Yevgeny Prigozhin: All you need to know about the man staging a ‘coup’ in Russia

Yevgeny Prigozhin has started a rebellion inside Russia after a series of increasingly critical outbursts against the military’s top brass.

He has given orders for his own private army of mercenaries to seize important military facilities.

As the Wagner Group’s leader, Prigozhin became an important figure in 2022’s full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. In crucial theatres of the conflict, such as the city of Bakhmut, Wagner fighters commanded the Russian assault.

As the battle continued, he expressed increasing disapproval of senior military figures in Russia for what he perceived as an unsuccessful attempt to carry out the objectives of the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.

He refrained from accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin, though; the two men had been close in the past.

How then did a guy with questionable origins come to wield such power and a reputation for terrifying brutality? And how did he come to be in charge of a rebellion within Russia?

Yevgeny Prigozhin: Who is He?

Yevgeny Prigozhin is a native of Vladimir Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg.

When he was only 18 years old, he was found guilty of his first crime and handed a two-and-a-half-year term with a suspended sentence for theft. He was given a 13-year prison term for robbery and theft two years later, of which he served nine.

Prigozhin established a network of stands selling hot dogs in St. Petersburg after being let out of prison. As a result of successful business operations, Prigozhin was able to quickly establish high-end restaurants in the city during the turbulent 1990s.

He started mingling with the powerful people of St. Petersburg and later Russia there. One of his eateries, New Island, was a vessel that navigated the Neva River. Vladimir Putin liked it so much that he began taking his foreign guests there after he was elected president. And that’s probably how the two of them initially connected.

In an interview, Prigozhin stated, “Vladimir Putin saw that I had no trouble serving plates to dignitaries in person.” “We met when he arrived with Prime Minister Mori of Japan.”

At the very beginning of Vladimir Putin’s administration, in April 2000, Yoshiro Mori paid a visit to St. Petersburg.

In 2003, Mr. Putin had enough faith in Prigozhin to have his birthday party on New Island.

Years later, the Kremlin hired Prigozhin’s catering business Concord to provide food, earning him the moniker “Putin’s chef”. Additionally, the military and state-run colleges awarded lucrative catering contracts to companies connected to Prigozhin.

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Formation of the Wagner group

However, it wasn’t until 2014’s Russian invasion of Ukraine that it became clear that Prigozhin was no regular businessman. First, it was claimed that a mysterious private military organisation associated with him was engaged in combat with Ukrainian soldiers in the eastern Donbas region.

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It is frequently referred to as Wagner, after the call sign of one of its important early commanders. According to reports, he was attracted by Nazi Germany, which used the works of the composer from the 19th century for propaganda.

Ironically, President Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, has “de-Nazification” of Ukraine as one of its primary avowed goals.

Wagner was active not only in Ukraine but also throughout Africa and beyond, always carrying out activities that aided the Kremlin’s objectives, such as supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria or thwarting French influence in Mali.

The mercenary band developed a dreadful reputation for brutality over time.

In 2017, Wagner members are said to have beheaded and set a Syrian prisoner on fire after torturing him with a sledgehammer.

Three Russian journalists were assassinated the next year while looking into Wagner’s activities in the Central African Republic.

Wagner was once again charged with using a sledgehammer to kill a man in 2022 because of allegations that he had “betrayed” the organisation in Ukraine. Unverified video of the gruesome murder was described by Prigozhin as “a dog’s death for a dog” in his statement. He asserted that he had mailed the MPs a sledgehammer covered in blood after they demanded that Wagner be labelled as a terrorist organisation.

For years, Prigozhin vehemently denied any connections to Wagner, even going so far as to sue anyone who made the suggestion. However, he then claimed that he had founded the group in 2014, in September 2022.

Wagner is under sanctions from the US, EU, and UK but is nevertheless permitted to operate in Russia despite the fact that the legislation forbids the use of mercenaries.

Trolls and bots

Yevgeny Prigozhin also participated in international politics, although this time through the use of keyboards rather than men with weapons.

Yevgeny Prigozhin has been charged with running “troll farms” or “bot factories” for years, which used online accounts to propagate pro-Kremlin propaganda. The Internet Research Agency (IRA), which is based in St. Petersburg and is best known for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election, was in charge of such initiatives.

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Robert Mueller, a former FBI director who was tasked with looking into allegations of collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, came to the conclusion that the IRA ran a social media operation intended to incite and amplify political and social unrest in the US. According to Mueller’s investigation, it later changed into a campaign to back Mr. Trump and criticise his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

In response to interference in the 2016 presidential election and subsequent attempts to meddle in the 2018 midterm elections, the US imposed penalties on the IRA and Prigozhin personally.

Disinformation tactics by the IRA frequently target Ukraine, while the UK claims that “cyber-soldiers” with connections to Prigozhin have attacked the UK, South Africa, and India.

Similar to Wagner, Prigozhin asserted that he had “conceived, created, and run” the IRA in February 2023 after initially denying any involvement and suing those who had made accusations that he was behind troll factories and bot farms.

Why Prigozhin was useful to Putin

But why would the Kremlin hire Prigozhin to run propaganda and military operations around the world?

So-called “plausible deniability” is a key factor. The Russian government can conceal its involvement in extremely sensitive missions by employing private spies.

And how did Prigozhin come to play this part? There are various factors, according to journalist Ilya Zhegulev, who has carefully read Prigozhin’s background.

“He never refused to commit immoral acts. He had nothing to lose in terms of his reputation, according to Zhegulev.

He continues, “Prigozhin’s past was another factor.” ” Because they are challenging to govern, Putin dislikes those with a spotless reputation. Prigozhin was the best candidate in this regard.

Prigozhin claimed to have created a children’s novel in which the main character “helped the king save his kingdom” before doing “something truly heroic” in a rare interview from back in 2011.

How Wagner is involved in the war in Ukraine

At first, Prigozhin avoided the spotlight and dealt with the media by issuing remarks through his catering business, Concord.

After Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, this changed. The campaign was obviously stalling months into it, and Prigozhin’s skills were once again in high demand.

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In this clip from an undated video that was released on March 3, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the creator of Russia’s Wagner mercenary army, is heard speaking in Paraskoviivka, Ukraine.

In spite of years of denial, Kremlin-controlled media abruptly acknowledged Wagner’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine on July 27, 2022.

Additionally, Prigozhin started bragging about Wagner’s exploits there in movies that he posted on social media and that were ostensibly shot in seized portions of Ukraine. No other private military firm in the world has access to such a large inventory of equipment at this point, including fighter planes, helicopters, and tanks.

Following the massacre of thousands of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, Prigozhin was given permission to recruit in jails. He personally went to several prisons to assure prisoners that, if they survived six months of fighting for Wagner in Ukraine, they would be able to return home free and with their sentences overturned.

From criticism to direct confrontation

However, as the Russian invasion stumbled, Prigozhin grew increasingly critical of the country’s military leadership.

Early in 2023, when his interactions with the defence ministry deteriorated, he was prohibited from hiring any more inmates.

He constantly asserted that the defence ministry deprived Wagner of ammunition, and at one point he even charged Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, and defence minister Sergei Shoigu with treason.

When Prigozhin accused Russia’s military of bombing a Wagner facility in Ukraine in June 2023, which Moscow denied, his increasingly strident criticism escalated into a physical altercation.

Then, from controlled Ukrainian territory, his Wagner warriors entered Russia and took control of vital military facilities in Rostov, a city in the south of the country close to the border.

President Putin referred to Prigozhin’s acts as “treason” as Russia filed a criminal complaint against him for encouraging an armed insurrection.

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