Initial US intelligence reports suggest the plane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin was not downed by a surface-to-air missile, according to people briefed on the findings.
US officials are still working on the assumption that the plane was brought down on the orders of Vladimir Putin, even as Russia’s president broke his silence on the crash to laud Prigozhin’s record as leader of the Wagner paramilitary group.
Putin said Wagner had “made a significant contribution to our common cause, the fight against Nazism in Ukraine” — a reference to Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
“I knew Prigozhin from a long time, from the early 1990s. He had a difficult path and made serious mistakes in his life. But he got results — for himself, and for the common cause when I asked him, like in the last few months,” Putin added.
The US was still assessing what was behind the crash, officials said. One early theory is there could have been an explosion on board but officials cautioned that they have come to no firm conclusions.
“We have no information at this time to suggest that a surface-to-air missile was launched against the private aircraft reportedly carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin,” a senior US administration official said.
The US assessment came after Putin on Thursday publicly said Prigozhin was dead, in the Kremlin’s first official reaction to the warlord’s apparent demise in the plane crash a day before.
Russia’s president said “initial data” indicated figures from Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group were on board and expressed his condolences to the families of all 10 people who died.
But supporters of Prigozhin, who was listed among the passengers of a private jet that crashed north-west of Moscow on Wednesday, accused “traitors” of assassinating him in retribution for a mutiny he led in late June.
Prigozhin and his group are accused of numerous brutal war crimes in Ukraine and also in parts of the Middle East and Africa where they have operated. But the warlord was popular with some in Russia for his battlefield successes in Ukraine and his straight-talking critique of the army leadership.
Putin said Prigozhin was a “talented businessman not just in our country, but he got results in Africa, where he was into oil, gas, precious stones, and metals”. He said Prigozhin had “just got back from Africa yesterday, as far as I know, and met here with certain officials”, without elaborating.
Investigators launched a criminal probe into the crash on Thursday and the aviation agency said it was searching for the plane’s black box, with Putin noting that results would “take time”.
Fellow hardliners dubbed Prigozhin the leader of a “party of victory” encompassing ultranationalists, Chechen militants and shadowy security service figures who wanted Russia to conquer Ukraine entirely.
“I’m the only leader [of the ‘party of victory’] left,” Konstantin Malofeyev, a nationalist tycoon and patron of a militia that has fought alongside Wagner in Ukraine, told the Financial Times. “We want to fight to a victorious end,” he said.
Wagner’s St Petersburg headquarters lit up in the shape of a cross overnight and some masked fighters wearing camouflage knelt in tears in front of pictures of Prigozhin.
“The country has lost its hero and best conductor,” a Wagner-affiliated channel wrote on Telegram. Another said Prigozhin would be “the best, even in hell” and shared a clip of the classical composer Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.
Many in the hardline group shared Prigozhin’s view that Russia could have been more successful in its invasion of Ukraine had it not been for blunders committed by the country’s top generals.
The apparent move to decapitate Wagner signalled Putin’s intention to shore up the position of Russia’s armed forces and the return to favour of uniformed generals over the mercenary group’s leaders and officials close to them, western officials told the FT on Thursday.
While cautioning that details of the operation and its fallout were still unclear, the officials privately suggested that it would severely weaken Wagner’s influence inside Russia, but not significantly affect its activities in foreign countries where it remained an important aspect of Kremlin power.
Tighter Kremlin control over the group could also allow Putin to bring its non-military operations, such as lucrative natural resource supply contracts in African countries, closer to the state budget, one of the officials added.
“It shows Putin’s focus on revenge,” said one of the officials.
Many expected some retribution for Prigozhin’s mutiny attempt in June and doubted that the deal the warlord struck with the Kremlin — which would have seen Wagner and its leader relocate quietly to Belarus — would be the end of the story.
“Prigozhin was a nuisance to too many people. The number of enemies reached a critical point,” Sergei Mironov, an outspoken, pro-war leader of a Kremlin-controlled opposition party, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
Malofeyev suggested the warlord’s death “was planned to create domestic political consequences” after Putin promised to leave Wagner alone.
“The president gave his word that nothing would happen to the mutineers, and it did. Whoever did this wanted to embarrass and provoke Putin,” he said.
The Ukraine war had created so much turmoil in Russia’s governing and security apparatus that Prigozhin’s rivals could have credibly had him killed without a direct order from Putin, according to a person familiar with the warlord’s operations.
Military figures keen to avenge the servicemen killed by Wagner during their mutiny “decided it was worth the risk”, the person said. “Now they’re just going to explain to Putin after the fact why it happened.”
Prigozhin’s private jet, an Embraer Legacy that he had recently used to travel between Moscow, Belarus, his hometown of St Petersburg, and to parts of Africa where Wagner operates, crashed in the Tver region north-west of Moscow.
“The assassination of Prigozhin will have disastrous consequences. The people who gave the order do not understand the mood in the army and morale at all,” said Roman Saponkov, a Russian war-blogger and invasion cheerleader who is also considered close to the Wagner group.
Another anonymous Telegram channel, known to be run by a former Wagner staffer, also mourned the death of extremist Dmitri Utkin, a founder of the Wagner militia whose name was on the passenger list alongside Prigozhin.
“Alas, betrayal . . . led Dmitri Utkin to his grave,” the authors wrote. “The legendary fighter and commander died not on the battlefield, but from a cowardly blow in the back.”