The Kremlin Denies Blame for Presumed Death of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin
Denials Ring Hollow Amidst Kremlin’s History of Denial and Accusations
The Kremlin vehemently denied accusations on Friday that it was responsible for the presumed death of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the chief of the mercenary group Wagner. The Russian government dismissed claims that they had destroyed a business jet carrying Mr. Prigozhin as Western propaganda aimed at tarnishing President Vladimir V. Putin’s reputation.
“An absolute lie,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman.
Throughout the day, the denials were repeated in various forms by Russia’s foreign minister, state-controlled broadcasters, and President Lukashenko of Belarus, Putin’s closest foreign ally. However, considering the Kremlin’s track record of denial and later admission, many people in and outside of Russia find these denials to be unconvincing.
Some European leaders, Western news outlets, and associates of Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner paramilitary force have speculated that Mr. Putin had him killed in retaliation for his brief rebellion against Russia’s military leadership in June. While U.S. officials have been more cautious in assigning blame, President Biden noted that Putin is typically involved in most occurrences within Russia.
Dmitri S. Peskov rejected suggestions about the cause of the plane crash, dismissing them as mere Western speculation. However, many Russians and individuals abroad expressed surprise that Mr. Prigozhin was alive and free in the two months following the Wagner rebellion.
While the Russian government has not confirmed the identities of those killed in the plane crash, they acknowledged that Mr. Prigozhin and Wagner’s top field commander, Dmitri Utkin, were listed on the jet’s manifest. They also confirmed the recovery of 10 bodies with no survivors. Mr. Putin referred to Mr. Prigozhin in the past tense, referring to him as “a person with a complicated fate.”
Western officials, including those from the U.S., have grown increasingly confident that Mr. Prigozhin is dead. They cite evidence suggesting an explosion on the plane caused it to crash northwest of Moscow. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Mr. Peskov advised waiting for the results of Russia’s official inquiry into the incident.
Throughout Russian state television, there has been less focus on the cause of the plane crash and more emphasis on Western media reports regarding it. Talk show hosts and media personalities have suggested Western involvement in Mr. Prigozhin’s death.
Western media outlets, according to Sergei Markov, former Kremlin adviser, “cannot rationally explain why Putin should remove Prigozhin, who posed no political threat at this point.” Western analysts have noted that Mr. Putin appeared weaker by not severely punishing Mr. Prigozhin within an autocratic system that relies on fear and force. The denial and accusations trend is reminiscent of Russia’s previous denials and subsequent admissions in various incidents.
In 2014, when Russian troops took control of Crimea, Mr. Putin and his proxies initially denied Russian involvement but later admitted it. Similarly, in the eastern Donbas region, the Kremlin denied any connection to pro-Moscow forces before evidence showed Russia’s instigation and support of the rebellion. Denials were also made regarding the Wagner group’s existence and any ties to Mr. Prigozhin, but both were later confirmed.
As tensions escalated with Ukraine, Mr. Putin denied plans for war but later invaded and accused Ukraine of being the aggressor. The targeting of Ukrainian civilians has been denied while baseless claims about genocide and American involvement in Ukrainian affairs were propagated.
Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny in June against the Russian military leadership led to a struggle for power. While Mr. Prigozhin mounted the rebellion to topple the military leadership, many believed it was a direct challenge to Mr. Putin. Ultimately, the government absorbed the mercenary forces into the Ministry of Defense, erasing any autonomy Wagner had. Mr. Prigozhin continued to publicly complain about the military’s corruption and his loss of influence.
President Lukashenko of Belarus offered to relocate Mr. Prigozhin and his fighters to resolve the uprising, but some reports indicate Mr. Prigozhin remained in Russia and Africa. As of Friday, Lukashenko stated that he was not responsible for guaranteeing Mr. Prigozhin’s security
Reporting contributed by Victoria Kim, Shashank Bengali, and Anton Troianovski.