Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denied any involvement in the plane crash north of Moscow on Wednesday that reportedly killed Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, telling reporters “everyone realizes” who the true culprit is.
Prigozhin and several other senior members of Wagner appeared on the flight manifest of an Embrarer-made private jet that crashed in Tver Oblast, north of Moscow, on Wednesday. Russian authorities confirmed that Prigozhin’s name was on the manifest, appeared to confirm he was on board, and proceeded to claim all ten people on the plane had died. They had not, however, officially declared Prigozhin dead at press time.
On Thursday evening local time, Russian leader Vladimir Putin did appear to confirm Prigozhin’s death, eulogizing him as a “man of complicated destiny” who “made serious mistakes” but had made a “significant contribution” to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s Wagner paramilitary group is believed to be active in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, most predominantly in the Central African Republic, Syria, and Belarus. Prigozhin had led forces early in the year in fighting against Ukrainian troops in the east of the country and took credit for the siege of the town of Bakhmut. Prior to Wagner, Prigozhin reportedly became Putin’s good personal friend through his job as a chef.
On June 23, however, two months to the day of the plane crash, Prigozhin issued a statement from Ukraine accusing the Russian Defense Ministry and Minister Sergei Shoigu personally of bombing Wagner positions in Ukraine. Prigozhin launched a “march for justice” towards Moscow, leading thousands of mercenaries out of Ukraine and taking over the Russian border city of Rostov-on-Don.
The Russian government charged Prigozhin with staging an “armed uprising” but removed its charges after, the next day, Prigozhin abruptly withdrew from Russia. Belarusian communist dictator Alexander Lukashenko announced that he had brokered a deal to end the mutiny that required Prigozhin to take exile in Belarus.
The Kremlin claimed later that Putin offered Prigozhin a job following the mutiny; Prigozhin was last seen in a video uploaded to social media on Monday in which, apparently from a desert expanse in Africa, he announced a new round of Wagner recruitment.
Zelensky remarked on the plane crash during a press conference in Kyiv alongside Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo, acknowledging Wagner’s role in the war.
“When Ukraine spoke out and appealed to the countries around the world about planes, we didn’t mean that, we meant something completely different and sought support,” Zelensky said, referring to Ukraine’s calls for donations of fighter jets.
“Although, probably, it will also definitely help us in a certain sense,” he continued, according to the Ukrainian state outlet Ukrinform. “First, we have nothing to do with this situation, that’s for sure. I think everyone realizes who has.”
Zelensky did not name the Putin regime as the culprit but appeared to suggest that the Kremlin had ordered Prigozhin killed. While the Wagner PMC has made no official statements regarding the plane crash at press time, Telegram accounts linked to Wagner have accused the Russian government of shooting down the aircraft in question.
“The assassination of Prigozhin would have catastrophic consequences. The people who gave the order do not understand the mood in the army and the morale at all,” one such Telegram account posted.
Prior to the mutiny in June, Prigozhin spent much of the past year in Ukraine fighting Zelensky’s forces and overrunning civilian areas. Wagner’s mercenaries had long developed a reputation for brutality in the battlefields they inhabited.
In May, Prigozhin claimed that his forces had “fully captured” the city of Bakhmut, ending an extended battle that lasted over half a year. Zelensky initially denied the loss of Bakhmut but claimed the city had been functionally destroyed.
Prigozhin boasted of his alleged successes while condemning the Russian military. Later in May, Prigozhin published a statement warning that the Russian people would soon tire of losing loved ones in the war and could turn on Putin.
“We are in such a condition that we could fucking lose Russia,” he warned in the statement. “First the soldiers will stand up, and after that – their loved ones will rise up. … There are already tens of thousands of them – relatives of those killed. And there will probably be hundreds of thousands – we cannot avoid that.”
Prigozhin repeatedly condemned the Defense Ministry’s handling of the Ukraine war. Following his retreat from outside Moscow, he boasted that Wagner’s easy infiltration of Rostov-on-Don was “a master class on how February 24, 2022, had to look,” referring to the first day of the Russian “special operation” to oust Zelensky. Prigozhin lamented that the Wagner mutiny revealed “serious security problems across the entire country.”
Putin appeared to eulogize Prigozhin on Thursday, offering little comment on the downed plane but praising Prigozhin and the other Wagner leaders who reportedly died on the flight for making “a significant contribution” to the war in Ukraine.
“He’d made serious mistakes in his life, but also got results. For himself as well as our common cause, when I asked it of him in these last months,” Putin said of Prigozhin.