Wagner mercenaries were on Thursday reported to be trying to head back into Russia after threatening retaliation over the suspected killing of their leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash on the orders of Vladimir Putin.
Reports from Ukraine’s national resistance centre said sources in Belarus, where some of Prigozhin’s fighters have been based, had seen mercenaries dismantling camps and forming convoys to leave the country.
“The convoys are likely heading towards the border with Russia,” the centre said.
The report followed the posting online of a threatening message by a masked man claiming to be a Wagner fighter.
“There’s a lot talk right now about what the Wagner Group will do,” he said. “We can tell you one thing. We are getting started, get ready for us.”
At the same time, a Russian news site with links to Prigozhin — who staged a mutiny against President Vladimir Putin in June over the Kremlin’s faltering war effort in Ukraine — claimed that the Wagner Group had “a long-established approved mechanism of action in the event of the death of Prigozhin” or his key ally Dmitry Utkin, who is also believed to have died in yesterday’s plane crash.
The reports came as mystery continued to surround the cause of the crash, 190 miles north west of Moscow, which appears to have killed Prigozhin and other Wagner leaders.
US President Joe Biden has said that there is little that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind and former MI6 boss Sir John Sawers today said it appeared that the Russian leader had ordered the strike.
“All the indications point to the fact that Putin has taken him out… he is making clear to everyone both inside Russia and outside that he’s not going to brook any challenge,” Sir John said. “I would have thought there was some device on board that brought the plane down suddenly and killed all those on board. It was a way of taking out the entire Wagner leadership in one go.”
Other reports have suggested that two surface to air missiles might have been used to bring the plane down. BBC Monitoring’s Russia editor Vitaly Shevkenko said he had “seen a number of video clips filmed by eyewitnesses who said they had heard two explosions and they drew the conclusion that the aircraft had been shot out of the sky.”
Ministry of Defence sources were today cited as believing that Russia’s FSB security service was most likely to be behind Prigozhin’s death.
It also emerged today that there was a delay before the plane took off.
Flight attendant Kristina Raspopova, 39, told her relatives of the unexplained hold-up, indicating that the aircraft was being “repaired” before the flight, according to VChK-OGPU Telegram channel. Her last picture showed her waiting at an airport café and a relative of Ms Raspopova told the channel: “She said that she was in Moscow, she was going to fly out, today or tomorrow. The aircraft was under maintenance or some urgent repairs. They were waiting for the flight. Some kind of maintenance, well nothing special. It seemed like she had been there for a while. That is at least a couple of days…”
There has been no comment from the Kremlin on the plane crash and Mr Putin, who promised at the time of the Wagner uprising in June to punish the “traitors” involved, declined to mention it today during a video address from Russia to a meeting of the Brics group of nations in South Africa. The crash received only a brief mention on the main Russian TV news bulletin. The charred remains of the plane’s seven passengers and three crew, including Raspopova, were driven away from the crash site early this morning. They were being taken for examination at a morgue in regional capital Tver.
Prigozhin’s smartphone was reportedly found at the crash site where Russian officials said his body had been identified ahead of forensic and DNA tests. There has been no confirmation that Prigozhin was among the dead, but his name was on the passenger list and his group’s Telegram site has declared that he is dead. A video has emerged of Prigozhin — whose troops have killed traitors on camera with sledgehammers — saying that he would “go to Hell”.
In the video, Wagner commander Utkin muses: “Death is not the end, it’s just the beginning of something else. Prigozhin tells him: “Yes, we’ll all go to Hell, but in Hell we’ll be the best.”
A 2018 video clip of Putin was widely played on Russian social media after the crash amid the theory that Putin had ordered Prigozhin’s killing for over the coup attempt. In the clip, Putin was asked: “Can you forgive?” He replied: “Yes, but not everything.”
When asked “What is impossible to forgive?”, Putin said: “Betrayal.” The president’s former spokesman, Sergei Markov, claimed on the BBC today — without providing any evidence — that Ukraine had been behind the crash.
The claim was rubbished by Sir John Sawers, who said that Kyiv did not have the capability to mount such an attack. Justin Crump, the chief executive of the intelligence consultancy Sibylline, said the overwhelming likelihood was that Prigozhin had been killed by the Russian leadership in revenge for his mutiny. He said the Kremlin might try to blame the West to “deflect the blame, whilst very clearly sending the message don’t try and move against us”.