The head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District on June 24, 2023 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.
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Yevgeny Prigozhin using his close relationship with the President of Russia Putin to get rich and build an army of his own — then march to Moscow in a great challenge according to the rules of his former boss.
Mercenary leader Wagner seems to have abandoned that rebellion to live in exile in Belarus, in an agreement that leaves more questions than answers.
“It would be naive if Prigozhin thought this was over,” Michael A. Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst and head of intelligence at consulting firm Le Beck, told NBC News. .
Here’s a look at the man behind Russia’s biggest uprising in post-Soviet history, who went from prison to lead a military uprising that took place within about a hundred miles. from Moscow.
Who knows what’s next.
As a native of St. Petersburg as Putin, Prigozhin, 62, has one of the most diverse biographies in the Kremlin elite.
He admitted to serving 10 years in prison as a young man, although he did not say for what. He later developed a hot dog stand into a chain of high-end restaurants, eventually attracting the attention of the Russian president and earning lucrative contracts to cater to public school events. and the Kremlin, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef”.
Over time, Prigohzin fulfilled many of Putin’s other needs.
The Russian leader has sought to project influence around the world — from neighboring countries in Eastern Europe to the Middle East and Africa — and Prigozhin has helped him do it.
Around 2014, he created Wagner, according to a member recruited by Prigozhin into mercenary garb in its early days.
Kremlin just occupied Ukraine Crimean peninsula and targeted the eastern Donbas region, where conflict is raging after mass protests in Kyiv toppled the pro-Russian government. Suddenly, Putin has a war on his hands but doesn’t want to send in regular troops or call up drafts and faces the possibility of Russians returning home in body bags.
So Prigozhin provided a solution.
He has created a force of unwanted people who have military experience or a history of violence who are looking for work and may be less likely to be missed if they are killed. Wagner’s initial operations in Ukraine were somewhat successful, and the conflict there continued unopposed by the Russian public.
The Kremlin has always denied any official military presence in eastern Ukraine, and while Prigozhin had previously dismissed suggestions that he had links to Wagner, last year he admitted it. acknowledged on social media that he founded this group in 2014 and that the group was involved in the conflict. in eastern Ukraine.
Prigohzin’s next mission gets more attention, especially from America
He founded the Internet Research Agency, the bot farm that interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, polluting social networks with misinformation, lies, and skepticism about the legitimacy of the process. vote. Whether it affects the outcome of the election remains an open question, but the US intelligence community has pointed out and Prigozhin is sanctionedwho said last year that he interfered in the US election and will continue to do so.
Then came Russia’s intervention in the war in Syria. Putin wants to support the President Bashar al-Assad and against the Western-backed insurgency, but, again, doing it off the books with few official Russian casualties. There, Wagner again became instrumental in his efforts, and its warriors remained in the Middle Eastern country years later.
Once a businessman, Prigozhin also expanded his operations into Africa.
inside Central African RepublicPrigohzin discovered that if Wagner supported the weak government and helped them fight a rebellion, the group could help itself exploit the impoverished country’s resources, mainly gold and blood diamonds.
Now, the man who’s started his life anew with just a hot dog stand has an army that’s been battle-tested, experienced in misinformation and, perhaps most importantly, has resources. its own independent sponsorship.
with full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Prigozhin was able and eager to once again prove his worth to Putin.
When the Russian army encountered surprisingly strong resistance, Wagner’s mercenaries came in handy in the bloodiest battles. To strengthen their ranks, Prigozhin turn to a place you know wellpromises freedom to convicts in Russian prisons if they can survive more than six months on the front lines.
Wagner led the battle for several important Ukrainian cities, including Bakhmutan eastern city became an important symbolic award for Putin when he claimed to have appropriated it last month at the expense of thousands of men.
While touting his mercenaries as game-changers in Ukraine and gradually gaining public attention, Prigozhin increasingly came into conflict with the military establishment in Moscow.
Using his smooth social media machine, Prigozhin emerged as a leading voice for hardliners and influential pro-war figures who criticized his approach. Kremlin for the war.
He accused the Ministry of Defense and its chief, Sergei Shoigu, of downplaying Wagner’s role and not providing him with fighter jets. with enough ammowhile blaming the “incompetent” military leadership for Russia’s failures in Ukraine.
The bitter feud escalated in recent weeks when Moscow allowed all private mercenary forces to contract with the Ministry of Defense until July 1, but Prigozhin refused.
The stalemate then erupted and Prigozhin launched an armed uprising on Friday after allegations that Russian troops had fired on his mercenaries.
While Putin seemed pleased at first to let the internal controversies go, it seems that even the Russian leader may have underestimated how powerful and bold Prigohzin has become. .
“I think what really triggered his decision to launch a frenzied attack on Moscow was the order given earlier in the month,” Horowitz said, referring to his request for fighter jets. contract with the Ministry of Defense. Prigozhin sees this as a “prelude to disbanding” the private army he has painstakingly built over the years, Horowitz said.
This is a signal to the mercenary commander that “Putin has sided with his enemy”, he said, adding that Prigozhin “may feel that his safety is no longer guaranteed. in the long run and if he doesn’t act he’ll end up sidelined (preferably) or dead. He’s got nothing to lose.”
Prior to the mutiny, US intelligence agencies had gathered information that Prigozhin had planned to challenge senior Russian military leaders and had informed congressional leaders of it. Last week, a source familiar with the matter told NBC News. They added that intelligence revealed that Wagner had amassed forces and weapons, although the intelligence was uncertain.
In the end, it is unclear what Prigozhin achieved.
He said on Saturday that he was within 120 miles of the Russian capital but decided to move troops to “avoid shedding Russian blood”.
The Kremlin said Prigozhin would not face any charges and would go to Belarus, where the leader, Alexander Lukashenko, apparently helped broker the deal.
The big question is what will happen to his Wagner army?
The Kremlin has said it will not prosecute fighters who took part in the uprising, and that Wagner forces can still contract with the Defense Ministry if they so desire.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a former commander of the US Army in Europe, said an estimated 25,000 Wagner fighters would be dispersed “under suspicion” in Russia’s regular army.
For Prigozhin himself, the true nature of the solution to the crisis is unknown, as is the future of the Wagner leader.
But Putin has a reputation for not allowing his enemies to live in quiet exile, and his description of Prigozhin as a traitor suggests he views the uprising, like many analysts, as a direct threat. continued to his rule.
“Going to Belarus could be an option – he seems to know and trust Lukashenko very well – but he would still be in danger there,” Horowitz said. “My best bet is that he will continue to operate in Ukraine, rather than Belarus, where he can justify maintaining relative freedom among his loyalists.
“But either way, he’s cornered himself by going too far or not going far enough,” Horowitz said. “If he’s quiet, he might still end up drinking poisoned tea, and if he’s too loud, he’ll become even more of a burden to Moscow.”