29.05.2024

Wagner Group mercenary chief presumed dead in plane crash

Once a businessman with a catering empire friendly with Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin manoeuvred himself into a position so powerful that, as Russia’s war in Ukraine progressed, he could openly question his paymasters’ strategy.

The owner of the Kremlin-allied Wagner Group, the mercenary force that has fought some of the Russian military’s toughest battles in Ukraine – most notably the drawn-out pursuit of Bakhmut – the 62-year-old stepped into his most dangerous role yet this summer: preaching open rebellion against his country’s military leadership.

Now, two months after his men’s attempted uprising ended in uneasy peace talks, Prigozhin is presumed dead in a suspicious plane crash just outside of Moscow.

On 23 August, it was reported that a private plane he had boarded was brought thudering to earth in the Tver region after taking off from the capital en route to St Petersburg, killing 10 people on board.

While it has not been confirmed that he was on board, Prigozhin and his deputy Dmitry Utkin were on the passenger list for the flight.

The “accident” looked like retribution for the events of 23 June, when the Wagner chief finally escalated what had been months of scathing criticism of Russia’s conduct of the war by calling for an armed uprising to oust Russia’s defence chiefs Valery Gerasimov and Sergei Shoigu.

His men occupied Rostov-on-Don and marched on Moscow, shooting down a number of military helicopters, killing their pilots as they advanced. Russian security services reacted immediately, opening a criminal investigation and demanding Prigozhin’s arrest.

In a sign of how seriously the Kremlin took the threat posed, riot police and the National Guard scrambled to tighten security at key facilities in the Russian capital, including government agencies and transport infrastructure, Tass reported. Mr Putin branded the rebellion an act of treachery.

Prigozhin urged Russian civilians to join his “march to justice” and the situation remained extremely volatile throughout the following Saturday before peace talks, seemingly mediated by Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, brought the standoff to a peaceful conclusion.

The Kremlin said that to avert bloodshed, Prigozhin and some of his fighters would leave for Belarus and a criminal case against him for armed mutiny would be dropped.

Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov revealed that a three-hour meeting had taken place five days after the mutiny, on 29 June with 35 people in attendance, including Wagner unit commanders, who reiterated their loyalty to their leader.

But confusion subsequently surrounded the implementation of that deal and it was not clear whether the mercenary leader ever made it to Minsk.

Before long, he was seen back in his homeland, appearing at the Trezzini Palace Hotel in St Petersburg, apparently on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit.

On 5 July, state television said an investigation against him was still being pursued and broadcast footage showing cash, passports, weapons and other items it said were seized in a raid on one of his properties.

In August, he appeared in a video that he suggested was shot in Africa, where Wagner has operations in several countries.

‘Putin’s chef’

The relationship between Prigozhin and Mr Putin went way back, both having been born in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, the former born on 1 June 1961.

During the final years of the Soviet Union, while the president was then a lowly KGB agent, Prigozhin served nine years in prison for crimes including robbery and fraud.

After his release in 1990, he launched a career as a caterer in his home town, owning a hot dog stand and then a string of upmarket restaurants that attracted Mr Putin’s interest. In his first term in office, the Russian leader took then-French president Jacques Chirac to dine at one of them.

“Vladimir Putin saw how I built a business out of a kiosk, he saw that I don’t mind serving to the esteemed guests because they were my guests,” Prigozhin recalled in an interview in 2011.

His businesses expanded significantly into catering. Leveraging political connections, Prigozhin was awarded major state contracts and, in 2010, Mr Putin helped him open his own factory, built on generous loans from a state bank.

In Moscow alone, school meals contracts for his company Concord were worth millions. He also organised catering for Kremlin events for several years – earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef”, although more recently he joked that “Putin’s butcher” would be more appropriate.

Concord has also provided catering and utility services to the Russian military.

In 2017, opposition figure and corruption fighter Alexei Navalny accused Prigozhin’s companies of breaking antitrust laws by bidding for around £300m in defence ministry contracts.

Prigozhin reportedly had a net worth of $1 billion at the time of his death.

Military connection

In 2014, he founded Wagner, a Kremlin-allied private military company whose mercenary fighters have come to play a central role in Mr Putin’s projection of Russian influence in trouble spots around the world, including Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic.

The United States has sanctioned it and accused it of atrocities, which Prigozhin denied.

Wagner fighters allegedly provide security for national leaders or warlords in exchange for lucrative payments, often including a share of gold or other natural resources. US officials say Russia may also be using Wagner’s work in Africa to support its war in Ukraine.

Prigozhin’s mercenaries have become a major force in that conflict, fighting as counterparts to the Russian army in battles against Ukrainian forces.

That includes Wagner fighters battling for Bakhmut, where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place.

By May this year, Wagner forces and Russian soldiers appeared to have largely won the city, a victory with strategically slight importance for the invader, despite the cost in lives.

The US estimates that nearly half of the 20,000 Russian troops killed in Ukraine since December were Wagner fighters in Bakhmut.

Prigozhin’s soldiers-for-hire include thousands of inmates recruited from Russian prisons.

Raging against Russia’s generals

As his forces fought and died en masse in Ukraine, Prigozhin increasingly raged against the Russian military’s top brass. He used social media to trumpet Wagner’s successes and accuse the army of incompetence and even treason.

In a video released by his team in May, Prigozhin stood next to rows of bodies he said were those of Wagner fighters.

He accused Russia’s regular military of incompetence and of starving his troops of the weapons and ammunition they needed to fight.

“These are someone’s fathers and someone’s sons,” Prigozhin declared bitterly. “The scum that doesn’t give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell.”

US election meddling

The former convict and Kremlin caterer has acknowledged that he founded and financed the Internet Research Agency, a company that Washington says is a “troll farm” that meddled in the 2016 US presidential election. In November 2022, Prigozhin said he had interfered in US elections and would do so again.

He and a dozen other Russian nationals and three Russian companies were all charged with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s victory. They were indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.

The US Treasury Department subsequently sanctioned Prigozhin and associates repeatedly in connection with both the alleged election interference and his leadership of Wagner.

After the 2018 indictment, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Prigozhin as saying, in a clearly sarcastic remark: “Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I treat them with great respect. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

The Biden White House called him “a known bad actor” prior to his death and State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Prigozhin’s “bold confession, if anything, appears to be just a manifestation of the impunity that crooks and cronies enjoy under President Putin and the Kremlin”.

Avoiding challenges to Putin

As Prigozhin grew more outspoken against the way Russia’s conventional military had conducted the fighting in Ukraine, he continued to play a seemingly indispensable role for the Russian offensive and appeared to suffer no retaliation from Mr Putin for his criticism of Moscow’s generals.

Media reports at times suggested Prigozhin’s influence over the president was growing and that he was hoping to be rewarded with a prominent political post, although some analysts felt this assessment of his ambitions was overstated.

“He’s not one of Putin’s close figures or a confidant,” said Mark Galeotti of University College, London, who specialises in Russian security affairs, speaking on his podcast, In Moscow’s Shadows.

“Prigozhin does what the Kremlin wants and does very well for himself in the process. But that’s the thing – he is part of the staff rather than part of the family,” he said.

However, it now appears that his failed mutiny was an insult too far from Mr Putin, who seems to have bided his time before taking out a rival in typically brutal fashion, more than justifying CIA director William Burns’s characterisation of the Russian leader as the “ultimate apostle of payback”.

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