ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — President Vladimir Putin is not planning to attend the funeral for Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin said, following reports that the mercenary chief who challenged the Russian leader’s authority would be buried Tuesday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov wouldn’t say where or when the chief of the Wagner Group military company would be buried, adding that he couldn’t comment on a private family ceremony.
St. Petersburg’s Fontanka news outlet and some other media said the 62-year-old Prigozhin could be laid to rest as early as Tuesday at the city’s Serafimovskoye cemetery, which has been used for high-profile military burials. Heavy police cordons encircled the cemetery, where Putin’s parents are also buried, but no service was immediately held and increased police patrols also were seen at some other city cemeteries.
Later in the day, a funeral was held at St. Petersburg’s Northern Cemetery for Wagner’s logistics chief Valery Chekalov, who died in the Aug. 23 crash alongside Prigozin.
The tight secrecy and confusion surrounding the funeral of Prigozhin and his top lieutenants reflected a dilemma faced by the Kremlin amid swirling speculation that the crash was likely a vendetta for his mutiny.
While it tried to avoid any pomp-filled ceremony for the man branded by Putin as a traitor for his rebellion, the Kremlin couldn’t afford to denigrate Prigozhin, who was given Russia’s highest award for leading Wagner forces in Ukraine and was idolized by many of the country’s hawks.
Putin’s comments on Prigozhin’s death reflected that careful stand. He noted last week that Wagner leaders “made a significant contribution” to the fighting in Ukraine and described Prigozhin as a ”talented businessman” and “a man of difficult fate” who had “made serious mistakes in life.”
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, noted that Prigozhin has become a legendary figure for his supporters who are increasingly critical of the authorities.
“Prigozhin’s funeral raises an issue of communication between the bureaucratic Russian government system that doesn’t have much political potential and politically active patriotic segment of the Russian public,” Markov said.
The country’s top criminal investigation agency, the Investigative Committee, officially confirmed Prigozhin’s death on Sunday.
The committee didn’t say what might have caused Prigozhin’s business jet to plummet from the sky minutes after taking off from Moscow for St. Petersburg. Just before the crash, Prigozhin had returned from a trip to Africa, where he sought to expand Wagner Group’s activities.
Prigozhin’s second-in-command, Dmitry Utkin, a retired military intelligence officer who gave the mercenary group its name based on his own nom de guerre, was also among the 10 people who died in the crash.
A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that an intentional explosion caused the plane to crash, and Western officials have pointed to a long list of Putin’s foes who have been assassinated. The Kremlin rejected Western allegations the president was behind the crash as an “absolute lie.”
The crash came exactly two months after Prigozhin launched a rebellion against the Russian military leadership. The brutal and profane leader ordered his mercenaries to take over the military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and then began a march on Moscow. They downed several military aircraft, killing more than a dozen pilots.
Putin denounced the revolt as “treason” and vowed to punish its perpetrators but hours later struck a deal that saw Prigozhin ending the mutiny in exchange for amnesty and permission for him and his troops to move to Belarus.
The fate of Wagner, which until recently played a prominent role in Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine and was involved in a number of African and Middle Eastern countries, is uncertain.
Putin said Wagner fighters could sign a contract with the Russian military, move to Belarus or retire from service. Several thousand have deployed to Belarus, where they are in a camp southeast of the capital, Minsk.