“We have seen the reports. If confirmed, no one should be surprised,” White House National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter, on Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, Russian state media reported that Prigozhin was listed among the passengers on board a private plane that crashed on its way from Moscow to St. Petersburg. It is not immediately clear if the Wagner leader actually boarded the aircraft.
“We’ve seen the reports but have nothing to offer at this time,” a Department of Defense spokesperson told Newsweek in a statement. “In the meantime, we’ll continue to monitor the situation.”
Prigozhin’s fate has been the subject of speculation since he launched a mutiny against Russia’s leadership in late June. The armed rebellion was short-lived and suddenly called off in a deal with the Kremlin that forced Prigozhin to Belarus and required his fighters to either sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry or join their leader in exile. However, it has been reported that the mercenary chief had been spotted in Russia.
Prigozhin had been a major figure in the war in Ukraine, fighting in key battle zones like Bakhmut. But he had also been an outspoken critic of Russia’s military and defense officials for the ways that the war effort was being managed.
Top Biden officials had publicly and repeatedly warned that the Wagner chief could be killed off for the mutiny. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July, “If I were Mr. Prigozhin, I would remain very concerned. NATO has an open-door policy. Russia has an open-windows policy, and he needs to be focused on that.”
CIA Director Bill Burns also echoed those warnings, saying, “Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback, so I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this.”
Russian emergency officials said eight bodies were found at the site of the crash, but there has been no confirmation of the victims’ identities. There were 10 people on board, including three crew members.
“According to the Federal Air Transport Agency, an investigation has been launched into the Embraer crash,” Russian state media RIA Novosti reported. “Among the passengers is the name and surname of Evgeny Prigozhin.”
Rajan Menon, a nonresident scholar in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program and director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities, said there will inevitably be speculation about whether the plane crashed or was shot down by Russian forces.
“That’s because in recent months, this man [Prigozhin], a creature of Putin’s political system, and someone who became fabulously wealthy, thanks to his ties to Putin and lucrative state contracts, had become morphed into something of a rebel,” Menon told Newsweek in a statement.
“We cannot know yet whether Prigozhin’s death will be a victory for Putin or whether speculation about the crash could lead to outcomes that do not work to Putin’s advantage,” Menon said.
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