The White House said Monday that it is “increasingly confident” that Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner Group’s mercenary leader, died in a recent Russian plane crash.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about progress in determining the cause of the crash involving “Prigozhin’s plane.”
“We are increasingly confident that Prigozhin died in the plane crash that took place on Aug. 23, this past Wednesday,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “I don’t have any new assessment.”
On Sunday, the Russian Investigative Committee confirmed the identities of all 10 crash victims, including Mr. Prigozhin, using genetic testing from the crash site.
“As part of the investigation of the plane crash in the Tver region, molecular genetic examinations have been completed. Based on their results, the identities of all ten dead have been established, they correspond to the list stated in the flight sheet,” the statement from Russian Investigative Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenk said, according to a translation.
However, the committee did not disclose the crash’s cause, which happened between Moscow and Prigozhin’s hometown, St. Petersburg.
The timing of the crash aroused suspicions of a potential orchestrated action by the Kremlin. Given Mr. Prigozhin’s history, there were speculations that he might not have been aboard the plane or could have managed to evade the fatal outcome.
Earlier statements from Russian authorities indicated that the passengers included Mr. Prigozhin and another high-ranking figure in Wagner, Dmitriy Utkin. Additionally, three individuals from the flight crew lost their lives in the incident.
The crash followed Mr. Prigozhin’s leadership in a mutiny against Russia’s military, leading Wagner forces from Ukraine toward Moscow. The Kremlin unexpectedly made a deal with him, allowing him to avoid charges and settle in Belarus. Questions linger about his accountability for the challenge to Mr. Putin’s 23-year rule.
At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the mutiny as an act of “treason” and pledged to take action against those responsible.
Following the plane crash, Mr. Putin extended his condolences to the families of the victims. He acknowledged Mr. Prigozhin’s “significant contribution” to Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine.
“He was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life,” Mr. Putin said.
An initial assessment reportedly by U.S. intelligence, based on anonymous sources, determined that the plane’s deliberate destruction was the likely cause of the crash. This finding further fueled suspicions that Mr. Putin might have been the primary instigator.
On Aug. 24, Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said that intelligence indicated Mr. Prigozhin was on the plane that crashed. Yet, he emphasized that the United States would refrain from commenting on the crash’s cause or whether the Kremlin was involved in any assassination of the Wagner chief.
“First of all, our initial assessment is that it’s likely Prigozhin was killed,” Mr. Ryder told reporters in a press briefing. “We don’t have any information to indicate, right now, the press reporting, stating that there was some type of surface-to-air missile that took down the plane. But, we assess that information to be inaccurate.”
People living in the Tver region reported hearing an airborne explosion before the plane fell from the sky. Telegram channels linked to the Wagner Group have suggested that Russian security forces might have launched surface-to-air missiles at the aircraft. However, U.S. military authorities have recently downplayed these assertions in their statements.
According to some military analysts, Wagner’s actions resulted in what is seen as Russia’s sole military success this year—the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, despite significant casualties on both sides.
However, amid the intense fighting, Mr. Prigozhin diverged from the norm by openly criticizing Russia’s leadership, specifically singling out Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. These critiques centered on perceived shortcomings in the management of the war effort and preceded his initiation of the mutiny in June.
Jack Phillips and The Associated Press contributed to this report.