Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries has been “deeply destabilised” by the loss of chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is “unlikely to be matched by any successor”, the UK has said.
The warlord is “highly likely” to have died in a plane crash north-west of Moscow on Wednesday, the British Ministry of Defence said.
It warned there was “not yet definitive proof” that Mr Prigozhin was on board the plane, but concluded reports of his death were credible.
Mr Prigozhin's name was one of 10 on a passenger list shared by Russia’s aviation agency. Several top Wagner lieutenants were also on board the aircraft.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to the family of Prigozhin on Thursday, but described him as a flawed character who had made some bad mistakes.
A Telegram channel linked to Wagner, which had previously carried propaganda videos of his fighters, said he was deceased.
Mr Prigozhin, once a close friend of Mr Putin, led a failed uprising against the Kremlin in June because he disagreed with the way Moscow was conducting its war in Ukraine.
The incident was deeply embarrassing for Mr Putin on the world stage.
The UK said Mr Prigozhin had exercised “extreme brutality” and dedication to the war effort and would not be rivalled by any replacement.
“The demise of Prigozhin would almost certainly have a deeply destabilising effect on the Wagner Group,” the Ministry of Defence said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“His personal attributes of hyper-activity, exceptional audacity, a drive for results and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor.
“Wagner’s leadership vacuum would be compounded by the reports that founder and field commander Dimitry Utkin and logistics chief Valery Chekalov also died.”
The doomed plane was a private Embraer jet carrying seven passengers and three crew members, Russia’s emergency services ministry said.
Flight data shows the jet had climbed to an altitude of some 28,000 feet before it suddenly stopped transmitting tracking information.
Eight bodies have been recovered at the crash site in Russia’s western Tver region, state media said.
The plane “burned up” on impact, the official state news agency TASS reported.
Following hours of speculation about the presumed death of the Wagner leader, US President Joe Biden on Thursday pointed the finger of blame at Mr Putin.
Mr Biden said he was “not surprised” by the reports of the Wagner leader’s death, adding: “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”
The Pentagon’s spokesman Brig Gen Patrick Ryder said on Thursday afternoon: “Our initial assessment is that it’s likely Prigozhin was killed.”
Due to his high profile, which only increased after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Mr Prigozhin had many enemies.
The BBC cited UK defence sources as saying Mr Prigozhin’s plane was “most likely” brought down by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB. The Ministry of Defence in London declined to comment on the claims.
His death has given rise to questions about the future of Wagner.
A day before the plane crash, a Russian official visited Libya to reassure allies that fighters from the Wagner Group would remain in the country – but under Moscow's control.
During a meeting in Benghazi, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov told eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar on Tuesday that Wagner fighters would report to a new commander, a Libyan official with knowledge of the meeting said.