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Russian Government Denies Involvement in Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Death

Putin and Prigozhin
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin pictured together in 2010. Credit: Government of the Russian Federation / CC BY 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The Russian government has denied claims that it had any involvement in Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death, just days after the Wagner Group chief was reported to have perished in a plane crash.

Dmitry Utkin, one of the co-founders of Wagner, along with Valeriy Chekalov, who is believed to have led the security services for the group, were also said to be aboard the private jet that crashed during a flight between Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

In the immediate aftermath of the Russian mercenary chief’s apparent demise, speculation has been rife that his death was orchestrated by the Russian government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin – whom many suspect of ordering the death of Prigozhin – commented on his erstwhile ally’s passing yesterday, expressing his “sincerest condolences to the families of all the victims,” who died in the plane crash.

Russian government denies ordering Prigozhin’s death

During a discussion with journalists, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged that there is “lots of speculation” surrounding the “tragic death” of the passengers on board the plane that crashed on Wednesday.

“In the West of course this speculation comes from a certain angle. It’s all a complete lie,” said Peskov. “Of course when we talk about this issue we should be guided only by facts.”

“We don’t have many facts at the moment, the facts need to be clarified during the official investigation which is being carried out now,” the Russian official continued.

The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, also commented on the issue, saying that he did not believe that President Putin was behind the death of Prigozhin.

“He is a calculating, very calm and even slow person, making decisions on other, less complicated issues. So I can’t imagine that Putin did it, that Putin is to blame. It’s too rough, unprofessional work, if anything,” Lukashenko told the state-run news agency Belta.

Prigozhin appeared in a video shortly before his apparent death. Credit: Telegram / WAGNER_svodki

Speculation and conspiracy theories

When Prigozhin’s mercenaries initiated a rebellion against the Kremlin in June, it was Lukashenko who brokered a deal that diffused the situation. Wagner Group, having taken the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, abandoned plans to march on Moscow, and in return, Prigozhin was granted refuge in Belarus.

Prigozhin next resurfaced in Africa, where his private military company (PMC) are involved in extensive operations. He released a video on August 22 claiming that Wagner Group’s operations in Africa were making “Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free.” Just a few days later, it was announced that he had died in a plane crash.

Since Prigozhin’s death, speculation that his demise was planned by the Kremlin has been widespread. Many commentators have posited that Putin had him killed because Wagner’s rebellion threatened the president’s authority. Others have pointed to other Russian elites, particularly senior military officials. Prigozhin had no shortage of enemies in the Kremlin.

Various theories are abounding both within Russia and abroad. For example, an affiliated Telegram channel of Wagner alleged that the jet had been downed by Russian air defenses above Tver Oblast. However, this assertion was challenged due to the absence of observable missile trails in the footage that was released.

Although speculation continues to grow surrounding Prigozhin’s reported demise, very little verifiable information has surfaced.

Wagner Mercenaries
Mercenaries from Wagner Group pictured in February 2023. Credit: 2s3m akatsiya / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Ukrainian reaction

On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also responded to the demise of the Wagner Group chief. Zelensky disavowed any Ukrainian involvement and instead placed the blame on Russian authorities.

“We have nothing to do with it. Everyone understands who is involved,” Zelensky said during a discussion with reporters in Kyiv.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the head of the office of the President of Ukraine, called the quick confirmation by representatives of the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency of the death of Prigozhin extremely surprising.

He noted that such a “demonstrative removal” of the head of Wagner is a signal to the Russian army that “any disloyalty will be punishable by death.”

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