A Russian intelligence chief responsible for the unit that is believed to have carried out the 2018 Salisbury poisonings may be linked to the death of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, intelligence sources have said.
Intelligence sources in the UK and Ukraine have told i that Major General Andrey Averyanov is being discussed in connection with the downing of Prigozhin’s jet.
The Kremlin on Friday issued a firm denial to suggestions the warlord was killed on the orders of Vladimir Putin.
But Western officials believe the Russian President was most likely to have been responsible, with US President Joe Biden saying “there’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”
UK intelligence agencies investigating the wreckage are still open minded about the events and individuals behind them and believe it’s too early to confirm anything for certain, i has been told.
Mr Averyanov heads Unit 29155 of the GRU – Russian military intelligence – which carries out operations on foreign soil at the orders of Putin. The unit has been linked to multiple assassinations and interference campaigns abroad, including the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018, according to the New York Times and Bellingcat.
One former and one current UK intelligence sources with vast experience of Russian espionage efforts told i Mr Averyanov was being named in connection with the crash, adding that Russian General, who is tipped to take over the Africa operation of the Wagner group, had been in a “long grudge” with Prigozhin.
The former UK intelligence source told i: “Putin historically likes revenge ‘cold’. So the manner and timing of the departure of Prigozhin isn’t surprising. Many, including me, thought his days were numbered. there is a lot of discussion around the name mentioned (Averyanov). Again, unsurprising.”
A Russian former intelligence source added: “Averyanov oversaw the operation which was carried out. Averyanov has also been in charge of replacing Wagner in Africa with 20,000 Russian military.”
A Ukrainian intelligence source echoed the suspicions, claiming that Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) believed Mr Averyanov was involved in the crash. However, Russia would never admit the GRU general was responsible, they said, with the Russian state authorities currently seeking to question a pilot who worked for Prigozhin, who was not flying the plane.
The Ukrainian intelligence source told i: “It is a possibility that the pilot’s name will be connected with the explosion in order that a so-called investigation by the Russian authorities does not indicate this was the action of the Kremlin.”
Russian media was quick to confirm that Prigozhin and several of his key lieutenants, including co-founder of the group Dmitry Utkin, were killed in the crash.
But UK intelligence has still not made a final assessment as it is “too early to have confirmation”, i has learned.
An additional former UK intelligence source added that it is still too soon to determine what happened and warned of Russia’s well-used tactic of obfuscating such events.
“It’s far too early to work out what exactly has happened,” a former intelligence officer currently working with the Government told i.
“Moscow will do all it can to muddy the waters, including blaming the Ukrainians and so on and they will try to do it quickly to get ahead of what will inevitably be a slow process of getting to the bottom of what actually happened.”
How Andrey Averyavnov became one of Vladimir Putin’s most trusted chieftains
Andrey Averyavnov was accused of leading a team of six operatives that included Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, the agents responsible for the Salisbury attack, according to Bellingcat.
The investigation alleged Mr Averyanov was also implicated in the 2014 act of sabotage on a Czech ammunition depot that killed two people.
The unit was linked to a similar assassination attempt of a Bulgarian arms dealer in 2015, and reportedly responsible for a destabilisation campaign in Moldova. It was also implicated in a failed pro-Serbian coup plot in Montenegro in 2016 which included an attempt to assassinate the prime minister Milo Đukanović.
The unit is known in Russia as “161 training centre”, as many future Russian spies are trained under General Averyanov’s direction.
Mr Averyanov was seen introducing himself to African leaders in St Petersburg during last month’s Russia-Africa summit – leading to the view that the Russian intelligence chief has been groomed by Vladimir Putin to take over Wagner’s activity on the continent following the death of Prigozhin.
Since the crash of the private jet, speculation has grown about the GRU commander’s ascendance into this role., which is crucial to the Russian economy.
Channels on social media site Telegram linked to Wagner claimed the introduction was part of a Kremlin-planned “displacement operation” to oust Prigozhin’s entities in Africa and replace them with a private company controlled by General Averyanov’s GRU.