Why Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private jet plummeted into a field northwest of Moscow is still a mystery. The Russian military leaders he tried to oust with his armed rebellion remain in power. His mercenary army is under new management.
And President Vladimir Putin, whose authority was badly dented by the short-lived mutiny, seems as strong as ever, with Prigozhin’s fiery death sending a chilling message to anyone challenging him.
A month after Prigozhin was killed in a suspicious plane crash, the Kremlin seems to be succeeding in keeping the demise of the profane and outspoken Wagner chief as low-key as possible — a strategy underlined by Putin’s absence at his funeral and troops keeping the media from entering Porokhovskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg for his Aug. 29 burial.
Prigozhin’s funeral was “the culmination of a covert operation aimed at his elimination,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. It was conducted under the strict oversight of security agencies, “shrouded in secrecy and involved deceptive tactics,” she noted.
Makeshift street memorials sprouted in several cities honoring the 62-year-old Prigozhin, but they have been quietly removed by authorities. Recruitment billboards for the Wagner Group had vanished shortly after the rebellion fizzled.
In a further indignity, someone stole a violin that was left on his grave, a nod to the mercenary group’s namesake, German composer Richard Wagner. Another man tried but failed to steal a sledgehammer placed there — another Wagner symbol after the group boasted of using such a tool to beat traitors to death.
Now, a surveillance camera is mounted on a nearby tree and a 24-hour guard monitors Prigozhin’s well-tended grave, which on Friday was covered in flowers and written tributes. Cemetery workers say there is a steady trickle of visitors.
Prigozhin’s greatest wartime accomplishment — the Wagner-spearheaded capture of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in May after months of bloody combat — is under threat. Kyiv’s troops are seeking to reclaim it in their counteroffensive in order to deal a psychological blow to Russia.
Still, the private army that once counted tens of thousands of troops is a precious asset the Kremlin wants to exploit, and Russian officials are pondering the possibility of sending some Wagner fighters back to Ukraine.
Prigozhin launched the June 23-24 rebellion, bent on ousting the Russian Defense Ministry’s leadership that he blamed for mistakes in pressing the war in Ukraine. His mercenaries took over Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and then rolled toward Moscow before abruptly halting the mutiny.
Putin denounced them as “traitors,” but the Kremlin quickly negotiated a deal ending the uprising in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. The mercenaries were offered a choice to retire from the service, move to Belarus or sign new contracts with the Defense Ministry.
Exactly two months after the rebellion’s start, a plane carrying Prigozhin and his top lieutenants crashed on Aug. 23 while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing all 10 people aboard.
An investigation was launched but no findings have been released. Moscow rejected an offer from Brazil, where the Embraer business jet was built, to join the inquiry.
A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment concluded an intentional explosion caused the crash, and Western officials have pointed to a long list of Putin foes who have been assassinated. The Kremlin called allegations he was behind the crash as an “absolute lie.”
Despite any damage done to Putin by the rebellion, Prigozhin’s death was a powerful signal to Russian elites about challenging his authority.
Associated Press Analysis