Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, has risen to prominence after taking an increasingly visible role in the war in Ukraine, where his mercenaries are fighting for Moscow after suffering heavy losses of regular troops and humiliating losses of territory. Deterioration of conditions.
Wagner’s troops raised a Russian flag in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmu in April after a long and bloody battle, scoring a badly needed victory in the 15-month conflict.
Prigogine used the moment of victory just days after as an opportunity to blame Russia’s military elite for the failure in Ukraine, which could have some sort of public pick without retaliation from the Kremlin.
The ongoing dispute with the Defense Ministry reached new heights on Saturday when Wagner’s leader claimed his fighters had entered the Russian border town of Rostov-on-Don from Ukraine – and would fight anyone who tried to stop them.
The Wagner chief also questioned the Kremlin’s official version of why Russia invaded Ukraine.
“The Ministry of Defense is trying to deceive society and the president and tell us a story about how there was a crazy invasion from Ukraine and they planned to attack us with the whole of NATO,” Prigozhin said in a video clip published on Telegram. His press service on Friday.
In an emergency televised address, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wagner’s “armed rebellion” amounted to treason and that anyone who took up arms against the Russian military would be punished.
The provocation came a day after Prigogine accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of ordering a rocket attack on Ukraine’s Wagner Field Camp, killing “huge numbers” of fighters.
What is Prigozhin’s background?
Prigogine, 62, was convicted of robbery and assault in 1981 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. After his release, he opened a restaurant business in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.
It was in this capacity that he became acquainted with Putin, then the city’s deputy mayor.
He used this connection to develop a catering business and won lucrative Russian government contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s Chef”. He later expanded into other areas, including the media and a notorious internet “troll factory” that led to his indictment in the United States for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
In January, Prigogine admitted to founding, leading and financing the shadowy Wagner company.
He said that “at the best of times” he had 50,000 men at his disposal, with about 35,000 always on the front lines. He did not say whether those numbers resulted in convictions, but he reportedly toured Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising pardons if they survived a half-year tour of front-line duty with Wagner.
Why did Prigogine gain prominence?
Prigogine’s scarred face, tightly shaven head and uneven tobacco-stained teeth are widely recognized, as is his vocabulary filled with profanity.
According to the survey, he is the fifth most recognized figure behind Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
He carved out a political niche among conservative Russians who revere Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and want to win the war in Ukraine, no matter what.
“Comrade Stalin was absolutely right,” Prigogine said in May, referring to the execution of soldiers and officers who “failed” to support the failed war effort.
Such legislation would be similar to Stalin’s WWII policies.
Prigogine also said that after losing tens of thousands of mercenaries in eastern Ukraine, his Wagner Group needed to recruit more people and “transform into an army with an ideology”.
To some outside observers, Prigogine’s conversion could be part of the Kremlin’s plan to transfer power if the “Times of Troubles” fall between the death of Tsar Ivan the Terrible and the rise of the Romanov dynasty four centuries ago.
What is Wagner Group?
Prigogine’s company was called Wagner after the nickname of its first commander, Dmitri Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Russian military’s special forces. It soon established a reputation for brutality and ruthlessness.
Wagner was first seen working in eastern Ukraine shortly after a separatist conflict erupted there in April 2014, within weeks of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
While supporting a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, Russia has denied sending its own weapons and troops there, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Involving private contractors in the war allows Moscow some degree of deniability.
Wagner personnel were also deployed to Syria, where Russia supported President Bashar al-Assad’s government in a war. In Libya, they fought the forces of rebel commander Khalifa Haftar. The group is also believed to operate in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Prigogine reportedly used Wagner’s deployments to Syria and African countries to secure lucrative mining contracts. US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said in January that the agency was using access to African gold and other resources to funnel funds to Ukraine.
Some Russian media have alleged that Wagner was involved in the 2018 murders of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic who were investigating the group’s activities. The murder remains unsolved.
Why is Wagner accused of human rights violations?
Western countries and UN experts have accused Wagner’s mercenaries of human rights abuses across Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
In 2021, the European Union accused the group of “serious human rights violations, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings” and of carrying out “destabilizing activities” in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
Several videos have surfaced showing some of the activities that contributed to Wagner’s fearsome reputation.
A 2017 online video shows a group of armed men, allegedly Wagner contractors, torturing a Syrian and beating him to death with a sledgehammer before mutilating and burning his body. Russian authorities ignored media and rights activists’ requests for an investigation.
In 2022, another video showed a former Wagner contractor being beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he allegedly fled to Ukraine and was repatriated. Despite public outrage and demands for an investigation, the Kremlin has turned a blind eye.