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Yevgeny Prigozhin, Mercenary Leader Whose Mutiny Was 'Stab In The Back' For Putin, Dead At 62

Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen visiting a cemetery for fallen Wagner fighters in the southern Russian Krasnodar region in April.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen visiting a cemetery for fallen Wagner fighters in the southern Russian Krasnodar region in April.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the notorious mercenary company Wagner who became a key figure in Russia’s war on Ukraine before staging a mutiny that brought rebel fighters to Moscow’s doorstep, directly challenging President Vladimir Putin, died in a plane crash whose cause remains under investigation, state authorities said. He was 62.

Russia’s Investigative Committee announced on August 27 that Prigozhin’s body had been identified by medical examiners, along with those of nine other people on board the Embraer 600 jet that crashed four days earlier in the Tver region, north of Moscow, in suspicious circumstances.

A former convict who parlayed a St. Petersburg restaurant business into lucrative Kremlin contracts, Prigozhin first gained notoriety in the West for creating the “Russian troll factory” that was accused of trying to manipulate U.S. voters in the 2016 presidential election.

But his Wagner Group arguably played an even greater role in Russian domestic and foreign policies, and brought him global notoriety.

Brash and profane, with a sadistic streak, Prigozhin sent his Wagner mercenaries to countries including Syria, Libya, and Ukraine, missions that advanced business interests while also serving the Kremlin’s needs.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Prigozhin turned into a merciless critic of the way Russia has waged its war, lacing into top military commanders, often with insulting profanity.

That confrontation that came to a head in June 2023 when Prigozhin sent thousands of his fighters in a brazen rebellion against the military command.

The insurrection -- which the Russian leader called a “stab in the back” -- was short-lived but posed the greatest challenge in Putin’s 24 years as the country’s preeminent political figure.

Days after the plane crash, with speculation swirling about its causes, Putin gave an oblique confirmation of Prigozhin’s death, speaking of him in the past tense in what appeared to be a short, cryptic eulogy.

“This was a person with a complicated fate. He made serious mistakes in life, but he also achieved necessary results,” Putin said in comments shown on state television. “He was a talented person, a talented businessman.”

From Hot Dogs To 'Putin's Chef'

Prigozhin was born in what was then Leningrad in 1961 and raised by his mother, who scraped by working in a hospital to support him and his grandmother after his father died. As a teenager, he took up Nordic skiing at a specialized sporting school, but ended up back in Leningrad where he was caught, and punished, for theft -- the first in a series of increasingly more serious crimes, including armed robbery and trafficking in underage minors, that led to him serving just over nine years in prison.

He was released from prison in 1990 at a time when the Soviet Union was in the full throes of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reforms. Along with his mother’s second husband, he opened a chain of hot dog stands, which, by his own account, was wildly successful.

“I earned $1,000 a month, and there were mountains of rubles,” he said in a rare early interview published in 2011 by the St. Petersburg magazine City 8212. “It was hard for my mother to count it all.”

Later he worked at, and invested in, a supermarket network called Kontrast owned by a former school classmate.

It’s unclear when Prigozhin’s relationship with Putin first developed, though as a budding entrepreneur in St. Petersburg, he most likely would have crossed paths with Putin, whose political career started in the city’s mayor office in the 1990s, under Anatoly Sobchak.

In his televised remarks on August 24, Putin indicated that he had known Prigozhin since the early 1990s, a revelation that surprised many Russia watchers.

Prigozhin reportedly became friendly with Putin through his security detail, then later his chief of security, Viktor Zolotov, according to Forbes magazine. Zolotov later followed Putin as his political star rose in Moscow, and went on to serve as the head of the National Guard, a powerful internal security agency.

According to a profile by the news site Meduza, Prigozhin got into the restaurant business with another Kontrast executive, and in the late 1990s, they opened what became of one of St. Petersburg’s most renowned restaurants, Staraya Tamozhnya (The Old Customs House).

