Early U.S. intelligence assessments suggest that an intentional explosion led to the plane crash that apparently killed Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, Western officials said Thursday, amid widespread suspicion that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the assassination of another one of his rivals.
U.S. and other Western officials offered little detail on exactly what they believe caused the explosion, but those officials told the Associated Press that it appears to have been a purposeful act, the latest in Mr. Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics.”
Mr. Prigozhin was one of seven passengers on board an Embraer Legacy 600 business jet that crashed Wednesday while flying from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. Russian state-run media hasn’t officially confirmed Mr. Prigozhin’s death, but Russian outlets said all seven passengers and three crew members are presumed dead.
The stunning crash sparked immediate speculation that Mr. Putin was in some way responsible and may have sought revenge after Mr. Prigozhin led a short-lived rebellion against the Kremlin two months ago. The Russian president broke his silence on the crash Thursday afternoon and praised the Wagner Group’s contributions to Moscow’s war in Ukraine, but he also made it a point to single out the “serious mistakes in life” made by Mr. Prigozhin.
For some Kremlin-watchers, there is little doubt about what happened in the skies over Russia on Wednesday. Daniel Fried, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank and former U.S. ambassador to Poland, said the incident resembled “something out of the ‘Godfather’ series.”
“While the circumstances are not yet clear, it seems best to assume that this was not an accident, but a targeted hit. The only unusual feature is that Prigozhin was not pushed out of a window or shot on the street or in an apartment stairwell, like other Kremlin opponents, but apparently shot down from a plane in lurid fashion,” Mr. Fried said in an analysis prior to the news Thursday that officials believe an explosion on board the plane is to blame.
Indeed, Pentagon officials shot down early reports that a missile may have struck the plane.
“There’s no information to suggest that there was a surface-to-air missile,” Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. “But beyond that, I’m not going to have any further information.”
The use of an explosive on board the plane, rather than a missile, would have made the operation more difficult to detect for U.S. and other Western officials. Whatever the details, even President Biden seemed to suggest that Mr. Putin was responsible for, or at least aware of, a possible plan to bring down Mr. Prigozhin’s plane.
“There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind, but I don’t know enough to know the answer,” Mr. Biden said Wednesday when asked about the crash.
The timing is also no coincidence, specialists say.
In the immediate aftermath of the June rebellion, Mr. Putin initially appeared to extend an olive branch to Mr. Prigozhin. He signed off on a deal that offered Mr. Prigozhin a free pass to Belarus, a key Russian ally, rather than remaining in Russia and facing criminal charges. The Kremlin even opted against punishing the Wagner fighters who participated in the mutiny, offering them the chance to return home or join the Russian army and fight in Ukraine.
But all of that may have been part of Mr. Putin’s cold, calculated strategy, Mr. Fried said.
“The strange spectacle of Prigozhin’s initial lenient treatment is over; the delay in going after him may have meant only that Putin needed to gauge the degree of Prigozhin’s support before acting,” Mr. Fried wrote in his analysis, posted on the Atlantic Council’s website.
If he is responsible, Mr. Putin may have concluded that he will face no serious blowback for ordering the killing of Mr. Prigozhin. But there were indications Thursday that at least some Wagner members are deeply angry with the Kremlin in the wake of the crash, which also presumably killed Valery Chekalov, the mercenary group’s logistics chief, and Wagner Group Cmdr. Dmitry Utkin.
The news site Readovka, which is thought to have links to the Wagner Group, said the mercenary organization has a “mechanism of action” in place in the event of the deaths of Mr. Prigozhin or Mr. Utkin. Readovka reported that a Wagner Group “council of commanders” is meeting to decide the next step. They suggested they may once again march toward Moscow, just as they did during their brief rebellion in June.
“We suspect Kremlin officials led by Putin in an attempt to kill him. If the information about the death of Prigozhin is confirmed, we will organize the second March of Justice to Moscow,” the Wagner Play channel on the Telegram social messaging site posted Thursday.
‘Man of a difficult fate’
After nearly 24 hours of silence, Mr. Putin addressed the crash during a TV interview Thursday. He called Mr. Prigozhin “a man of a difficult fate” and said the Wagner Group leader made “serious mistakes in life” — an apparent reference to the short-lived Wagner mutiny this summer.
Still, Mr. Putin said the passengers on board the doomed aircraft “made a significant contribution” to Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.
“We remember this, we know, and we will not forget,” he said in the interview with Denis Pushilin, the Russian-installed leader of Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Mr. Prigozhin, a former restaurant owner who became known as “Putin’s chef” because of the Russian leader’s affinity for his food, presumably died during the low point of his two-decade relationship with the Russian leader. The complex dynamic between the two men reached the breaking point during the June rebellion, when it briefly appeared that Mr. Prigozhin may have had the resources and the willingness to overthrow Mr. Putin.
Overthrowing the president, however, was never the Wagner Group’s publicly stated goal. Instead, Mr. Prigozhin demanded that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other top officials be replaced.
Mr. Prigozhin blamed Mr. Shoigu and others atop the Kremlin for the country’s military failures in Ukraine and for Moscow’s inability to provide Wagner Group troops with the supplies and weapons they needed to succeed.
Mr. Putin suggested Thursday that those tensions had been smoothed over.
Mr. Putin said Mr. Prigozhin “achieved the results he needed — both for himself and, when I asked him about it, for the common cause, as in these last months. He was a talented man, a talented businessman.”
Despite Mr. Putin’s public comments, it’s no surprise that Western officials believe he or other figures in his inner circle may have played some role in the downing of Mr. Prigozhin’s plane.
Numerous Kremlin critics over the past two decades have died, or come close to death, under mysterious circumstances.
Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, was hospitalized in August 2020 after being poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent. He’s now in a Russian prison, with a Russian court sentencing him to 19 years in prison on top of two other sentences.
Boris Nemtsov, a politician and outspoken critic of Mr. Putin, was shot to death on Feb. 27, 2015, while walking along a bridge near the Kremlin. Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian FSB agent, died in November 2006 after drinking tea that had been laced with radioactive polonium-210. Litvinenko, who had been granted British citizenship, accused Mr. Putin of being corrupt and orchestrating a series of apartment block bombings in Russia that helped ignite the Second Chechen War in 1999.
With that history in mind, U.S. officials expected Mr. Prigozhin may eventually meet a similar fate.
“In my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback,” CIA Director William Burns said last month. “So I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.