Minister warns against jumping to conclusions over Wagner chief’s reported death

A UK minister has warned it is important ‘not to jump to conclusions’ over the reported death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash in Russia (Prigozhin Press Service/AP)
A UK minister has warned it is important ‘not to jump to conclusions’ over the reported death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash in Russia (Prigozhin Press Service/AP)

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.

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”.

Nick Gibb
Schools minister Nick Gibb said the British Government should avoid ‘jumping to conclusions’ over the Russian plane crash (Victoria Jones/PA)

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.

All 10 people on board – three crew and seven passengers – died, according to officials cited by Russia’s state news agency Tass.

The Kremlin has not confirmed their deaths and Mr Putin made no mention of the crash as he addressed the summit of the Brics bloc of developing economies by video on Thursday.

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.”

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.

South Africa BRICS Summit
Russian President Vladimir Putin made no mention of the crash when he addressed the Brics summit via video-link on Thursday (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP)

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 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”.