Yevgeny Prigozhin: Russia’s Mercenary Supremo Turned Kremlin Enemy

Mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a plane crash near Moscow on Wednesday, was a Kremlin confident launched to infamy by Russia’s offensive in Ukraine before turning his forces on Russia’s capital.

Prigozhin’s June call for his private fighting squad to march on Moscow to remove Russia’s top brass posed the most serious challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s two-decade-long grasp on power.

His men took a crucial military headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don before heading to Moscow, where officials ramped up security in expectation of a showdown.

“The evil that the military leadership of the country brings must be stopped,” Prigozhin announced after claiming the defence ministry had launched strikes on Wagner bases.

However, Putin eventually offered exile in neighboring Belarus to the mutineers and Prigozhin, who appeared in footage last week claiming to make Africa “freer” and implying he was on the continent.

Prior to Putin’s decision to send troops to Ukraine in February last year, the 62-year-old mercenary chief despatched militants from his private force to wars in the Middle East and Africa but always denied involvement.

That changed last year, when he identified himself as the founder of the Wagner group and began a large recruitment campaign for foot troops to fight in exchange for amnesty in Russia’s jails.

Bitter top brass rivalry

Wagner rose to prominence after leading the seizure of numerous significant Ukrainian towns, notably Bakhmut. Prigozhin, on the other hand, began slamming the Russian defense ministry for what he called widespread incompetence and dishonesty.

Prigozhin was embroiled in a months-long power struggle with the defense ministry, while his ragtag men led the costly battles for marginal gains in eastern Ukraine.

He had previously accused the Russian military of attempting to “steal” Wagner’s achievements and lambasted Moscow’s “monstrous bureaucracy” for stifling advances on the ground.

And he directly accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other top officials for the deaths of his fighters, stating that Moscow had not delivered enough ammo.

Unlike Russia’s generals, who have been chastised for avoiding war, the stocky and bald Prigozhin posed for photographs alongside mercenaries ostensibly on the front lines.

He shared photographs from the cockpit of an SU-24 fighter jet on social media and challenged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to an aerial duel.

For years, the former hotdog vendor and native of Putin’s hometown Saint Petersburg, who was imprisoned for nearly a decade during the Soviet era, denied any association with Wagner.

Last September, however, he admitted that he had established the fighting force and established headquarters in Saint Petersburg.

A video surfaced of a man bearing a strong resemblance to Prigozhin in a prison courtyard, offering contracts to prisoners to fight in Ukraine with a chilling set of conditions.

Shooting deserters

“If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we will regard it as desertion and will shoot you,” said the man.

When video footage of an alleged Wagner deserter being executed with a sledgehammer leaked, Prigozhin praised the killing, calling the man in the video a “dog.”

Prigozhin came from humble beginnings in Russia’s ancient imperial capital to become a member of Putin’s closest circle.

He spent nine years in prison during the Soviet Union’s closing years after being convicted of fraud and theft, and in the chaos of the 1990s, he started a fairly successful fast food business.

He fell into the restaurant business, opening a fancy location in Saint Petersburg whose patrons included Putin, before transitioning from KGB to local politics.

The company he created once worked for the Kremlin, garnering Prigozhin the nickname “Putin’s chef.”

Although the magnitude of Prigozhin’s riches is unknown, he has been described as a billionaire with a massive fortune established on governmental contracts.

One of the most famous photographs is of him at the Kremlin in 2011, leaning down over a seated Putin and handing him a plate while the Russian leader smiles back with approval.

The ‘troll factory’

Washington sanctioned him, accusing him of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, specifically through his online “troll factory.”

Prigozhin denied any involvement at the time and requested $50 billion in restitution from the US in 2020.

An ambush murdered three journalists probing Wagner’s actions in the Central African Republic for an investigative media site in July 2018.

Western governments have accused the private fighting company of assisting Mali’s military junta, which led to France’s decision to cease a nearly decade-long military involvement there.

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