Russia on Friday rejected allegations it was behind a plane crash that is presumed to have killed mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose brutal fighters were feared in Ukraine, Africa and Syria and conducted a brief but shocking mutiny in Russia two months ago.
“Right now, of course, there are lots of speculations around this plane crash and the tragic deaths of the passengers of the plane, including Yevgeny Prigozhin," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters during a conference call.
"Of course, in the West, those speculations are put out under a certain angle, and all of it is a complete lie,”
The Russian statement came after a preliminary United States intelligence assessment concluded the plane was downed on Wednesday by an intentional explosion.
One of the US and Western officials who described the initial US assessment said it determined that Prigozhin was “very likely” targeted and that the explosion falls in line with Vladimir Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics.”
While it is almost certain that Prigozhin is dead, Russian authorities are waiting for forensic analyses, including genetic testing, to make a final announcement.
Prigozhin, who was listed among those on board the plane, was eulogised on Thursday by Putin.
What is Wagner's future?
Wagner mercenaries were key elements of Russia’s forces in its war in Ukraine, particularly in the long fight to take the city of Bakhmut, the conflict’s most gruelling battle. Wagner fighters also have played a central role in projecting Russian influence in global trouble spots, first in Africa and then in Syria.
“When it comes to the future (of Wagner), I can’t tell you anything — I don’t know,” Peskov said.
The jet crashed on Wednesday soon after taking off from Moscow for St. Petersburg, carrying Prigozhin, six other Wagner members, and a crew of three, according to Russia’s civil aviation authority.
Rescuers found 10 bodies, and Russian media cited anonymous sources in Wagner who said Prigozhin was dead. But there has been no official confirmation.
President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said he believed Putin was likely behind the crash.
“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” Biden said. “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov took offence at that. “It is not for the US president, in my opinion, to talk about certain tragic events of this nature,” he said on Friday.
The passenger manifest also included Prigozhin’s second-in-command, whose nom de guerre became the group's name, as well as Wagner’s logistics chief and at least one possible bodyguard.
It was not clear why several high-ranking members of Wagner, who are normally exceedingly careful about their security, would have been on the same flight. The purpose of their trip to St. Petersburg remains unknown.
Russian authorities have opened an investigation into the crash and news reports said the plane's wreckage has been removed from where it fell.