Putin breaks silence over Prigozhin death, paying tribute to 'flawed character'

Russian President's comments come as country deals with fallout from private jet explosion

Vladimir Putin breaks silence over Wagner plane crash

Vladimir Putin breaks silence over Wagner plane crash
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President Vladimir Putin issued condolences to the family of Yevgeny Prigozhin on Thursday as Russia dealt with the fallout from the mid-air private jet explosion that killed the Wagner Group boss less than 24 hours earlier.

Mr Putin said his former chef was a talented businessman and urged all to await the outcome of the official investigation into the crash, in which all 10 people on board were killed.

"I want to express my most sincere condolences to the families of all the victims. It's always a tragedy," Mr Putin said in televised remarks.

"I had known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the start of the '90s. He was a man with a difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life."

Mr Putin was speaking during a meeting in the Kremlin with the Moscow-installed chief of the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.

Earlier in the day, as Ukraine marked its 32nd independence day, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied involvement in the explosion that took down the jet carrying Mr Prigozhin, 62.

“We have nothing to do with this situation, that's for sure,” Mr Zelenskyy said during a press conference.

“I think everyone knows who this concerns.”

At the crash site on Thursday morning, forensic teams carried away black body bags on stretchers.

Part of the plane's tail and other fragments lay on the ground near a wooded area where investigators had erected a tent.

The Baza news outlet reported that investigators were focusing on a theory that one or two bombs may have been planted on board.

Russian media also reported sources saying they believed the plane had been shot down by one or more surface-to-air missiles.

Wagner chief Prigozhin presumed dead in plane crash – in pictures

The crash occurred about 300km from Moscow after two months in which the main talking point among the Russian elite was why Mr Putin had failed to immediately punish Mr Prigozhin, who led a June rebellion that was denounced as treason.

“Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold,” CIA director Bill Burns told an annual security forum in Aspen last month. “In my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback.”

The news of the crash was first released by Russia's aviation agency Rosaviatsiya, which said Mr Prigozhin was on board the plane.

“According to the airline, the following passengers were on board the Embraer aircraft … Prigozhin, Yevgeny,” it said.

A who's who of Wagner mercenaries was on the flight, including its second-in-command, Dmitry Utkin, who was responsible for naming the group.

Others included the logistics chief, a fighter wounded by US air strikes in Syria and at least one possible bodyguard.

Many believed the Wagner chief was a marked man after his short-lived uprising in June against the Russian military.

For company leaders who had all been called out by the Kremlin as traitors to travel together on a single flight appeared to be an extraordinary breach of security. The purpose of the trip was unknown.

“The decision to put so many senior-level people on one plane was a poor decision, as key figures should always fly separately,” said Lou Osborn, an analyst at All Eyes on Wagner, an open-source research group.

“Prigozhin was feeling overconfident. He might have genuinely been made to feel like he was pardoned.”

Mr Prigozhin's brief revolt saw his mercenaries sweep through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and capture the military headquarters there without firing a shot.

They then drove to within about 200km of Moscow and shot down several military aircraft, killing more than a dozen Russian pilots.

The plane crash also came the same week that Russian media reported that Gen Sergey Surovikin, a former top commander in Ukraine who was reportedly linked to Mr Prigozhin, had been dismissed from his post as commander of Russia’s air force.

Mr Prigozhin was long outspoken and critical of how Russian generals were waging the war in Ukraine, where his mercenaries were some of the fiercest fighters for the Kremlin.

For a long time, Mr Putin appeared content to allow such infighting – and Mr Prigozhin seemed to have unusual latitude to speak his mind.

His forces fought some of the bloodiest battles over the past 18 months, but pulled back from the front line after capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut in one of the few battlefield successes that Russia's “special military operation” could claim.

After the rebellion, Russian officials said Wagner fighters would only be able to return to Ukraine as part of the regular army and most of the fighters ended up in neighbouring Belarus under a deal that the Kremlin appeared to accept.

Updated: August 25, 2023, 1:42 AM