Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin suggested Russia may have shot down its own aircraft near the Ukrainian border.
On Saturday, Russian state media said that five Russian aircraft were shot down over Bryansk, a Russian region located near the Ukrainian border. Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that a Su-34 and a Su-35 fighter jet, as well as two Mi-8 helicopters, were downed over the border region. Ukraine has appeared to deny involvement in the incident, while the downing comes as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin last February, continues.
Prigozhin, a former Putin ally whose relationship with the Russian president has become more tense as the Ukraine war continues to stagnate, hinted on Sunday that Putin’s own forces may have shot down the aircraft.
In a statement posted to his Telegram channel, Prigozhin questioned whether Russian or Ukrainian air defenses could be located at the center of the 20 kilometer (12 mile) radius of the four downed aircraft.
“Four planes, if you draw a circle in the places of their fall, it turns out that this circle has a diameter (and all of them lie exactly in a circle) of 40 kilometers. That is, the radius of the circle is 20 kilometers,” Prigozhin wrote. “Now go on the Internet and see what kind of anti-aircraft weapon could be in the center of this circle, and then build your own versions. I do not know.”
Newsweek reached out to the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment via email.
Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson Colonel Yurii Ihnat also said during a Sunday appearance on Ukrainian television that Russia’s own air defenses may be responsible for the downed aircraft.
Kommersant reported that the fighter jets were “supposed to deliver a missile and bomb attack on targets in the Chernihiv region of Ukraine.” The aircraft were downed “almost simultaneously,” the newspaper added, though Russian authorities have not confirmed this.
Bryansk Regional Governor Alexander Bogomaz wrote on Telegram that a helicopter crashed in the town of Klintsy, injuring one woman. Russian state news agency TASS reported that authorities blamed the crash on engine problems.
Prigozhin’s remarks come as his relationship with Putin has appeared to sour in recent months. Once a close ally known as “Putin’s chef,” the Wagner Group played an increasingly important role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine throughout the winter months. Prigozhin’s troops fought alongside Russian soldiers in hopes of taking control of Bakhmut, a city located in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
However, the relationship between Putin and Prigozhin has grown increasingly strained, with the Wagner Group founder threatening to pull his troops from Bakhmut over a purported lack of ammunition for pro-Russian forces. Tensions have also grown over Prigozhin’s alleged political ambitions and rising notoriety as Putin faces some backlash over the invasion lagging.