Vladimir Putin has ordered Wagner fighters to sign an oath of allegiance to the Russian state after a plane crash killed its chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Putin signed the decree bringing in the change with immediate effect on Friday which requires Wagner fighters to pledge allegiance to Russia, and promise to strictly follow the orders of Russian commanders.
Russia’s aviation authority said Prigozhin was on board a private jet which crashed on Wednesday evening northwest of Moscow with no survivors.
A preliminary Washington intelligence assessment has found an explosion brought down the jet, officials said, while a Pentagon briefing US Department of Defense spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said there was no information to indicate that a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane.
It came exactly two months after he led a failed mutiny against the Russian army in the biggest threat to Putin’s rule since he came into power in 1999.
MI6 boss Sir John Sawers today said it appeared that the Russian leader had ordered the strike, adding: “All the indications point to the fact that Putin has taken him out… he is making clear to everyone both inside Russia and outside that he’s not going to brook any challenge.”
US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he was not surprised by reports Prigozhin had died in the crash, saying that not much happens in Russia that President Vladimir Putin was not behind.
US officials do not believe it is likely that a missile strike caused the plane to crash but are exploring whether a bomb aboard the aircraft or some other sabotage caused the downing of the plane.
Russian air authorities have said Prigozhin, his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin, and eight other people were on the private plane that crashed with no survivors northwest of Moscow.
The British Ministry of Defence said while there was no definitive proof Prigozhin was on the plane, it was “highly likely” he was killed in the crash, and that this would have “a deeply destabilising effect on the Wagner Group".
The Kremlin has denied being behind the plane’s crash, despite the fact it came just two months after Prigozhin led an abortive mutiny, which Putin condemned as “treason”.
“There is now a great deal of speculation surrounding this plane crash and the tragic deaths of the plane’s passengers, including Yevgeny Prigozhin,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“Of course, in the West, all this speculation is presented from a well-known angle. All of this is an absolute lie, and here, when covering this issue, it is necessary to base yourself on facts.”
Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus, said Prigozhin’s funeral would be significant.
“If Putin wishes to emphasise that Prigozhin died as a traitor, he will ignore it," he said.
“(While) Prigozhin’s supporters may use it as an opportunity to eulogise him and his critique of the Kremlin’s conduct of the war, and could strengthen the hostility of a core of Wagner loyalists towards the Kremlin.”