal.
According to U.S. officials, since Russia’s exit from the grain deal, Ukraine, a major grain exporter, has resorted to overland and Danube River routes as effective ways to transport its grain.
“I think we see there are viable routes through Ukraine’s territorial waters and overland, and we are aiming … over the next couple of months to return to exporting at kind of prewar averages from Ukraine,” James O’Brien, head of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Sanctions Coordination, told Reuters in an interview.
Ukraine has begun exporting through a “humanitarian corridor” along the sea’s western coastline near Romania and Bulgaria.
A Hong Kong-flagged container ship stuck in Odesa port since the invasion was the first vessel to travel that route last week without being fired upon by Russia.
US will train Ukrainians on F-16s
Russia has updated to 73 the number of Ukrainian drones it says it has downed over the past 24 hours.
Earlier, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that 42 drones were destroyed over Crimea – nine shot down by air defense forces and 33 by electronic warfare. Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014.
There were no immediate reports of fatalities.
The U.S. Defense Department said Thursday it will train Ukrainians to fly and maintain F-16 fighter jets.
The Defense Department said in a statement the training will be held at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona, and will be facilitated by the Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing.
The U.S. training is “in support of the international effort to develop and strengthen Ukraine’s long-term defenses,” Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder said.
The training will begin in October, after the Ukrainians complete an English-language course set to begin in September.
Meanwhile, Norway is donating F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said Thursday on a visit to Kyiv.
The exact number of the donated jets was not immediately clear, but Gahr Stoere said it likely would be less than than 10.
Norway is the third European country, after the Netherlands and Denmark, to announce donations of fighter jets to Ukraine for use in Ukraine’s fight against Russia.