The US believes Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin was “likely” killed in a plane crash outside Moscow on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Thursday.
“I’m not going to go into the specifics of how we gather information other than again, our initial assessment, based on a variety of factors, is that he was likely killed,” Ryder said.
Ryder also said that the Pentagon “doesn’t have any information to indicate right now” that the plane Prigozhin was on was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
Earlier Thursday four US officials told CNN there was no indications the plane was downed by a missile.
The US intelligence community is still in the early stages of assessing the cause of the crash. Officials cautioned that it’s too early to draw any conclusions, but a number of possibilities are being evaluated, including an on-board explosion causing the crash.
Another source familiar with the western intelligence echoed the US officials, saying there was no indication a missile was launched.
Officials said the US had not seen any information to indicate that the Embraer Legacy 600 aircraft was struck by either a surface-to-air missile, which would be launched from a Russian aerial defense system, or an air-to-air missile from a Russian fighter jet.
People familiar with the intelligence do believe that the downing of the plane was deliberate and that the goal was to kill Prigozhin. How soon Russian President Vladimir Putin might try to kill the Wagner chief was hotly debated in the days and weeks following the June 24 rebellion, more a question of when than if.
“I don’t know for a fact what happened but I’m not surprised,” President Joe Biden told reporters on Wednesday.
“Not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind,” he added.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said Wednesday they had initiated a criminal case following the crash. Prigozhin was listed as one of eight people on the flight’s passenger manifest, according to Russian state media.
The crash of the private jet occurred about 30 minutes into the flight. According to flight tracking data from FlightRadar24, the jet had leveled off at approximately 28,000 feet when it suddenly began making erratic climbs and descents. At 6:19 p.m. local time, data showed the descent rate of the plane neared 8,000 feet per minute before the transmission of altitude data stopped, an extremely fast descent that is well outside of normal parameters for an aircraft.
The flight originated from a Moscow airport and was headed in the direction of St. Petersburg when it crashed just south of the city of Tver on Wednesday afternoon.
On Thursday, Putin expressed his “sincere condolences to the families of all the victims” of the crash. He said had known Prigozhin since the early 90s and that he was a “talented businessman.”
“He was a man of difficult fate, and he made serious mistakes in life,” Putin said during a meeting with the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in the Kremlin. “He achieved the results needed both for himself and when I asked him about it - for a common cause, as in these last months.”
Top Biden administration officials had publicly warned that Prigozhin could be killed by the Kremlin after he led an armed and open - though very short-lived - rebellion against Putin in late-June.
CIA Director Bill Burns and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had suggested that Prigozhin should watch his back.
“In my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback. So I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this. So in that sense, the president’s right. If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster,” Burns 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,” Blinken also said in July.
Some US officials were not altogether surprised when the news broke on Russian state media about the plane crash. The officials did not say that US had confirmation that Prigozhin was on the plane.
“We all saw him as a dead man walking,” said one US official.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Pete Muntean and Haley Britzky contributed reporting.