The head of the private military contractor Wagner called Friday for an armed rebellion aimed at ousting Russia’s defense minister. Russian security services reacted immediately by opening a criminal investigation into Yevgeny Prigozhin.
He has previously bashed the country’s military leadership for failures in the war in Ukraine, and is known for his long-running feud with the Defense Ministry.
A look at the 62-year-old Prigozhin and Wagner’s role in the war:
Prigozhin posted a series of angry video and audio recordings in which he accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of ordering a rocket strike Friday on Wagner’s field camps in Ukraine, where his troops are fighting on behalf of Russia.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin declared.
The Defense Ministry denied carrying out the rocket attack.
The National Anti-Terrorism Committee, which is part of the Federal Security Services, or FSB, said he would be investigated on charges of calling for an armed rebellion.
The FSB urged Wagner’s contract soldiers to arrest Prigozhin and refuse to follow his “criminal and treacherous orders.” It called his statements a “stab in the back to Russian troops” and said they amounted to fomenting an armed conflict in Russia.
Riot police and the National Guard have been scrambled to tighten security at key facilities in Moscow, including government agencies and transport infrastructure, Tass reported.
Prigozhin was convicted of robbery and assault in 1981, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Following his release, he opened a restaurant business in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. It was in this capacity that he got to know now-President Vladimir Putin, then the city’s deputy mayor.
Prigozhin used that 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 media and an infamous internet “troll factory” that led to his indictment in the U.S. for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
In January, Prigozhin acknowledged founding, leading and financing the shadowy Wagner company.
While backing the separatist insurgency in the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, Russia denied sending its own weapons and troops there despite ample evidence to the contrary. Engaging private contractors in the fighting allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of deniability.
Prigozhin’s company was called Wagner after the nickname of its first commander, Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Russian military’s special forces. It soon established a reputation for brutality and ruthlessness.
Wagner personnel also deployed to Syria, where Russia supported President Bashar Assad’s government in a civil war. In Libya, they fought alongside forces of commander Khalifa Hifter. The group has also operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Prigozhin has reportedly used Wagner’s deployment to Syria and African countries to secure lucrative mining contracts. U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said in January the company was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to fund operations in Ukraine.
Some Russian media alleged that Wagner was involved in the 2018 killings of three Russian journalists in Central African Republic who were investigating the group’s activities. The slayings remain unsolved.
Western countries and U.N. experts have accused Wagner mercenaries of human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
In 2021, the European Union accused the group of “serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings,” and of carrying out “destabilizing activities” in Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
Video has surfaced purporting to show some of the activities that have contributed to Wagner’s fearsome reputation.
A 2017 online video showed a group of armed people, reportedly Wagner contractors, torturing a Syrian and beating him to death with a sledgehammer before mutilating and burning his body. Russian authorities ignored requests by the media and rights activists to investigate.
In 2022, another video showed a former Wagner contractor beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he allegedly fled to the Ukrainian side and was repatriated. Despite public outrage and demands for an investigation, the Kremlin turned a blind eye.
Wagner took an increasingly visible role in the war as regular Russian troops suffered heavy attrition and lost territory in humiliating setbacks.
Prigozhin toured Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising pardons if they survived a half-year tour of front-line duty with Wagner.
In the interview in May, he said he had recruited 50,000 convicts, about 10,000 of whom where killed in Bakhmut; a similar number of his own fighters have died there.
He said he had 50,000 men at his disposal “in the best times,” with about 35,000 on the front lines at all times. He didn’t say whether these numbers included convicts.
The U.S. has estimated Wagner had about 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts. A U.S. official says nearly half of the 20,000 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine since December have been Wagner’s troops in Bakhmut.
The U.S. assesses that Wagner is spending about $100 million a month in the fight. In December, Washington accused North Korea of supplying weapons, including rockets and missiles, to the Russian company in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Both Wagner and North Korea denied the reports.
If the U.S. accusation is true, Wagner’s reach for North Korean weapons may reflect its long-running dispute with the Russian military leadership, which dates to the company’s creation.
Prigozhin claimed full credit in January for capturing the Donetsk region salt-mining town of Soledar in Ukraine and accused the Russian Defense Ministry of trying to steal Wagner’s glory. He has repeatedly complained the Russian military failed to supply Wagner with sufficient ammunition to capture Bakhmut and threatened to pull out his men.
Troops purported to be Wagner contractors in Ukraine recorded a video in which they showered the chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, with curses and accusations of failing to provide ammunition.
Prigozhin also has singled out Shoigu for withering criticism while accusing Russian military leaders of incompetence. His frequent complaints are unprecedented for Russia’s tightly controlled political system, in which only Putin could air such criticism.
John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said last month that Prigozhin’s remarks critical of the war “could be a sort of morbid way of him … claiming credit for whatever they’ve been able to achieve in Bakhmut, but also trying to publicly embarrass the Ministry of Defense further that the cost was borne in blood and treasure by Wagner, and not by the Russian military.”
Once a shadowy figure, Prigozhin has increasingly raised his public profile, boasting almost daily about Wagner’s purported victories, sardonically mocking his enemies and complaining about the military brass.
Asked recently about a media comparison of him with Grigory Rasputin, a mystic who gained fatal influence over Russia’s last czar by claiming to have the power to cure his son’s hemophilia, Prigozhin snapped, “I don’t stop blood, but I spill blood of the enemies of our Motherland.”
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