The murdered Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin made “serious mistakes in his life,” tyrant Vladimir Putin sneered last night.
The Russian despot is believed to have ordered the revenge attack on the warlord’s private jet two months after he led an insurgency.
Putin aptly mentioned the traitor’s failings in a fake homage, saying: “I have known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the early 1990s.
“He was a talented person, a talented businessman, he worked not only in our country but also abroad, especially in Africa.”
“He dealt with oil, gas, precious metals and stones there.
“He was a man with a difficult fate – and he made serious mistakes in life.”
Sabotage emerged as the main theory behind Wednesday’s crash, which killed 62-year-old Prigozhin, MP Dmitry Utkin and eight others.
Their Embraer Legacy 600 is said to have exploded halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg at 28,000 feet before crashing.
Billionaire Prigozhin is believed to have sealed his own fate by allowing a case of fine wine on board.
One theory is that the cargo contained a hidden device designed to cause catastrophic damage – a suspicion by FSB security.
Paying false respects, Putin said: “I would like to offer my sincerest condolences to the families of all the victims.”
“It’s always a tragedy. However, if employees of the Wagner company were there and the preliminary data indicate so.
“These people made a significant contribution to our common cause in the fight against the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine. We will not forget it.”
In late June, Prigozhin brought his troops within 120 miles of Moscow, posing the greatest threat to Putin’s 20-year rule.
At the time, Putin branded him a traitor. Yesterday he claimed he knew nothing about the cause of his old friend’s death and promised a thorough investigation.
But the sham investigation will almost certainly absolve him of guilt and point the finger at his “terrorist” enemies from Ukraine.
Putin said: “As far as I know, he just returned from Africa yesterday.
“He met some officials here. The head of the committee of inquiry reported back to me this morning.
“They have already started a preliminary investigation. It is fully carried out and carried out to the end. There is no doubt about that. Let’s see what the investigators say.”
Witnesses in Kuzhenkino, a town near the crash site, said they saw no evidence of plumes of smoke from missiles.
Anastasia Bukharava, 27, was with her children when she saw the jet.
She said, “Boom! It exploded and started falling. Something was ripped out in mid-air and it began to sink.”
Experts said examining the video footage also revealed no traces of missiles.
Prigozhin’s plane officials were interrogated at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport yesterday.
Investigators promised to question all personnel with access to the hangar and also to investigate a mysterious delay for “repairs” before launch.
Crash experts sifting through the wreckage were also investigating the theory that a bomb was attached to the undercarriage – possibly during the delay.
A Moscow source said: “According to preliminary data, an explosive device was placed in the landing gear area, which caused the explosion in the sky.
“This is one version of the investigation.
“As a result, the wing ripped off and hit the stabilizer.
“The business jet started to gain altitude and then began to spin. All persons on board immediately lost consciousness due to the explosive pressure release.
Branded a traitor
“Therefore, the pilots could not report the emergency situation. Without a wing and stabilizer, it was impossible to save the plane.”
The tail section reportedly landed nearly three miles from the fuselage because the plane exploded in mid-air, the report said.
Another source with links to law enforcement said the main theory was that a bomb was planted in the aircraft’s service area near the lavatory.
The source said: “Investigators were particularly interested in whether there were any new employees who had just entered the job market.”
The focus was also on Prigozhin’s usual pilot, Artem Stepanov.
He had access to the jet, but vacationed before the doomed flight to one of Russia’s most remote regions, Kamchatka. Moscow sources said he was “actively wanted”.
His co-pilot Kirill Shcherbakov is also said to have disappeared because he had evaded duty.
The owner of the jet and head of MNT Aero, Olga Gubareva, is said to have been on vacation and had no contact with the authorities.
Russia’s fake news factory went into overdrive last night as the theories circulated.
A Kremlin source told a news agency that the Russian authorities “will most likely blame Ukraine’s intelligence services — as the Kremlin has repeatedly done.”
And military expert Yuri Knutov said the probe is likely to conclude that terrorism was to blame, since the black-box flight recorders were reportedly not recovered.
But Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy said: “We have nothing to do with it. Everyone understands who is involved.”
Who was on board?
Yevgeny Prigozhin: Former hot dog vendor, 62, who got a job supplying food to the Kremlin.
Founded the Wagner Group in 2014 – and led the failed putsch two months ago.
DMITRY UTKIN: The 53-year-old neo-Nazi served in Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency.
He was a veteran of both Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Prigozhin’s right-hand man.
Considered a co-founder of the Wagner Group and was responsible for all leadership and combat training.
Valery Chekalov: The 47-year-old, one of the entrepreneurial minds behind Wagner, is said to have been responsible for the group’s non-military activities in Africa.
Yevgeny Makaryan, Sergei Propustin, Alexander Totmin and Nikolai Matuseev: It is believed that they were Wagner fighters who acted as bodyguards for the bosses on the plane.
ALEXEI LEVSHIN: The married father of two, 51, was the pilot.
According to relatives, his work for Prigozhin was a taboo topic in the family.
RUSTAM KARIMOV: The 29-year-old co-pilot had worked for the company that operated flights for Prigozhin for just three months.
KRISTINA RASPOPOVA: The 39-year-old flight attendant, the only woman on board, spoke to her family just before departure and posted pictures on social media.
Questions and Answers: The Mystery and Aftermath of the Russian Jet Explosion
COULD Prigozhin still be alive?
Highly unlikely, but when it comes to Putin, anything is possible.
In 2019, Prigozhin was pronounced dead in a military plane crash in Africa, but he was later found to be alive and well.
He has been known to use body doubles or have people fly under his name to keep his travel plans a secret.
Shortly after Wednesday’s crash, another of his private jets landed safely in Moscow on a similar route.
The investigation is being led by Kremlin loyalist Igor Rudenya, so we have to take Putin’s word.
What next for Ukraine?
Wagner troops could now be transferred to the front, a blow to Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
But with Prigozhin out of the way, his bitter rivals in the Russian military are in a stronger position than ever.
This is seen as a boost for Ukraine as it is so incompetent.
DID it make Putin stronger or weaker?
He was weakened by the coup attempt, so revenge makes him stronger in the short term.
This is the most notable death to date among those willing to take a stand against the Kremlin.
It can turn others off.
WHO could be behind it?
Aside from Putin, there is distrust of Prigozhin’s main military rivals – Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.
It was his anger at the way they were conducting the war that led to the attempted coup.
They saw him as a threat.
But it’s hard to imagine that his death would happen without Putin’s say.
What’s next for Wagner?
Russia is expected to take control.
One candidate for leadership is General Andrey Averyanov, the GRU chief tasked with foreign assassinations, including the Salisbury poisoning.
The future of thousands of Wagner troops in Europe, Africa and the Middle East remains uncertain.
But Putin will be desperate to redeploy his massive firepower.