Vladimir Putin said publicly on Thursday that Yevgeny Prigozhin had died, the Kremlin’s first official reaction to the warlord’s apparent demise in a plane crash a day earlier.
The Russian president offered his condolences to the families of the 10 dead, citing “initial data” that Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group figures to have been on board.
But supporters of Prigozhin, who was listed among the passengers of the private jet that crashed northwest of Moscow on Wednesday, accused “traitors” of assassinating him in revenge for his mutiny in late June.
Putin said Wagner had “made a significant contribution to our common cause against Nazism in Ukraine” – a reference to Russia’s invasion of the neighboring country.
“I have known Prigozhin for a long time, since the early 1990s. He had a difficult path and made serious mistakes in his life. But when I asked him over the past few months, he got results for himself and for the common cause,” Putin added.
Prigozhin and his group have been accused of many brutal war crimes committed in Ukraine and parts of the Middle East and Africa. But the warlord is popular among some in Russia for his battlefield victories in Ukraine and his outspoken criticism of the military leadership.
Putin said Prigozhin was “successful not only in our country, but also in Africa, involved in oil, gas, precious stones and metals”. Prigogine “as far as I know only came back from Africa yesterday and met some officials here,” he said.
Investigators opened a criminal investigation into the crash on Thursday and the airline said it was searching the plane’s black box, with Putin noting that the results would “take time.”
Fellow hardliners called Prigozhin the leader of the “Victory Party,” which included ultranationalists, Chechen militias and shadowy security service figures who wanted Russia to take over Ukraine entirely.
“I am the only leader [of the ‘party of victory’] left,” Konstantin Malofeev, a nationalist president and patron of militants who fought alongside Wagner in Ukraine, told the Financial Times. “We want to fight for a successful outcome,” he said.
Wagner’s St. Petersburg headquarters was illuminated in the shape of a cross through the night and some masked fighters knelt in tears before portraits of Prigozhin in camouflage.
“The country has lost its hero and a great conductor,” a channel affiliated with Wagner wrote in Telegram. Another said Prigogine “would be great even in hell” and shared a clip of classical composer Richard Wagner. Ride of the Valkyries.
Many in the hardline group shared Prigozhin’s view that Russia would have been more successful in its invasion of Ukraine had it not been for the mistakes made by the country’s top generals.
Western officials told the FT on Thursday that the apparent move to behead Wagner signals Putin’s desire to raise the profile of Russia’s armed forces and return favor to uniformed generals over mercenary leaders and officers close to them.
While cautioning that the details of the operation and its outcome remain unclear, officials have privately suggested that it will weaken Wagner’s influence within Russia.
Tighter Kremlin control over the group would allow Putin to bring non-military activities, such as lucrative natural resource supply deals in African countries, closer to the state budget, the official added.
“It’s focused on Putin’s revenge,” one official said.
Many expected some retribution for Prigozhin’s attempted mutiny in June, and suspected that the warlord’s deal with the Kremlin — which would have seen Wagner and its leader quietly relocate to Belarus — would be the end of the story.
“Prygozhin was a nuisance to many. The number of enemies had reached a critical point,” wrote Sergei Mironov, an outspoken pro-war leader of the Kremlin-controlled opposition, in X.
Malofeyev suggested the fighter’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 rebels, and it happened. Whoever did this wanted to humiliate and provoke Putin,” he said.
The Ukraine war has caused so much turmoil in Russia’s governing and security apparatuses that Prigozhin’s rivals could have plausibly killed him without Putin’s direct orders, according to a person familiar with the warlord’s operations.
“It’s worth the risk,” the person said, as military officials seek revenge for soldiers killed by Wagner during their mutiny. “Now they’re going to explain to Putin why it happened.”
Prigozhin’s private jet, an Embraer Legacy, which he had recently used to travel between Moscow, Belarus, his hometown of St. Petersburg and parts of Africa where Wagner was active, crashed in the Tver area northwest of Moscow.
“The assassination of Prigozhin would have catastrophic consequences. Those who gave the order did not understand the mentality and morale of the army,” said Roman Sabonkov, a Russian war-recorder and invasion cheerleader considered close to the Wagner group.
Another anonymous Telegram channel run by a former Wagner employee mourned the death of extremist Dmitry Utkin, founder of the Wagner Militia, who was on the passenger list with Prigozhin.
“Oh, betrayal . . . took Dmitry Utkin to his grave,” the authors wrote. “The famous warrior and commander died not on the battlefield, but from a cowardly blow in the back.”