That was followed by another investment: refurbishing an old sailing ship and turning it into Novy Ostrov (New Island), which became another famed eatery where Putin hosted French President Jacques Chirac in 2001, and later, U.S. President George W. Bush.

Prigozhin’s food business expanded into catering contracts under a company called Concord Catering – first for schools, hospitals, and prisons, and then for bigger government events, like the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and Dmitry Medvedev’s inauguration as president in 2008.

Prigozhin sits inside a military vehicle and poses for a selfie on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24.
Prigozhin sits inside a military vehicle and poses for a selfie on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24.

His catering contracts for the Kremlin and other Russian elites earned him the moniker “Putin’s chef.”

In 2006, when Bush traveled to St. Petersburg for a summit, he and his wife, Laura, were served wine by Prigozhin, at a dinner hosted by Putin.

In 2012, Prigozhin’s companies netted a lucrative contract from a Defense Ministry agency to provide food and catering services for the Russian military. After Sergei Shoigu, a former emergency situations minister and longtime Putin loyalist, was appointed defense minister, the contract ended a few years later -- a fact that may have later fueled Prigozhin’s enmity toward Shoigu.

In the late 2010s, Prigozhin’s reputation took a hit amid a spate of news stories documenting cases of food poisoning among school children and military cadets, from catering provided by Prigozhin’s companies.

He also was a developer of real estate in St. Petersburg, where he engaged in an often bitter public feud with the city’s governor, who was himself a Putin appointee.

Mercenaries And Trolls

The exact timing of Prigozhin’s entry into the murky world of private military companies is unclear, but observers point to the onset of the Syria conflict – and Russia’s lightning, and ultimately successful intervention on behalf of the Syrian government.

Entrepreneurs, some of whom were veterans of Russian security services, had begun setting up corporate security companies in the 2000s; at least one provided Russian merchant marine ships protection for pirates off the coasts of Africa.

A spinoff of other private companies that had worked in Syria, Wagner Group appeared sometime around 2014, as Russia stoked an uprising in eastern Ukraine. One man who was a prominent early head of the company was a former military intelligence officer, Dmitry Utkin.

Utkin, whose nom de guerre was Wagner, was also killed in the August 23 plane crash, according to the Investigative Committee.

Prigozhin was widely assumed to be the founder of Wagner Group for years, but it wasn’t until September 2022, months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that he openly admitted ownership.

Prigozhin -- known as "Putin's chef" -- with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at his school lunch factory outside St. Petersburg in September 2010.
Prigozhin -- known as "Putin's chef" -- with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at his school lunch factory outside St. Petersburg in September 2010.

In Syria, Wagner fighters were credibly accused of wartime atrocities and possible war crimes, and its fighters have appeared in other countries, as well: Sudan, and more prominently, the Central African Republic, where Prigozhin-linked companies gained lucrative concessions to mine gold and other minerals.

In September 2013, Russian journalists began to look into a company that had been founded on St. Petersburg’s northwest outskirts, called the Internet Research Agency, and later dubbed “Russia’s troll factory.” Owned via Prigozhin’s Concord business network, the business hired people to create myriad online profiles, often for social media like Facebook, Twitter, and VK, and post inflammatory comments, or set up fake accounts.

In 2018, two years after the U.S. presidential election that was won by Donald Trump, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Prigozhin and 13 other Russians, and issued an arrest warrant for Prigozhin, accusing him of conspiracy to commit election fraud.

WATCH: Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led an armed rebellion in Russia, has presumably died in an air crash aged 62. The incident occurred two months after the mutiny. Prigozhin spent years in a Soviet jail, before becoming known as "Putin's chef" for growing rich off Kremlin catering contracts.

Yevgeny Prigozhin: From 'Putin's Chef' To Malcontent Mercenary
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Though researchers have debated how much influence the Internet Research Agency’s trolls had on U.S. voters, the effort was seen as a success for Prigozhin, catapulting him to greater notoriety.

In November 2022, days before the U.S. congressional elections, Prigozhin bragged about his efforts.

“Gentlemen, we interfered, we interfere, and we will interfere,” Prigozhin said. “Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know how.”

