Shortcuts / 27 June 2023

Yevgeny Prigozhin

Last weekend, the attempted overthrow of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime by some members of Russia’s Wagner ​​paramilitary organisation brought the world’s attention to the man behind it all: Yevgeny Prigozhin. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we get you across who Prigozhin is, how he became such a powerful figure in Russia, and his involvement in Russia’s war in Ukraine.

So what’s going on?
To recap quickly: last Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin – the leader of the Wagner Group, a private army in Russia – took his fighters in Ukraine and pointed them towards Moscow.

It was a coup/uprising/mutiny?
He says it was a protest… But it was a serious threat to Vladimir Putin’s government. Wagner mercenaries made it as far as 200km south of Moscow before they were called off when the leader of neighbouring Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, brokered a deal between the President and Prigozhin.

What was the deal?
It allowed Prigozhin to flee to Belarus and granted his fighters amnesty in Russia.

How extraordinary… Who is this Prigozhin guy?
Born in 1961, he wasn’t rich or well-connected – and he spent a lot of his 20s in prison for robbery. When he got out, he started selling hotdogs on the streets, and from there, he got into the catering game and made friends with Vladimir Putin.

That’s quite the turnaround.
It sure was, and as Putin continued to rise through the ranks, Prigozhin advanced with him as he scored lucrative government and army catering contracts. There are pictures of Prigozhin in the background of fancy dinners hosted by Putin with foreign leaders, including former US President George W Bush and Prince Charles.

How did he go from catering to having his own army?
Great question… It started in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. Prigozhin spotted an opportunity, and reports say he went to Putin with a plan to do the Russian military’s dirty work while keeping the government at arm’s length. And that’s how the Wagner Group was founded.

So they’re Ukraine specialists?
Well, they’ve fought elsewhere too… In 2015, Wagner troops were sent to Syria, where they were accused of brutal war crimes. They’ve also been deployed around Africa, in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and Sudan.

What else?
Prigozhin is also accused of being one of the masterminds behind the Russian troll farms that spread pro-Trump messages online ahead of the 2016 US presidential election. For that, he is wanted by the FBI.

And then came 2022 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
That’s after things didn’t go to plan for Putin… He expected to take the country in a matter of weeks, but the locals were more resilient than anticipated. 

What happened?
Prigozhin deployed a unique recruiting strategy – he went to Russian prisons and promised inmates that if they fought for Wagner and survived for 6 months, they would be paid and allowed to go free.

How many prisoners took him up on that offer?
Ukrainian intelligence recently claimed that around 38,000 Wagner fighters had been recruited this way, and about 30,000 had died in Ukraine. They also recruit members of the general population, and these days reports say Wagner has about 25,000 fighters.

How are they being used?
The long-running battle for Bakhmut in Ukraine’s east is a good example to point out. It isn’t a strategically significant city, but it’s proved to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war. In May, Prigozhin said 20,000 of his fighters had died in Bakhmut.

That’s a lot of men… 
It is, and it’s that battle that sowed the seeds of this current conflict between Putin and Prigozhin – he accused Russia’s military leaders of not adequately supporting his fighters. He also accused the Russian military of killing his troops, including 30 in a strike gone wrong last week.

And another factor in the weekend’s uprising is a big change that is scheduled to come in at the end of this week… Wagner fighters are required to sign contracts with the Russian military by 1 July, effectively scuttling the private force. Experts say that likely motivated Prigozhin to organise the move on Moscow.

Where is Prigozhin now?
As part of that deal we mentioned earlier, he’s able to live in Belarus without punishment from Russia. But since that was announced, his whereabouts have not been confirmed.

I have so many more questions…
Totally. There’s a lot more to be said about what this all means for Russia and its war on Ukraine – as well as for Putin himself. We’ll get into that later this week with a fresh Squiiz Shortcut, so keep an eye out for that.

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