It may be some time before Western intelligence agencies can say with certainty whether Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, was aboard the plane that crashed in Russia, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday.
It remained unclear what caused the plane to drop out of the sky on Wednesday, although preliminary U.S. intelligence reports pointed to an internal explosion. Mr. Prigozhin was listed on the plane’s manifest and is presumed dead, but the Wagner Group has not confirmed his death, nor has the Russian government.
Even if the Russian authorities were not forthcoming about what happened to the plane, General Milley said he expected the truth to come out.
“Even on things like this, eventually you figure it out,” he told reporters, adding, “I can assure you that, to my knowledge, the United States had nothing to do with any of this whatsoever.”
If the paramilitary leader is indeed dead, there will be repercussions around the world in places where the Wagner Group has troops, said General Milley, President Biden’s most senior military commander.
“If the leadership of Wagner is suddenly killed, there is going to be an effect,” he said. “What that impact is, I don’t know yet.”
Mr. Prigozhin’s possible death puts the United States in a strange position. The mercenary leader has bedeviled U.S. efforts in Ukraine, Syria and West Africa and operated “in an adversarial manner toward U.S. interests,” General Milley said.
But at the same time, U.S. officials had taken some delight in the thorn that Mr. Prigozhin had become in the side of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in recent months. Some wondered whether the forceful removal of the Wagner boss could further embolden the Russian leader.
Like Mr. Biden, General Milley said he was not surprised by the news that a plane tied to the man who led a mutiny against Mr. Putin’s military leadership had suddenly plunged from the sky.
“Prigozhin was probably at some degree of risk because of the mutiny that occurred two months ago,” General Milley said.