A UK minister has warned it is important “not to jump to conclusions” over the reported death of the leader of the Wagner mercenary group in a plane crash which is speculated to have been an assassination.
Yevgeny Prigozhin was reportedly on the passenger list of a private jet which went down almost 185 miles north of Moscow on Wednesday, according to Russian authorities.
The Wagner Group chief mounted a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership in June in a blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority.
Many observers expected Mr Putin to seek revenge, despite his vow to drop charges against Mr Prigozhin after initially denouncing the rebellion as treason.
In his first comments on the death of the Wagner leader, Mr Putin said he had known Mr Prigozhin since the early 1990s and described him as “a man of difficult fate” who had “made serious mistakes in life, and he achieved the results he needed — both for himself and, when I asked him about it, for the common cause, as in these last months”.
“He was a talented man, a talented businessman,” he added.
He said the passengers on the jet had “made a significant contribution” to the fighting in Ukraine.
“We remember this, we know, and we will not forget,” the president said in a televised interview with the Russian-installed leader of Ukraine’s partially occupied Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin.
The UK Government is closely watching the situation but schools minister Nick Gibb said it must avoid making assumptions about the crash.
He told Sky News: “We only heard about this… it only happened a few hours ago.
“We are monitoring the position. It’s important not to jump to conclusions.
“We are working with our allies, and as soon as we have assessed the situation the Government will of course have more to say on the matter.”
Mr Gibb added that “we know what kind of person Putin is”, having “engaged in an illegal invasion of Ukraine”.
Shadow Home Office minister Stephen Kinnock said it is “difficult to speculate because we don’t know all of the facts”.
But he added: “Russia is a mafia state, and this is one part of a mafia clan striking back against another – that would appear to be what’s happening.”
In the US, President Joe Biden was less circumspect, saying: “I don’t know for a fact what happened but I’m not surprised.
“There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”
Mr Prigozhin was among the dead in the crash, according to Wagner sources cited by Russian media.
A few thoughts in light of Prigozhin's death.
1️⃣ No matter the cause of the plane crash, everyone will see this as an act of retaliation and retribution, and the Kremlin won't particularly counteract this view. From Putin's perspective, as well as many among the security and…
— Tatiana Stanovaya (@Stanovaya) August 23, 2023
All 10 people on board – three crew and seven passengers – died, according to officials cited by Russia’s state news agency Tass.
Videos and photos circulating on social media appeared to show the plane plummeting out of the sky, and a burning heap of aircraft wreckage.
There is heavy speculation, but no evidence, that the crash may not have been an accident.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre, wrote on Twitter, now known as X: “No matter the cause of the plane crash, everyone will see this as an act of retaliation and retribution, and the Kremlin won’t particularly counteract this view.
“From Putin’s perspective, as well as many among the security and military officials, Prigozhin’s death should serve as a lesson to any potential successors.”
International relations expert Afzal Ashraf, from Loughborough University, told the PA news agency that Mr Prigozhin’s presumed death “comes as a surprise to most Russians and indeed to most Russian officials”.
“I can say that because I’m in touch with a Russian dissident who is in touch with senior officials in the Kremlin, and everybody is confused,” he said.
“And that should not be a surprise to us, because if this is, as alleged, an assassination plot, clearly it’s a secret one and only a few people know who did what in this incident.”
Mr Ashraf said it is “significant” that the Wagner chief had been on his way to a meeting to discuss the Kremlin’s plans to reorganise his mercenary group and bring it more in line with the regular army, a move he vehemently opposed.
Mr Prigozhin was a key ally of the Russian president but their relationship soured after the Wagner boss staged the failed mutiny in June over dissatisfaction about the treatment of his private military fighters in Ukraine.
Wagner has fought alongside Russia’s regular army during the invasion, and has often been seen as the more fierce and successful military force.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country had nothing to do with the crash, telling reporters: “Everyone understands who does.”
The mercenary chief’s fate has been the subject of close scrutiny ever since after his apparent exile to Belarus following the uprising.
Reports suggested he had appeared in Russia in recent weeks and he made his first video appearance since the mutiny earlier this week, suggesting he was in Africa alongside Wagner fighters.
The Russian state has a history of links to the deaths or serious illnesses of Russian elites and spies who have fallen out of favour with the Putin regime, including on UK soil.
Former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with Russia-developed nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 2018.
Alexander Litvinenko, a prominent Putin critic and defector to the UK, was poisoned with polonium and died in 2006 after meeting two former Russian agents in London.
Keir Giles, a Russia expert with the international affairs think tank Chatham House, urged caution about reports of Mr Prigozhin’s death.
According to the Associated Press, he said “multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeny Prigozhin, as part of his efforts to obfuscate his travels”.