Numerous reports on Wednesday, first from Russian state-controlled media and social media, followed by Western media, claimed that Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner and leader of the private mercenary organization known as the Wagner Group, was killed in a plane crash.
The U.S. Pentagon seemed to confirm the belief that Prigozhin was dead but also appeared to dismiss claims that Prigozhin's private jet was shot down by a missile, Fox News reported.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is accused of assassinating Prigozhin in retaliation for an aborted uprising by Wagner forces in June, issued public comments on condolences about those killed in the plane crash and seemed to speak about Prigozhin, who was once a close ally, in the past tense.
During a Pentagon briefing on Thursday, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder did not initially raise the topic of Prigozhin's alleged death in a crash that reportedly involved his private jet on a flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg, but nonetheless responded to numerous questions on the matter.
"I'll say right up front, first of all, our initial assessment is that it's likely Prighozin was killed. We're continuing to assess the situation," Ryder said. "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 that -- we assess that information to be inaccurate. Again, nothing to indicate -- no information to suggest that there was a surface-to-air missile. But beyond that, I'm really just not going to have any further information."
In several follow-up questions, the general largely declined to provide any additional information, though he did speak a little bit about the now reportedly leaderless Wagner Group and how it was generally no longer an effective combat participant in Ukraine but still posed a potential threat elsewhere, such as in Africa, and would continue to be monitored by U.S. intelligence.
That said, while the Pentagon seemed to publicly rule out the possibility that Prigozhin's private jet was downed by an anti-aircraft missile, The New York Times reported that U.S. and other Western intelligence officials have confirmed off the record that an explosion did occur on the flight shortly after takeoff.
That would seem to indicate the possibility of a bomb placed on board or some other act of sabotage, given that typical mechanical failures don't appear to be the reason why the aircraft exploded in mid-air and then dropped almost straight down to crash in an empty field.
Of course, the possibility of an onboard bomb would seemingly point to a deliberate effort to assassinate Prigozhin, along with several other top Wagner Group leaders who were reportedly on the plane with him, all of whom are now reported to be dead along with the craft's three crew members.
The Associated Press similarly reported that anonymous U.S. officials have said that the explosion that brought down Prigozhin's private jet appeared to have been intentional, again pointing to the possibility of a Putin-ordered assassination -- something the Russian leader has a long history of doing to political opponents and outspoken critics.
That said, there has not yet been any official confirmation that Prigozhin is actually dead or was even on the plane that went down, despite his name being on the passenger list, as the reportedly recovered bodies have not been identified or independently verified.
Even still, the AP noted that Putin addressed the situation in televised remarks and said that Prigozhin, whom he has known since the 1990s, was "a man of difficult fate" who "made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results he needed -- both for himself and, when I asked him about it, for the common cause, as in these last months. He was a talented man, a talented businessman."
President Joe Biden was asked on Wednesday about the reported death of Prigozhin and referenced earlier remarks he had made that warned of possible retaliation by Putin, and reminded reporters, "I said I’d be careful what I drink and what I rode in. And I -- I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I am not surprised."
Asked if he believed that Putin was directly responsible for Prigozhin's reported death, Biden replied, "There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind, but I don’t know enough to know the answer."