Initial U.S. intelligence reports indicated that the plane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin was not shot down by a surface-to-air missile, according to people familiar with the findings.

“We currently have no information that a surface-to-air missile was launched against the private jet that was reportedly carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin,” a senior U.S. government official said.

The U.S. is still evaluating the cause of the crash, officials said. An early theory suggested that a bomb may have been hidden on board, but officials cautioned they had not yet reached firm conclusions.

Vladimir Putin said publicly on Thursday that Prigorzhin was dead, the Kremlin’s first official reaction to the warlord’s apparent death in a plane crash the previous day.

The Russian president said “preliminary data” showed that there were members of Prigozhin’s Wagnerian mercenary group on board, and offered his condolences to the families of all 10 killed.

But the passengers of a private jet that crashed northwest of Moscow on Wednesday listed Prigozhin’s supporters, who accused “traitors” of assassinating him in revenge for a mutiny he led in late June.

Putin said Wagner “made a significant contribution to our common cause, which is the fight against Nazism in Ukraine” — referring to Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.

“I have known Prigorzhin since the early 1990s. He had a difficult life and made serious mistakes. But he got results—for himself and for the common cause, when I asked him time, as in the past few months,” Putin added.

Prigozhin and his group are accused of numerous brutal war crimes in Ukraine and parts of the Middle East and Africa where they operate. But the warlord is popular with some in Russia for his victories on the Ukrainian battlefield and his outspoken criticism of the military leadership.

Putin said Prigozhin “was a talented businessman not only in our country, but also achieved success in Africa, dabbling in oil, gas, precious stones and metals”. Prigozhin “just returned yesterday from Africa, as far as I know, and met with certain officials here,” he said, without elaborating.

vladimir putin
Vladimir Putin said Wagner “made a significant contribution to our common cause, the fight against Nazism in Ukraine” © Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters

Investigators opened a criminal probe into the crash on Thursday and the aviation agency said it was looking for the plane’s black boxes, with Putin noting that results “will take time.”

Hard-liners describe Prigozhin as the leader of the “Victory Party,” which includes ultranationalists, Chechen militants and members of the secretive security services who want Russia’s complete conquest of Ukraine.

“I’m the only remaining leader (of the ‘Victory Party’),” nationalist tycoon Konstantin Malofeyev, who once stood alongside Wagner in Ukraine, told the Financial Times. Patron of fighting militias. “We want to fight to win,” he said.

Wagner’s St. Petersburg headquarters was lit up with a crucifix overnight, and masked fighters in camouflage uniforms knelt and wept in front of Prigozhin’s photo.

“The country has lost a hero and its best conductor,” wrote a Wagner-affiliated channel on Telegram. Another said Prigozhin would be “the best, even in hell”, and shared a clip of classical composer Richard Wagner. Ride of the Valkyries.

Many among the hardliners agree with Prigozhin that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have been more successful were it not for mistakes by the country’s top generals.

One body removed from crash site
A body was removed from the crash site on Thursday © Associated Press

Western officials told the Financial Times on Thursday that Wagner’s apparent beheading showed Putin’s intention to bolster Russia’s armed forces and restore favor to uniformed generals rather than the mercenary group’s leaders and ties to it close officials.

While warning that the details of the operation and its aftermath remain unclear, officials have privately said it would significantly reduce Wagner’s influence inside Russia but not significantly affect his activities abroad, where Wagner remains a An important aspect of the Kremlin’s power.

The Kremlin’s tighter control over the group could also allow Putin to bring his nonmilitary operations, such as lucrative natural resource supply contracts to African countries, closer to the state budget, one official added.

“It shows that Putin is focused on revenge,” one official said.

Many expected some reprisals for Prigozhin’s mutiny attempt in June, and wondered whether the warlord’s deal with the Kremlin – in which Wagner and his leaders would quietly relocate to Belarus – would be the end of the story.

“Prigorzhin has troubled too many people. The number of enemies has reached breaking point,” Sergei Mironov, an outspoken pro-war leader of the Kremlin-controlled opposition party, said on X (formerly Twitter) wrote on.

Malofeev said the warlord’s death was “planned for domestic political consequences” after Putin promised not to interfere with Wagner.

“The president promised that nothing would happen to the defectors, and it did. Whoever did it was trying to embarrass Putin and anger Putin,” he said.

According to a person familiar with the warlord’s operations, the war in Ukraine has caused so much disruption in Russia’s governance and security establishment that Prigozhin’s rivals could have killed him without a direct order from Putin .

Military figures keen to avenge Wagner’s servicemen killed in the rebellion “decided it was worth the risk,” the person said. “Now they have to explain to Putin why it happened.”

Prigozhin’s private jet, an Embraer heritage plane, he recently flew between Moscow, Belarus, his native St Petersburg and parts of Africa where Wagner operates, in the Tver region northwest of Moscow crashed.

“The assassination of Prigorzhin will have disastrous consequences. Those who gave the order have no idea of ​​the mood and morale of the army,” said Roman Saponkov, a Russian war blogger and invasion cheerleader, who also It is believed to be closely related to the Wagner Group.

Another anonymous Telegram channel, run by a former Wagnerian staffer, also mourned the death of Wagnerian militia founder Dmitri Utkin, whose name appeared on the passenger list along with Prigozhin .

“Alas, betrayal.”. . Take Dmitry Utkin to his grave,” the author writes. “The legendary warrior and commander died not on the battlefield, but from a cowardly blow in the back. “

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