Putin & Prigojine: A Friendship’s Downfall

The relationship between Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin began under suspicious circumstances and ended equally murky. It was a symbiotic relationship born out of the gray area where the state security services were intertwined with the criminal underworld and always had to end badly.

Within decades, Wagner had become one of Russia’s most influential structures, and some believe that the very survival of Putin’s regime depended on Prigozhin’s successes in the war in Ukraine. Today, it seems that the Kremlin wants to eliminate all competition for political influence.

Criminals, KGB and troubled environment of Saint Petersburg
It was in the early 1990s that Yevgeny Prigojine met Vladimir Putin.

We don’t know the exact circumstances of their first meeting, but it seems they met when one was a freshly released detainee and the other was returning from a mission with the Soviet security service, the KGB. , in East Germany and was looking for a way to get into politics.

The backdrop was the harsh political reality of 1990s Russia. When the Soviet Union chaotically collapsed in 1991, the underworld took over for a time and wielded considerable power. Historically, the security services of the Soviet Union tended to make deals with criminals and recruit them to inform and help them with various tasks, while the criminals were happy to enrich themselves through this collaboration.

Yevgeny Prigozhin and Vladimir Putin hail from St. Petersburg, Russia’s second city and, for many, its cultural capital, home to the Hermitage Museum and the Imperial Winter Palace.

The city is also known as the “Criminal Capital of Russia”, home to a number of powerful criminal gangs as well as petty thieves.

Evgeniy Prigozhin is no exception to the rule. He received a suspended sentence for theft in the late 1970s. In 1981, he was sentenced again, this time for theft, to 13 years in prison.

The circumstances of this brutal crime were described as follows: he and two of his accomplices attacked a woman in the street, grabbing her by the neck and attempting to strangle her. They then took her winter boots and earrings and fled.

Wagner’s future boss was released from prison in 1990, at a very different time from when he began his sentence. Former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had been replaced by reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika was well under way, and the Berlin Wall had fallen.

Floral tributes in St. Petersburg for Prigozhin, Wagner’s chef, who was allegedly killed in a plane crash.

In the mid-1990s, Yevgeny Prigozhin opened a restaurant in St. Petersburg, called “The Old Customs”, frequented by local crime bosses, as well as St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Vladimir Putin, then 40, worked as an assistant to Sobchak.

For Evgeniy Prigojine, it is the ascent. He opened a chain of restaurants in Saint Petersburg, frequented by local and foreign customers, notably politicians.

A photo from 2002 shows Prigozhin serving dinner to Vladimir Putin and US President George Bush. It is believed that the nickname “Putin’s leader” appeared at this time.

It was essential for a man like Putin, with his KGB background and suspicious mind, to have a personal chef who would ensure his food was edible.

From leader to troll to mercenary
In the early 2000s, Vladimir Putin entered the Kremlin and the Russian security services slowly began to regain control. From the mid-2000s, Prigozhin began performing various tasks in the Kremlin, including those beyond the reach of the security services.

He created a media empire focused on spreading disinformation in Russia and abroad. The stories invented by this media machine were often so fanciful that no state propaganda apparatus would have dared to broadcast them.

As social media grew and gained influence, Prigojine created his “troll factory”. Many commentators believe that the main strength of this factory is to spread among Russians the idea that the truth does not exist and that there is no point in looking for it.

After the Ukrainian Maidan revolution of 2013-2014 and the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the first reports of the private military company Wagner surfaced. The Wagner Group supported pro-Russian separatists in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

At the time, the Kremlin dared not launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and preferred to launch a military operation in Syria.

Many analysts believe that Russia’s involvement in Syria was intended to distract from the war in Donbass in eastern Ukraine. It was during this time that we first heard of Dmitri Utkin, a close associate of Prigozhin, who became a commander of the Wagner Group and was known for his far-right views, as well as his cruelty and short temper. ruthless.

Although Yevgeny Prigozhin himself and his Wagner Group mercenaries have become increasingly important to Putin’s authority, the Russian government has continued to assert, until the spring of 2022, that the Russian state does not has no connection with Prigozhin.

Mercenary organizations are prohibited by Russian law.

Official Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly denied knowledge of Wagner’s operations. He said the Kremlin was aware of a “certain private businessman” who may be involved.

At the same time, it was clear to everyone that military operations in Ukraine and Syria, where Wagner was also secretly involved, as well as in a number of African countries, simply could not take place without the consent and the approval of the highest authorities. levels of the Russian authorities.

In the summer of 2022, reports began to circulate in the Russian media that the St. Petersburg businessman’s armed group was fighting in Ukraine.

Within weeks, Evgeniy Prigojine toured Russian prisons, recruiting prisoners for the war effort. In the fall of 2022, the official Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, described him as a man “whose heart aches because of what is happening” and who “makes a great contribution”.

In November 2022, Evgueni Prigojine opens a “Wagner Center” in Saint Petersburg, while his criticisms of the Russian army and the Ministry of Defense are becoming more virulent. As Russian forces withdraw from much of southern and eastern Ukraine, Prigozhin’s criticism of the Defense Ministry is reaching fever pitch.

The rebellion
Wagner’s chief complained about the army command’s refusal to recognize the mercenaries’ contribution to the war effort. He then openly accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov of ‘depriving’ Wagner of ammunition as the group fought in the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut. .

The Kremlin would not comment publicly on the escalating conflict.

At the beginning of June, the Ministry of Defense demanded that all private military groups, i.e. mercenaries, be placed under state supervision and sign contracts with the army. Prigozhin categorically refused.

The situation came to a head in the early hours of June 23 when Eugene Prigozhin accused the Russian army of attacking Wagner’s positions (there is no evidence that such attacks actually took place) and announced his “march of justice” aimed at reaching Moscow.

Sources interviewed by the BBC and other media described the move as a sign of Prigozhin’s desperation and an attempt to draw President Putin’s attention to his conflict with the Russian military.

“He was afraid of losing his autonomy,” a Source close to Yevgeny Prigozhin told the BBC.

Wagner’s mercenaries shot down two military helicopters and a plane and killed up to 15 Russian soldiers.

As Prigozhin resorted to such extreme measures, Russia’s security services, the FSB, opened a criminal investigation against him, while President Putin called him a traitor (but did not name him), who “stabbed a knife behind the country.” and promised to persecute all. mutineers.

The situation suddenly unblocked on the evening of June 24, when Evgeniy Prigojine stopped the march of his mercenaries.

On June 29, President Putin met with Prigozhin and other Wagner commanders. Later, the president said he had persuaded the mercenaries to serve under one of the Russian army commanders.

Prigozhin denied agreeing to serve in the Defense Ministry.

After the rebellion, Vladimir Putin unexpectedly revealed that Wagner had always been sponsored by the Russian state, despite the Kremlin for years denying any connection to the mercenaries.

At the end of July, there were reports of the presence of Yevgeny Prigojine at the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg. Many observers speculated that, given Wagner’s previous involvement in several African countries, Prigojine was likely to focus his activities on that continent.

A caption posted on a video on August 21, 2023 suggests that Prigojine is in an African country.

Two days before the fatal accident in the Tver region, a video was posted online, which was allegedly recorded in the West African country Mali.

It showed a Prigojine wearing a hat, standing in a field and saying: “Here we are putting the fear of God on ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other bandits. »

Prigozhin’s history appears to follow a trajectory familiar to other examples in Russian history – when the executors of the Kremlin’s cruelest policies are themselves subsequently punished and destroyed.

This article is originally published on news.dayfr.com

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