It is “highly likely” that the leader of the Wagner mercenary group who challenged the Kremlin in a failed mutiny is dead, the UK Government has said.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) cautioned that there is “not yet definitive proof” that Yevgeny Prigozhin was onboard a plane that crashed north of Moscow on Wednesday, but concluded his presumed demise is credible.
Russian authorities said the private jet was carrying the Wagner chief and some of his top lieutenants and everyone on board was killed when it went down.
In its daily intelligence update on Friday, the MoD said: “On 23 August 2023, exactly two months after the Wagner Group’s mutiny, a Wagner-associated Embraer business jet crashed near Tver, between Moscow and St Petersburg.
“There is not yet definitive proof that Prigozhin was onboard and he is known to exercise exceptional security measures.
“However, it is highly likely that he is indeed dead.”
His death “would almost certainly have a deeply destabilising effect” on his private military, with the reported deaths of Wagner’s second-in-command Dimitry Utkin and logistics chief Valery Chekalov compounding a “leadership vacuum”, the MoD said on Twitter, now known as X.
There is heavy speculation, but no evidence, that Mr Prigozhin was killed as an act of vengeance for mounting a short-lived rebellion in June that challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority.
Russian authorities investigating the crash have not yet officially confirmed the identities of the 10 bodies pulled from the wreckage.
After 24 hours of silence, Mr Putin sent “sincere condolences” to the relatives of those on the jet and described Mr Prigozhin as a “talented businessman” who had, however, “made serious mistakes in life”.
Mr Prigozhin was a key ally of the Russian president but their relationship soured after the Wagner boss staged the aborted uprising against Moscow’s military leadership over dissatisfaction about the treatment of his fighters in Ukraine.
Many observers expected Mr Putin to seek revenge despite his vow to drop charges against Mr Prigozhin after initially denouncing the rebellion as treason.
Videos and photos circulating on social media appeared to show the plane plummeting out of the sky and a burning heap of aircraft wreckage.
The US Department of Defence on Thursday said there was currently no information to indicate a surface-to-air missile shot down the aircraft amid reports other possible causes including an onboard bomb are being evaluated by US officials.
Sophie Wingate – PA