Grenade fragments found in bodies of Wagner crash victims, Putin says

Hand grenade fragments were found in the bodies of rogue Wagner boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin and two top deputies who were killed in a plane crash in August, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday. The wreckage showed no “external impact” on the aircraft, he said, in an apparent denial that the Kremlin had ordered the outspoken mercenary leader shot down.

The Embraer business jet crashed near Russia’s Tver region north of Moscow on Aug. 23, killing all 10 people on board, including Prigozhin, Wagner battlefield commander Dmitry Utkin and logistics chief Valery Chekalov. The still-unexplained crash came exactly two months after Prigozhin led his fighters in a brief mutiny against Moscow. Western officials, independent observers and some in the Russian elite believe his death was ordered by Putin.

What to know about the plane crash that killed Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin

“I know, the question is probably hanging in the air, what happened to the … company’s management,” the Russian president told a meeting of the Moscow-based Valdai forum, a venue he has used to issue foreign policy statements.

“We know about the plane crash,” he said. “The head of the Investigative Committee reported to me just the other day that fragments of hand grenades were found in the bodies of those killed in the plane crash.”

He said the committee, Russia’s main investigative body, found “there was no external impact on the aircraft.” Speculation on the cause has swirled since the crash was reported. Initial reports said an explosion was caused by a missile strike or an explosive on board, but scant evidence from the scene has been shown publicly.

U.S. officials have said the jet might have been destroyed by an explosion onboard. There was no sign of a missile launch targeting the plane. Similar theories have circulated on Russian Telegram channels, where users have aired the possibility that explosives were planted on the jet before it took off from Moscow.

In further remarks Thursday, Putin appeared to suggest that Prigozhin or someone in his entourage might have blown themselves up accidentally while intoxicated.

“Unfortunately, no examination was carried out about the presence of alcohol or drugs in the victims’ blood,” Putin said. “Although we know that after the well-known events, the FSB discovered not only 10 billion rubles in cash, but also 5 kilograms of cocaine in [Prigozhin’s] St. Petersburg company office.

“In my opinion, such an examination should have been carried out.”

What happens to the Wagner Group after leader Prigozhin’s death?

The Wagner Group was a key fighting force in Ukraine, where it was credited with some of Moscow’s most important battlefield victories, including the capture of Bakhmut, which Ukrainian forces are now fighting to regain. But Prigozhin, an ally of Putin, feuded with Russian military leaders, accusing Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the general staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov of intentionally depriving his troops of ammunition as Wagner mercenaries and the regular military fought for glory and influence.

The dispute reached a climax on June 23, when Prigozhin turned his fighters around to march on Moscow. Wagner mercenaries shot down Russian helicopters, killed Russian troops and occupied Russian bases. He called off the rebellion the next day, short of the Russian capital, in exchange for a guarantee of safety.

Western analysts and some in the Russian elite believe Putin might have ordered Prigozhin’s death as punishment for the rebellion or to seize control of Prigozhin’s lucrative commercial empire. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has condemned what he called “lies” in the West that have presented the crash “from a certain angle.”

After Prigozhin’s “March of Justice,” Wagner was sidelined from fighting in Ukraine, and the future of the rest of his empire, which reached as far as Africa, was murky. But for several weeks, Prigozhin traveled freely, visiting several African countries and Belarus, where Wagner relocated. That shocked Russia’s elite, who said it showed weakness by Putin.

But high-ranking Russian government and military officials were moving Wagner fighters into the Defense Ministry, dismantling the business and claiming parts for themselves. Analysts have suggested that Putin was merely taking his time to get a better grasp at the mogul’s enterprises.

Putin last week instructed Andrei Troshev, one of the most senior surviving former Wagner commanders, to take charge of “volunteer units” fighting in Ukraine, a signal the Kremlin wants to keep using the mercenaries in the war but with greater control.

Putin told Troshev to form “volunteer units that could perform various combat tasks, primarily in the zone of the special military operation,” a Kremlin euphemism for the war in Ukraine.

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