Allies of the late Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin have voiced new critiques recently against Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling for a second march on Moscow and warning that his recent remarks about his death make the situation “worse.”
Relations between Russia and the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization that for months fought alongside Putin’s troops in the Ukraine war, deteriorated after the organization launched an attempted mutiny against Moscow in late June over the stagnant nature of the invasion. The attempted rebellion ultimately failed, with the organization being banished to neighboring Belarus and Prigozhin later dying in a plane crash, straining relations between the two former allies.
Putin has enraged Prigozhin’s allies after speculating on the cause of the plane crash that killed the Wagner Group founder in August. During a press conference at the Valdai Discussion Club on Thursday, the Russian leader speculated on the victims’ bodies to determine whether they were under the influence at the time of the crash, though there has been no proof that drugs or alcohol were on board of the aircraft at the time.
“Unfortunately, no examination was carried out to determine the presence of alcohol or drugs in the blood of the victims. Although we know that after the famous events in the company in St. Petersburg, the [Russian Security Service] discovered not only 10 billion [rubles] in cash, but also 5 kg of cocaine,” Putin said, making a reference to the public raid of Wagner’s mansion in July. “In my opinion, this examination should have been carried out.”
Following his remarks, the Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel Grey Zone condemned Putin, writing that the Russian president commenting on the matter “is only going to make things worse.”
“They inject themselves with drugs and explode in the air. Not even taking into account the fact that the discovered packages contained powder simulating narcotic substances, and it was even returned by FSB officers after examination,” the post reads, according to a translation from independent Russian news outlet Meduza.
The post added that the drugs found at the mansion were used by the Wagner Group’s “secret” intelligence agency, and that the cash would have been used to pay salaries.
Meanwhile, independent Russian news outlet Agentstvo reported on Telegram on Thursday several social media posts from Wagner Group fighter’s relatives, who balked at Putin’s explanation for Prigozhin’s death.
“I don’t know myself. March ones again and finally,” wrote one social media user, who was not identified.
“This is complete nonsense, Vova, of course, well down, at first he was not sure that they were on the plane. Now they tuned out to be drug addicts,” read another post.
Another critic wrote: “Let me remind you that two Heroes of Great Russia died in this plane crash. Well, how many people have forgotten, and don’t complain. And with weapons they were not even at you… The version about self-destruction is a laugh and a farce.”
Newsweek reached out to the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry for comment via email.
The outrage comes at a critical point in Putin’s invasion, as Ukraine has recently seen success in a counteroffensive effort aimed at reclaiming occupied territory. Although Russia enjoys the advantage of having a much larger military than Ukraine, Kyiv’s stronger-than-expected defense efforts, along with aid from the West, has blocked Russian advances.
Meanwhile, Wagner Group fighters were sent to Belarus under a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin ally. However, some troops have returned to Russia, and have been accused of committing a range of crimes in the country.