Russian Generals And Sledgehammer Violence

It was Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that shot Prigozhin and his Wagner group to even wider prominence.

Russian officials and commanders had assumed that the invasion, ordered by Putin on February 24, 2022, would result in a rout of Ukraine’s forces, and a quick capitulation by the government in Kyiv.

That didn’t happen, and as the Russian military’s deep-set problems came into clearer view, Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters began taking a more prominent battlefield role. Wagner mercenaries played a key role in the siege of Mariupol, and then the grinding, urban warfare in Syevyerodonetsk, Lysychansk, and the Donetsk city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin also turned to recruiting among Russia’s prison inmate population, a move that could not have happened without permission from the highest levels in the Kremlin.

And he embraced violence as an apparent means to enforce discipline or cultivate an image of fear. In November 2022, a video appeared on a Telegram channel linked with Wagner. In it, a Russian soldier who allegedly defected to Ukraine but then was recaptured by Russia was shown being killed with a sledgehammer. Prigozhin later endorsed the act.

Prigozhin speaks in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in a video posted on May 25. Putin acknowledged the role of Wagner soldiers in the fight to take the city, though not by name, and without mentioning Prigozhin.
Prigozhin speaks in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in a video posted on May 25. Putin acknowledged the role of Wagner soldiers in the fight to take the city, though not by name, and without mentioning Prigozhin.

But while Wagner troops were seen, in some cases, as more effective and more efficient than regular Russian troops, the group’s mercenaries suffered exceptional casualty rates, particularly around Bakhmut. Western officials cited relentless infantry waves of soldiers – many of whom were former prison inmates hired by Wagner – being thrown at Ukrainian positions.

At the same time, Prigozhin became a vocal, slashing critic of Russian military commanders, not the least of which was Shoigu, insulting him and challenging Putin to call a general mobilization. He repeatedly complained that military officials refused to supply his soldiers with adequate ammunition.

His opprobrium was all the more noteworthy given that lawmakers had criminalized the public criticism of the armed forces in legislation signed by Putin shortly after the invasion. The law has been used to put scores of Russians who have protested the war in jail.

On May 20, 2023, after nearly 10 months besieging Bakhmut, Russian forces claimed victory over the city. Putin acknowledged Wagner soldiers’ role in the fight, though not by name, and without mentioning Prigozhin.

For his part, Prigozhin used the opportunity to rip into Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s General Staff.

“Shoigu and Gerasimov have turned the war into their own personal entertainment,” Prigozhin said in a video. “Because of their whims, five times more guys than had been supposed to die have died. They will be held responsible for their actions, which in Russian are called crimes.”

If that was a threat, Prigozhin made good on it just weeks later.

On June 23, 2023, Prigozhin accused Defense Ministry forces of launching strikes that killed a number of Wagner fighters and demanded Shoigu’s dismissal. Thousands of Wagner forces then swept into the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, seizing control of military facilities before advancing north on Moscow in what Prigozhin called a “march of justice.”

The capital girded for the worst, deploying National Guard troops and Interior Ministry soldiers, erecting barricades, and warning Muscovites to stay home.

Within hours, it was over as abruptly as it had started. His fighters halted just 200 kilometers from the capital, Prigozhin called off the advance, after a deal apparently brokered by Belarus.

Putin at first took a tough tone, calling the mutiny treason and a “stab in the back” and vowing punishment for the mutineers. But the Kremlin then allowed Prigozhin to leave for exile in Belarus and said its fighters would not be prosecuted.

The immediate crisis was over, but Putin, who had long sought to project an image of stability and control, emerged to many observers a diminished and weakened figure, unwilling or unable to follow through on his threats to mete out harsh justice to “traitors.”

In the weeks after the mutiny, Prigozhin seemed to travel freely: He was seen in Belarus, where a Wagner training camp was reportedly erected, and later appeared in a video in Africa, where he vowed to continue his business operations.

Prigozhin is survived by his wife Lyubov, and two adult children, Polina and Pavel.

Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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