By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — The White House on August 29 came close to declaring that the Kremlin was responsible for the death of Wagner mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was killed in a mysterious plane crash last week.
“We all know that the Kremlin has a long history of killing opponents,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “It’s very clear what happened here.”
Her comment was the closest U.S. statement yet on the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed the killing of Prigozhin, who had launched a brief mutiny against the Kremlin in June.
Prigozhin was buried at a private funeral ceremony outside of St. Petersburg on August 29 that was not attended by Putin, his onetime close ally.
“The farewell to Yevgeny Viktorovich took place in a closed setting. Those wishing to say goodbye can visit the Porokhovskoye cemetery,” a Telegram channel used by Wagner for statements said on August 29, referring to a cemetery just outside the city of St. Petersburg.
A plane linked to the Wagner mercenary group, run by the 62-year-old, crashed between Moscow and St. Petersburg on August 23, killing all 10 people onboard. Prigozhin, along with other senior Wagner officials, were listed on the passenger manifest.
Four days later, Russia’s Investigative Committee announced that Prigozhin’s body had been identified by medical examiners, along with those of nine other people onboard the Embraer 600 jet that crashed in the Tver region in suspicious circumstances.
A former convict who parlayed a St. Petersburg restaurant business into lucrative Kremlin contracts, Prigozhin first gained notoriety in the West for creating the “Russian troll factory” that was accused of trying to manipulate U.S. voters in the 2016 presidential election.
But his close relationship with Putin was left in tatters on June 23-24 after Prigozhin sent thousands of his fighters in a brazen rebellion against the military command fighting in Ukraine.
Putin called the insurrection a “stab in the back,” and earlier on August 29, as rumors swirled that Prigozhin was being laid to rest, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that while he had no information on any ceremony, “the president’s presence is not envisaged.”
The insurrection came on the heels of months of intense public infighting with Russia’s military leadership over the war strategy in Ukraine and ammunition supplies.
The brief uprising was the most serious challenge to President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power.
The Wagner chief’s whereabouts had been largely a mystery since the mutiny. He was believed to be moving between Russia and Belarus, where Wagner troops have been setting up camps to train Belarusian armed forces as part of a deal negotiated that helped end the mutiny.
On July 28, he was photographed on the sidelines of an Africa-Russia summit in St. Petersburg shaking hands with an aide to the president of the Central African Republic.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation.