Since the rebellion he orchestrated on June 24, Yevgeny Prigozhin has kept a low profile. Russian civil aviation confirmed on Wednesday (August 23rd) that he and his right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin, were present in a plane that crashed halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, in the Tver region.
There has not yet been any official confirmation of his death, but the disappearance of Wagner's founder raises many questions, including that of a potential revenge on the part of the one he has long been considered one of the allies: Russian President Vladimir Putin, to punish him for his coup last June.
Yevgeny Prigozhin then justified his gesture by his desire to remove Russian military commanders, first and foremost Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, whom he accused of failing in Ukraine by their corruption and incompetence.
"In 24 hours, we approached within 200 km of Moscow. During this time, we did not shed a drop of blood from our fighters," the Wagner leader, in military uniform, said in a video. "Being aware (...) that Russian blood would be shed on one side, we turn our columns back and return to our combat bases as planned."
On the evening of Saturday, June 24, videos showed the head of the Wagner Group getting into an SUV and leaving the Russian army headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, which serves as a logistical base for the "special military operation" in Ukraine. As for its mercenaries, they withdrew during the night from Saturday to Sunday from Rostov after ending their advance towards Moscow which, for a whole day, posed an unprecedented challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 23 years of power.
In the months leading up to the rebellion, Yevgeny Prigozhin had openly criticized the military "establishment", going so far as to ask his "protector", Vladimir Putin, to carry out "Stalinist purges" in the administration. France 24 traces the journey of Vladimir Putin's warlord who became public enemy number one of the Kremlin.
Prigozhine, from shadow to light
This close adviser to the Russian president – they both grew up in St. Petersburg and had known each other for twenty years – has always been presented as both the "cook" of the master of the Kremlin and his man of dirty work.
The first nickname came from his past as a restaurateur. He met Vladimir Putin in 2001 when he owned one of the most prominent restaurants in St. Petersburg. Legend has it that Vladimir Putin, freshly elected president, opted for his establishment to impress his guest of the day: Jacques Chirac.
Yevgeny Prigozhin then followed his new mentor to Moscow, where he became the good little soldier in charge of carrying out the Kremlin's most shameful tasks, both domestically and internationally. But nothing could be officially attributed to him, as Putin's "leader" acted behind the scenes, fleeing as much as possible the spotlight.
Before the war in Ukraine, he was mainly credited with being the founder of the Wagner Group – a detachment of mercenaries whose very existence was denied by Moscow – and for being the boss of the Internet Research Agency, the famous "troll factory" credited with being at the heart of the influence operation of the 2016 US presidential campaign. But here again, Yevgeny Prigozhin refused to be associated with it, even threatening legal action against those who claimed otherwise.
Read alsoBehind the scenes of the Russian troll factory, the Internet Research Agency
But that was before the beginning, on February 24, 2022, of a "special military operation" that continues to stumble on the Ukrainian resistance. Since then, the man in the shadows had turned into a media beast that confesses and claims almost everything.
The Wagner Group? It is indeed him, and he hastened to open an official office of this mercenary agency in St. Petersburg, Friday, November 4. Troll in chief in Russia? Him again. On the eve of the 2022 midterm elections in the United States, Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that he had tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Gone are the days when Putin's henchman acted in silence. He appeared on Telegram to applaud, Monday, November 14, the brutal murder of a deserter by his mercenaries of the Wagner group.
He also called for the arrest of Alexander Beglov, the governor of St. Petersburg. The two men had been fighting behind the scenes for years over dark stories of public procurement. But this time, Yevgeny Prigozhin made the confrontation public by accusing Alexander Beglov of all evils: he would lead an "organized crime network" in St. Petersburg, but would also regularly promote "Ukrainian nationalism".
The revenge of the violent "gangster"
This new posture of Yevgeny Prigozhin was "both surprising, because he spent so much time denying everything, and quite understandable," said Stephen Hall, a specialist on Russia at the University of Bath (England) in June.
As the Russian army disappointed, "the security and technocratic apparatus in place lost credibility in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, and Yevgeny Prigozhin wanted to take advantage of this to increase his political influence," summarized Jeff Hawn, a specialist in security issues in Russia and external consultant for the New Lines Institute. an American geopolitical research center.
Indeed, despite the countless published portraits of the "leader of Putin" that portray him as an intimate of the master of the Kremlin, "he has never been in the first circle of political advisers," added Stephen Hall.
Yevgeny Prigozhin did not have the right profile. He never went through the Communist Party before the fall of the wall, had no relay in the intelligence services and had no political support apart from Vladimir Putin. "He's a Russian-style 'self-made man', which is to say he's a gangster who got rich by being more ruthless than the others," Hawn said. He was sentenced to prison in his youth for robbery and membership of organized crime.
A perfect CV to don the clothes of Vladimir Putin's henchman, but less to wear the costume of respectable political advisor that counts. Except that the war has reshuffled the cards "and Prigozhin saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate that it is his methods that work best," for Stephen Hall.
The increasingly public positions of the ex-man of the shadows in recent months were, according to Jeff Hawn, "the signal of a turf war that is taking place in the corridors of power".
Surviving with or without Putin
Although he had multiplied the accusations against the Russian military command, Yevgeny Prigozhin had always been careful not to criticize Vladimir Putin. The Russian president had adopted the same strategy, turning a deaf ear, in public, to the repeated provocations of his protégé.
"It's true that Vladimir Putin let him do a lot," stressed General Dominique Trinquand, former head of the French military mission to the United Nations, pointing to the "extremely troubled link" between the two men. But by declaring war on the army command, Yevgeny Prigozhin reached the point of no return. He then had to leave Russia for Belarus.
Denouncing the "betrayal" of the one who has long been his protégé, but whose name he did not at any time pronounce during his speech on television, the Russian president had promised a "relentless" response against the authors of the armed rebellion.
Updated an article originally published on June 24, 2023.
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