By Steve Holland and Jonathan Landay
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, California (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday said he was not surprised by reports that Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin had died in a plane crash, adding that not much happens in the country that President Vladimir Putin is not behind.
Analysts said the incident could be a way for Putin to warn others who might betray him or to show his support to the Russian military, whom Prigozhin undermined with an abortive armed mutiny in June.
Prigozhin was listed as a passenger on a private jet that crashed on Wednesday evening north of Moscow with no survivors, according to Russian authorities.
Reuters could not confirm that he was on the aircraft, though a Telegram channel linked to Wagner pronounced him dead.
The White House said Biden had been briefed on the crash and he told reporters he did not know for a fact what had happened.
“But I’m not surprised,” Biden said.
“There is not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind, but I don’t know enough to know the answer.”
Prigozhin, 62, led a mutiny against Russia’s top army brass on June 23-24, which Putin said could have tipped Russia into civil war.
Biden and CIA Director Williams Burns spoke separately last month of the potential danger to Prigozhin after his actions, although somewhat in jest.
“If I were he, I’d be careful what I ate. I’d be keeping my eye on my menu,” Biden said during a news conference with Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto in July.
“But all kidding aside…I don’t think any of us know for sure what the future of Prigozhin is in Russia.”
Speaking a week later, CIA Director William Burns said: “I think Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold … If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster.”
Prigozhin’s June mutiny was ended by negotiations and an apparent Kremlin deal that saw him agree to relocate to neighboring Belarus. But he appeared to move freely inside Russia after the deal nonetheless.
PUTIN’S POWER PLAY?
Daniel Hoffman, a former senior CIA operations officer who served as the agency’s Moscow station chief, told Reuters he was sure Wednesday’s incident occurred on Putin’s orders.
“You want your own guys to know that you’re brutal and ruthless and anyone who betrays Putin is going to pay the ultimate price,” he said.
“Putin is cauterizing his wounds.”
Pavel Luzin, an expert with the Center for European Policy Analysis, a U.S. thinktank, said the treatment of Prigozhin showed cracks in Russia’s upper echelon.
“This event demonstrates that the Russian elite is not united, that the contradictions within the Kremlin are growing, that the coordination between different branches within the Russian leadership is really bad.”
“If Vladimir Putin is so powerful, why didn’t he arrest Prigozhin?”
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin or the Defence Ministry regarding Wednesday’s events.
US ELECTION INTERFERENCE
The FBI had previously issued a reward of $250,000 for information leading to the arrest of Prigozhin for U.S. election interference.
Prigozhin and a Russian company he controlled were indicted in 2018 and accused of funding a propaganda operation to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to sway it in favor of Republican candidate Donald Trump and to disparage rival Hillary Clinton.
In addition to Prigozhin and his Concord Management and Consulting LLC, two other Russian companies and 12 other Russians were accused of a plot to sow discord in the U.S. political system by, among other things, using false personas to push divisive messages over social media.
The criminal case against Concord was dismissed in 2020 at the request of U.S. prosecutors, who said they faced a challenge meeting the required burden of proof due to classified information.
In November 2022, Prigozhin admitted to interfering U.S. elections and said he would do it again.
In comments posted on Russia’s Facebook equivalent VKontakte, Prigozhin said:
“We have interfered (in U.S. elections), we are interfering and we will continue to interfere. Carefully, accurately, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland in South Lake Tahoe, California and Jonathan Landay in Washington; additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Humeyra Pamuk, David Ljunggren, Rami Ayyub and Nandita Bose; writing by Costas Pitas; editing by Cynthia Osterman)