Russia Denies Killing Prigozhin, Calling the Idea Anti-Putin Propaganda

The Kremlin on Friday heatedly denied blame for the presumed death of the mercenary chief Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, dismissing the idea that the Russian government had destroyed a business jet reportedly carrying Mr. Prigozhin as Western propaganda aimed at smearing President Vladimir V. Putin.

“An absolute lie,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman.

The denials were repeated in various forms throughout the day by Russia’s foreign minister, state-controlled broadcasters and Mr. Putin’s closest foreign ally, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, president of Belarus. But they were bound to ring hollow to many people inside and outside Russia who know the Kremlin’s record of denying — or accusing others of — actions it later admitted to or was shown to have carried out.

Some European leaders, many Western news outlets and people close to Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner paramilitary force have speculated that Mr. Putin had Mr. Prigozhin killed in retaliation for his brief mutiny against Russia’s military leadership in June. U.S. officials so far have been more cautious about assigning blame, but President Biden said on Thursday: “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind. But I don’t know enough to know the answer.”

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Mr. Peskov rejected suggestions about the cause of the plane crash, on Wednesday northwest of Moscow, as mere Western speculation. But in the two months after the Wagner rebellion, many Russians as well as people abroad expressed surprise that Mr. Prigozhin was alive and free.

The Russian government has not confirmed the identities of those killed on Wednesday, but it has said that Mr. Prigozhin and Wagner’s top field commander, Dmitri Utkin, were among the 10 people listed on the jet’s manifest, that 10 bodies were recovered and that there were no survivors. Mr. Putin spoke of Mr. Prigozhin in the past tense on Thursday, saying, “This was a person with a complicated fate.”

U.S. and other Western officials have voiced growing confidence that Mr. Prigozhin is dead, and have said there is evidence that an explosion on the plane caused it to fall from the sky and crash northwest of Moscow.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, like Mr. Peskov, on Friday advised waiting for the results of Russia’s official inquiry into the incident. Investigators said they were analyzing the victims’ DNA for identification and that they had recovered the plane’s flight data recorders.

“I would suggest focusing on the facts and not what is being said by the Western media,” Mr. Lavrov told Russian state media.

Mr. Lukashenko, who relies heavily on political and economic support from his Russian counterpart, said, “Knowing Putin, how scrupulous, cautious, accurate he is, I do not believe that he would do this,” according to the Belarusian state news agency Belta.

But Mr. Lukashenko, who acted as an intermediary to end the June mutiny, said at the time that in their conversations, Mr. Putin had raised the possibility of having the mercenary boss killed. He said he had warned Mr. Prigozhin that the Russian leader intended to “squash him like a bug.”

On Russian state television, cheerleaders for Mr. Putin and his war against Ukraine have devoted less attention to the cause of the plane crash than to Western media reports about it. Vladimir Solovyov, a leading talk show host, suggested that Western countries were involved in the death of Mr. Prigozhin, “one way or another.”

As he spoke, images of the front pages of British tabloids flashed on the screen behind him, with headlines accusing Mr. Putin. Western media and their “agents,” Mr. Solovyov said, are “pushing an agenda that’s convenient for the West.”

Olga Skabeyeva, the host of another prominent show, similarly displayed a parade of British, French and Spanish newspapers on her talk show. “The plane crash with Prigozhin is on all the newspaper covers, though, for some reason, the headline on all of them is the same: ‘Putin’s Revenge,’” she said. “That’s how a free and democratic press looks. They don’t even alter the words — that’s how strict their training manual is.”

Western media outlets, wrote Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, “cannot rationally explain why Putin should remove Prigozhin, who by this point posed no political threat. That’s why they explain this as Putin’s irrational hatred of any enemies.”

In fact, many Western analysts have said that in an autocratic system ruled by fear and force, Mr. Putin looked weaker for not severely punishing Mr. Prigozhin. Mr. Putin himself has said that the one transgression he could not forgive was betrayal.

The Kremlin has denied links to assassinations and attempted assassinations of several other Putin enemies that Western governments have concluded were the work of Russian intelligence agencies. Russian media have trumpeted those denials — sometimes with pointed remarks about the misfortune that can befall “traitors” — while floating, without evidence, an array of theories about others being responsible.

In 2014, when Russian troops infiltrated and then seized the Ukrainian region of Crimea, Mr. Putin and his proxies at first insisted that Russian forces were not there, and then admitted it. Shortly after, pro-Moscow forces seized control of parts of the eastern Donbas region, starting a civil war; the Kremlin said they were just local separatists and denied any connection, but evidence soon emerged that Russia was instigating, arming and, to some extent, carrying out the rebellion.

For years the government denied the existence of the Wagner group and Mr. Prigozhin denied any ties to it, before both reversed their stories. They also denied a Russian disinformation campaign to influence American elections, until Mr. Prigozhin admitted to that, too.

And as Mr. Putin built up Russian forces on Ukraine’s border in 2021 and early 2022, he and others insisted there was no plan to go to war. Then he invaded, accused Ukraine of being the aggressor and claimed that the government in Kyiv — headed by a democratically elected, Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky — was run by Nazis.

In justifying the war, prominent Russians have made baseless claims about genocide against ethnic Russians, and about American missiles and bioweapons labs on Ukrainian soil, while denying the targeting of Ukrainian civilians.

Wagner, known for its brutality and effectiveness, had helped prop up Kremlin-aligned authoritarian governments in Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, and then spearheaded Russia’s long, ultimately successful battle to capture the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

But for months, Mr. Prigozhin complained to his large social media following that the Ministry of Defense and the military establishment were corrupt, inept and treacherously undercutting the war effort. He said the military leaders, jealous of his prominence and Wagner’s success, had withheld needed gear from the mercenary force.

Then came the government’s move to absorb mercenary forces into the Ministry of Defense, eliminating what independence Wagner had. Mr. Prigozhin protested, but Mr. Putin sided with the ministry.

The warlord stepped up his public complaints, unwilling to accept that he had lost the political power struggle, and edged dangerously close to criticizing Mr. Putin, himself. He even publicly rebutted the president’s rationale for war — which Russia has treated in other cases as a criminal offense — saying that Ukraine had posed no threat and was not controlled by fascists.

With time running out for Wagner fighters to either disband or sign on with the military, Mr. Prigozhin in late June mounted his mutiny, which he said was intended to topple the military leadership, not Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin on Friday signed a decree requiring paramilitary fighters to swear an oath of loyalty to the nation, a step toward bringing them under Kremlin control.

To resolve the uprising two months ago without open warfare, Mr. Lukashenko offered to let Mr. Prigozhin and his fighters relocate to Belarus. Some of them apparently did go there, but Mr. Prigozhin was repeatedly seen in St. Petersburg, in Moscow and in Africa.

Mr. Lukashenko said on Friday that he was not responsible for guaranteeing the Wagner leader’s security.

Reporting was contributed by Victoria Kim, Shashank Bengali and Anton Troianovski.

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