The Kremlin on Friday rejected allegations that it played a role in a private plane crash outside Moscow Wednesday that presumably killed Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin was on the private plane’s list of seven passengers and three crew. The plane was en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg, according to Russian news agency TASS.
On Thursday Russian President Vladimir Putin offered condolences to the families of those who died, singling out Prigozhin in his remarks, calling him a talented businessman who “had a difficult fate, he made serious mistakes in his life.”
A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that the plane was downed by an intentional explosion. One official said the assessment determined that Prigozhin was “very likely” targeted and that the explosion is in line with Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov rejected that assessment.
“Right now, of course, there are lots of speculations around this plane crash and the tragic deaths of the passengers of the plane, including Yevgeny Prigozhin,” Peskov told reporters during a conference call. “Of course, in the West those speculations are put out under a certain angle, and all of it is a complete lie.”
Peskov referenced Putin’s remarks when asked if the Kremlin had official confirmation of Prigozhin’s death.
“[Putin] said that right now all the necessary forensic analyses, including genetic testing, will be carried out. Once some kind of official conclusions are ready to be released, they will be released,” said Peskov.
Prigozhin was last seen publicly in a video posted Monday in which he claimed to be in Africa.
It was the first video from Prigozhin since July, when he posted a nighttime video appearing to welcome his fighters to Belarus. That was following Wagner’s brief uprising against Russian military brass, which began on Friday, June 23 when Prigozhin marched his columns of mercenaries into the Russian city of Rostov near Ukraine’s front lines. Prigozhin said his fighters “blockaded” the town “without firing a single shot.”
It ended the next day, after a deal was struck by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which stipulated that Prigozhin’s mercenaries would receive immunity, and that charges brought against Prigozhin himself would be dropped once he turned his columns away from their subsequent march toward Moscow. Before turning back, some 8,000 of Prigozhin’s mercenaries had come within 125 kilometers of the capital city.
Prigozhin, a hot dog vendor at one time, rose to power as “Putin’s Chef” for his close ties to the Russian President and his role as a caterer to the Kremlin. In 2014 he founded Wagner and deployed his mercenaries in support of Moscow’s allies in countries such as Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic. The U.S. has sanctioned the mercenary organization and accused it of atrocities, which Prigozhin denied.
Peskov was also asked by reporters about the future of Wagner, to which he replied, “I can’t tell you anything—I don’t know.”