Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first public comments Thursday on the plane crash believed to have killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, saying the Wagner leader was “talented” but made “serious mistakes in life.”
The crash Wednesday took place northwest of Moscow and killed all on board, said Russia’s aviation agency, including Prigozhin, chief of the mercenary group that gained prominence for its brutal methods worldwide and its battleground victories in the Ukraine war. Authorities are still identifying the bodies.
“First of all, I want to express my sincere condolences to the families of all the victims, this is always a tragedy,” said Putin.
“Indeed, if they were there, it seems … preliminary information suggests that Wagner Group employees were also on board,” Putin said during a meeting with the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) Denis Pushilin in the Kremlin.
Speaking about Prigozhin in the past tense, Putin said he’d known the Wagner chief “for a very long time,” and that he was “a talented man, a talented businessman.”
“He was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results needed both for himself and when I asked him about it – for a common cause, as in these last months,” the Russian president said.
The crash of Prigozhin’s plane happened two months after Prigozhin and Wagner staged their insurrection, the biggest challenge to Putin’s authority during his long rule.
Just days after the mutiny, a furious Putin made it clear that he viewed the actions of Wagner as a form of treason. While he did not mention Prigozhin by name, he accused “the organizers of the rebellion” of betraying Russia itself.
A witness to the crash told Reuters he saw a wing fly off the plane before it headed toward the ground on Wednesday. “It glided down on one wing. It didn’t nose-dive, it was gliding,” he said.
Prigozhin’s apparent death follows a series of incidents in which Kremlin critics have died or had attempts made on their life.
No evidence has been presented that points to the involvement of the Kremlin or Russian security services in the crash. The cause of the crash is unknown and Russian authorities have launched a criminal investigation.
Putin pledged this investigation would be thorough. “But what is absolutely certain, the head of the Investigative Committee reported to me this morning. They have already launched a preliminary investigation into this incident. And it will be carried out in full and brought to completion,” Putin said.
At the same time, people familiar with the intelligence do believe that the downing of the plane was deliberate and that the goal was to kill Prigozhin.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the Pentagon “doesn’t have any information to indicate right now” that the plane Prigozhin was on was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, adding that the Defense Department’s belief that Prigozhin was indeed killed in the crash.
US President Joe Biden, prominent Russia critic Bill Browder and Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak have all suggested they believe Putin was behind the crash.
Some openly speculated about its cause. “He was killed by Putin, who does not forgive betrayal,” said Alexey from Moscow. “Putin was behind it or it could have been his Politburo but Putin knew and approved.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denied that his country was involved, Ukrainian state media reported.
“First, we have nothing to do with this situation, that’s for sure. But I think everyone realizes who has,” he said.