The Pentagon says reports that a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane were inaccurate.
A preliminary assessment by US intelligence services concluded that an intentional explosion caused the plane crash that allegedly killed Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, on Wednesday.
One of the US officials describing the initial assessment said it determined that Prigozhin was “most likely” the target and that the blast is in line with Vladimir Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics.”
Even as Putin praised the mercenary leader as a “talented man” on Thursday, suspicions were growing that Putin was behind Prigozhin’s death.
The officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, offered no details about the cause of the explosion, widely believed to be revenge for the June riot that posed the biggest challenge to the 23-year-old. government of the Russian leader.
Several of Prigozhin’s lieutenants were also presumed dead.
Pentagon spokesman General Pat Ryder declared that reports in the press that the plane had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile were inaccurate. He did not want to specify if the United States suspected a bomb or believed it was a murder.
Details of the intelligence assessment came to light as Putin expressed condolences to the families of those aboard the plane and referred to the “serious mistakes” made by Prigozhin.
It was not clear why several high-ranking members of Wagner, including top officials who are normally extremely careful about their safety, were on the same flight. The reason for their joint trip to St. Petersburg was unknown.
Putin was likely behind the accident, according to Biden
US President Joe Biden told reporters on Wednesday that he believed Putin was behind the crash, though he acknowledged that he had no confirming information.
“I don’t know for sure what happened, but I’m not surprised,” Biden said. “There aren’t many things that happen in Russia that Putin isn’t behind,” she continued.
Prigozhin’s supporters claimed on channels of the pro-Wagner messaging app that the plane was deliberately shot down.
Russian state media have not extensively covered the accident, focusing instead on Putin’s remarks at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg via video link and on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Several Russian social media channels reported that the corpses were burned or disfigured beyond recognition and would have to be identified by DNA. The information was collected by independent Russian media, but The Associated Press could not independently confirm it.
The Russian authorities have stated that the cause of the accident is being investigated.
Zelenskyy: “Everyone understands who does this”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also pointed a finger at the Kremlin, stating that “we have nothing to do with this. Everyone understands who does it.”
Numerous Putin opponents and critics have been killed or severely poisoned in apparent assassination attempts, and US and other Western officials have long expected the Russian leader to go after Prigozhin, despite vowing to drop the charges in the deal that put an end to the riot of June 23 and 24.
“It is no coincidence that the whole world immediately looks to the Kremlin when a disgraced former Putin confidante suddenly falls from the sky, two months after having attempted an uprising,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said, although she acknowledged that the facts were still unclear.
“We know this pattern (…) in Putin’s Russia: dubious deaths and suicides, falls from windows that in the end are all left unexplained,” he added.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter turned political consultant, claimed that by carrying out the mutiny and remaining free, Prigozhin “dunk Putin’s face in the dirt in front of the whole world.”
Failing to punish Prigozhin would have offered an “open invitation to all potential rebels and rioters”, so Putin had to act, Gallyamov added.
The Institute for the Study of War argued that the Russian authorities probably acted against Prigozhin and his main associates as “the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organization”.