The Curious Post-Mutiny Career of Wagner Warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin is shown prior to a meeting of Russian President Vla
Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool via AP

The reported potential death of Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin on Wednesday concludes a curious post-mutiny career during which Prigozhin appeared to find some measure of acceptance in Moscow even though he led a column of mercenaries to within a few miles of it.

Prigozhin began as a petty street criminal, accumulated phenomenal wealth as a restauranteur after tickling the taste buds of President Vladimir Putin, and then became one of the world’s most infamous mercenary warlords when he poured his wealth into the Wagner Group. Prigozhin’s career up until his June 24 mutiny against the Russian military command is chronicled in detail here.

Prigozhin was supposed to retreat into exile in Belarus after its dictator Alexander Lukashenko persuaded him to halt his June 24 march on Moscow. The Wagner boss reportedly arrived in Belarus three days later with an unspecified number of his troops, but if he was ever really in Belarus, he did not stay there long.

On July 4, police in St. Petersburg, Russia, announced they returned a fortune worth about $111 million to Prigozhin. The huge cache of cash and gold was seized in raids after Prigozhin mutinied. St. Petersburg media said the loot weighed tons, so Prigozhin went there in person with a security team to take possession of it. He also reportedly claimed his personal arsenal of pistols and rifles.

This all seemed oddly generous for the Putin regime, given that Priogzhin had just aborted an insurrection that began with him seizing military control of a Russian city, Rostov-on-Don. During their march on Moscow, Wagner forces shot down several Russian military aircraft, a detail confirmed by Putin when he paid tribute to the slain pilots. Putin pointedly thanked the “fallen heroes” for saving Russia from “tragic devastating consequences” by standing up to the “mutineers.”

Five days after the mutiny, Putin met with Prigozhin and offered his Wagner mercenaries “employment.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said thirty-five unit commanders and Wagner managers attended the meeting, “including Prigozhin himself.”

Putin’s condemnations of the mutineers had always been strangely flexible – he called them traitors and vowed to bring them to “justice,” but also insisted most of Wagner’s employees were “Russian patriots.” 

The Wagner leaders at the meeting, presumably including Prigozhin, supposedly convinced Putin they were his “staunch supporters and soldiers” and were “ready to fight for the motherland going forward.”

Prigozhin likewise insisted from the beginning of the mutiny that his beef was not with Putin, but with certain criminally incompetent members of the Russian high command who let Putin down during the Ukraine invasion, particularly Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He said soon after the mutiny that his forces were ready to resume their position as one of the most brutally effective forces in Ukraine.

Shoigu disappeared for a while after the mutiny, but he resurfaced in a Defense Ministry video on June 26 and paid a highly publicized visit to frontline troops in Ukraine on August 4. Another target of Prigozhin’s heated criticism, chief of the general staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, visited the front line shortly before Shoigu. Prigozhin’s mutiny did not appear to dislodge either man from power and now Putin was offering to bring Wagner back into the fold.

In mid-July, Putin pressured the Russian parliament to formally legalize private military companies like Wagner. Despite its well-earned reputation as the dirtiest of Putin’s dirty tricks units, Wagner has always been technically illegal under Russian law. 

Putin singled out Wagner and praised it for “fighting with dignity” in Ukraine when he pushed for legalization, hinting that the company’s murky legal status might have led its members astray. Up until that point, Putin generally responded to questions about Wagner by claiming it did not exist. His flunkies suddenly began insisting he had always meant it did not exist legally and it was high time for lawmakers to fix that.

Military analysts speculated that Putin wanted to control the Wagner Group, which occupies precious real estate in several parts of the world and siphons a great deal of wealth from its nominal clients. Prigozhin’s seeming rapprochement with Putin might have come about because Putin concluded no one but Prigozhin could effectively run Wagner, or because Putin feared eliminating Wagner would destabilize the company and scare off its clients.

Prigozhin added some credibility to that theory by announcing he would focus his attention on Africa. In one of his sporadic video messages released on July 19, he told his fighters stationed in Belarus to prepare themselves for “a new journey to Africa.”

“And perhaps we will return to the special military operation in Ukraine at some point, when we are sure that we will not be forced to shame ourselves,” he added, apparently still bitter about his feud with Shoigu and Gerasimov.

Hundreds of Wagner mercenaries reportedly poured into the Central African Republic (CAR) in July to “ensure security” ahead of a referendum that would give President Faustin-Archange Touadera a previously unconstitutional third term in office. 

The United Nations and various human rights groups have accused Wagner of committing atrocities in the CAR, including the use of rape as a weapon against civilians. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned companies linked to Wagner in June for exploiting the CAR’s natural resources. It certainly looked like Touader hired Wagner as his personal goon squad and paid them off with a cut of the CAR’s gold and diamond mines.

On July 29, a social media message purportedly composed by Prigozhin endorsed the coup in Niger, which he lauded as heroic resistance against “colonizers,” and offered Wagner’s assistance to repel any outside intervention. He also praised Mali and the CAR as countries growing “more and more independent” with Russia’s protection.

On Tuesday, in his first video message since the mutiny – and, if he did indeed perish in the Wednesday plane crash, his final video message – Prigozhin posed with weapons and camouflage gear on what appeared to be African soil. He boasted that Wagner’s efforts “make Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa more free.”

Prigozhin claimed he and his forces were busy hunting down terrorists and bringing “justice and happiness for the African people.”

“We’re making life a nightmare for ISIS, and al-Qaeda, and other bandits,” he bragged, throwing out the phone number for his recruiting line and inviting viewers to join up.

“We’re recruiting real heroes and continue to carry out the tasks that have been set and that we promised to deal with,” Prigozhin said.

Taken in sum, Prigozhin’s activities since the mutiny suggest he was working his way back into Putin’s good graces, possibly by convincing the Russian dictator he was too valuable to eliminate. Alternatively, Putin might have been making sure things were in order at Wagner PMC before deciding to liquidate its mutinous leader. Prigozhin might have simply died in a random plane crash, although few observers seemed inclined to believe that on Wednesday afternoon.

“We have seen the reports. If confirmed, no one should be surprised. The disastrous war in Ukraine led to a private army marching on Moscow, and now – it would seem – to this,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson remarked on Wednesday.

Another clue is that Priogzhin’s old friend Gen. Sergei Surovikin was formally dismissed as chief of Russia’s aerospace forces on Wednesday. Surovikin was in charge of the Ukraine invasion at one point, but he disappeared after Prigozhin’s mutiny in June. Various Russian officials have previously insisted Surovikin was on vacation or preparing for a new position.

Surovikin’s predecessor as Ukraine commander, Col.-Gen. Gennady Zhikdo, died at the age of 57 after a “long illness” in Moscow last week. He was fired from his post in October after sustaining heavy losses in a Ukrainian counteroffensive around the city of Kherson, which Surovikin retreated from after he took over. Zhidko’s obituary on the state-run Tass news service curiously failed to mention he was once in charge of the Ukraine invasion.


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