By orchestrating an insurrection through his paramilitary organization Wagner in June within Russia, Yevgeny Prigojine’s status transitioned from a prominent figure in the conflict in Ukraine to a sworn adversary of Vladimir Putin.
On a fateful Wednesday, he was listed as a passenger on an aircraft that tragically crashed in Russia, resulting in the loss of all 10 individuals aboard.
On June 24, the day following the commencement of Wagner’s rebellion, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned Yevgeny Prigojine’s “betrayal,” attributing it to unchecked ambitions and personal interests.
The impulsive billionaire, recognized by his shaved head and stern countenance, boldly asserted that he had captured the nerve center of operations in Ukraine—the Russian army headquarters in Rostov-on-the-Don—without firing a single shot. This came after he accused the Russian army of bombing his group’s camps.
Subsequently, his fiercely determined followers advanced towards Moscow, even shooting down Russian military planes, prompting the world to hold its breath.
Ultimately, the 62-year-old leader of the mercenaries opted to abandon the coup within 24 hours, negotiating an exile for himself and his supporters in Belarus. This move allowed him to evade imprisonment and legal consequences.
Notably, Mr. Prigojine’s return to Russia and his subsequent reception at the Kremlin after the revolt, despite fading from public view, aroused suspicion. Although he has withdrawn from the public eye, online blogs specializing in such matters monitor his activities and flights.
From an undisclosed location in Africa, he recently released a video proclaiming his actions to further Russia’s influence on the continent, where his paramilitary group has undertaken covert assignments for the Kremlin across countries such as the Central African Republic, Mali, Libya, and Syria. Wagner’s existence, previously unacknowledged by the Kremlin until late 2022, has, over a decade, earned a reputation for collaborating with regimes seeking to disengage from Western support or seeking discrete and ruthless combatants.
– Master of Provocation –
The conflict in Ukraine presented a prime opportunity for the entrepreneur to step out of the shadows.
He enlisted a substantial number of prisoners to join the front lines, where the Russian military was encountering difficulties.
Diverging from high-ranking Russian officials, the leader of the mercenaries personally participated in combat and documented the fatalities of his comrades to secure more resources.
In May 2023, following nearly a year of intense battles, Mr. Prigojine accomplished his objective: asserting that Wagner had successfully taken control of Bakhmout in eastern Ukraine. This marked a rare victory for Russia, albeit at great human cost, despite ongoing skirmishes near the ravaged city.
However, this battle also exacerbated tensions with General Valéri Guérassimov and Defense Minister Sergei Choïgou. Mr. Prigojine accused them of depriving Wagner of supplies and amplified this sentiment through videos where he insulted Russian commanders. Such behavior, considered unthinkable in Russia’s current climate of repression, further strained relations.
His transition from obscurity to prominence commenced in September 2022, capitalizing on Russia’s successive setbacks in Ukraine—a humbling experience for the war advocates of which he was a part.
During this period, he admitted for the first time that he founded the paramilitary group Wagner in 2014. He subsequently showcased his leadership and communication prowess on Telegram, sharing videos and audio messages replete with coarse language.
He praised his fighters as heroes who defended various populations in Arab countries, Africa, and Latin America. These operatives, according to him, became a cornerstone of the homeland.
In a bold move in October, he established the headquarters of the “private military company Wagner” in a grandiose glass building in Saint Petersburg, taking his provocative tactics to new heights.
Displaying his penchant for provocation, he released a video in February featuring him on a fighter plane, challenging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to determine Bakhmout’s fate through an aerial duel.
– Entrepreneurial Billionaire –
To amass an army commensurate with his aspirations, Mr. Prigojine, hailing from the same city as Vladimir Putin—Saint Petersburg—enlisted prisoners to engage in combat in Ukraine, offering amnesty in return.
Having experienced nine years of imprisonment during the Soviet era for conventional criminal offenses, Mr. Prigojine was intimately acquainted with the penal system. He gained his freedom in 1990, coinciding with the USSR’s collapse, and embarked on a successful venture selling hot dogs.
His enterprises later became more upscale, culminating in a high-end restaurant that gained immense popularity in Saint Petersburg, a city where Vladimir Putin concurrently ascended in the political sphere.
Following Vladimir Putin’s assumption of the presidency in 2000, Mr. Prigojine’s catering company operated within the Kremlin, leading to his moniker “Putin’s chef.” This association also fueled claims that he became a billionaire through government contracts.
These financial resources ostensibly funded the establishment of Wagner—a private military entity initially comprised of seasoned veterans from the Russian armed forces and intelligence services.
In 2018, when Wagner attracted attention for its involvement in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya, suspicions arose about its expansion into Africa. Tragically, in the Central African Republic, three Russian journalists investigating the activities of this paramilitary organization were killed.