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Putin breaks silence amid rumours of involvement in Wagner boss assassination

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Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin (R) points out as he shows Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg on September 20, 2010. — AFP
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin (R) points out as he shows Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg on September 20, 2010. — AFP

As private military company Wagner chief Yevgeny Prighozin’s plane crash, which the mercenary attributed to Vladimir Putin, the Russian President spoke for the first time Thursday since the death of the billionaire, offering condolences to the families of those killed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for the first time since the death of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prighozin, offering condolences to the families of those killed in the plane crash carrying the billionaire and nine others.

In his televised address on Thursday, Vladimir Putin termed the crash as a tragedy, a day after the Wagner Group boss was confirmed dead along with nine others after his Embraer aircraft crashed in the Tver region, north of Moscow. It was headed to St. Petersburg from Moscow.

“I knew Prigozhin for a very long time, since the early 90s. He was a man of complicated fate, and he made serious mistakes in his life, but he achieved the right results,” Putin said.

The crash took place two months after Prigozhin led a mutiny against the top leadership of Moscow, challenging 70-year-old Putin’s long authority. It failed a day later. 

Russia’s third-time President also said the Wagner boss had made a “significant contribution” to Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.

In this photograph, Russias President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the head of the Kherson region of Ukraine, in Moscow, on August 24, 2023. — AFP
In this photograph, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the head of the Kherson region of Ukraine, in Moscow, on August 24, 2023. — AFP

They had shared a common cause, Putin said, adding: “We remember that, we know that, and we will not forget that.”

In an address to citizens during the rebellion on June 23-24, Putin had called Prigozhin a “traitor”.

Authorities in Russia initiated an investigation into the matter however, there are widespread speculations about assassination.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky clarified his country’s position saying Kyiv had nothing to do with it. “I think everyone knows who this concerns,” he added, indicating to Putin.

US doubts Russia’s Putin

Western leaders expressed doubts that the crash had been an accident as US President Joe Biden was of the view that “there’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.” 

France saw “reasonable doubts” about the crash, while Germany said it followed a pattern of “unclarified” fatalities in Russia.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock appeared to say it was suspicious that “a disgraced former confidant of Putin suddenly, literally falls from the sky two months after he attempted a mutiny”.

This grab on May 20, 2023, shows Yevgeny Prigozhin standing in front of a Russian national flag in front of his soldiers holding Wagner Groups flags in Bakhmut. — AFP
This grab on May 20, 2023, shows Yevgeny Prigozhin standing in front of a Russian national flag in front of his soldiers holding Wagner Group’s flags in Bakhmut. — AFP

Russia’s aviation authority published the names of those on board the Embraer private jet late Wednesday.

It included Prigozhin and his right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin, a shadowy figure who managed Wagner’s operations and allegedly served in Russian military intelligence.

Business as usual after Wagner mutiny

Wagner offices were still operating and even recruiting in Russia after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion, which saw his men take over a military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and march on Moscow.

In Siberia, a region from where Wagner recruited heavily, people also laid flowers at the mercenary company’s office in Novosibirsk.

But in Ukraine, where Wagner fighters were known for their exceptional brutality —including extrajudicial killings of their own men — many welcomed the news of Prigozhin’s death.

Prigozhin recruited tens of thousands of Russian convicts to fight in Ukraine, often thrown into the front line.

A member of Wagner pays tribute to Yevgeny Prigozhin (L) and Dmitry Utkin at the makeshift memorial in front of the Wagner office in Novosibirsk, on August 24, 2023. — AFP
A member of Wagner pays tribute to Yevgeny Prigozhin (L) and Dmitry Utkin at the makeshift memorial in front of the Wagner office in Novosibirsk, on August 24, 2023. — AFP

Wagner’s future without — including its involvement in Africa — remained unclear.

The future had been uncertain since a deal with Belarus that ended Wagner’s brief rebellion.

Under that deal, the Kremlin “guaranteed” that Prigozhin would be allowed to live in Belarus — Russia’s neighbour and a Kremlin ally.

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