The strange story of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former buddy-turned-mutineer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has gotten much stranger.
The foul-mouthed former head of private military company Wagner – who ran a business empire that included a troll farm, a multimillion-dollar restaurant business and a media group – had the audacity to launch a mutiny on 23 June against the leader of Putin. military brass.
The rebellion was put down by an “agreement” allegedly brokered by another Putin friend (some call him a “vassal”), Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. He forced Prigozhin to leave Russia and move to Belarus. His men had three choices: follow Prigozhin to Belarus, join the Russian regular army, or stop the fighting and return home.
After the mutiny ended, Lukashenko claimed that Prigozhin had indeed arrived in Belarus. But for weeks, no one could confirm it. Then on Thursday, Lukashenko reversed himself, telling CNN that Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg and could go “to Moscow or somewhere else.”
In any case, he said, Prigozhin was not where he was supposed to be. Nor were Wagner’s fighters in the camps Lukashenko’s government had apparently set aside for them in Belarus, raising questions about the fate of Wagner’s boss.
As the timing was right, Russian state-controlled television began broadcasting a video of security forces raiding Prigozhin’s office and residence in St. Petersburg. His “mansion” or “palace” had a swimming pool, a private operating room, even a “dedicated prayer room”, as the Russian propaganda website RT described it, as well as a few sledgehammers – a tool which Wagner is accused of using to murder defectors. Security guards reportedly found 10 million rubles (about $110,000) in cash, along with gold, guns and wigs – presumably for Prigozhin to dress up.
And yet, hours later, it was reported that some of his money and property had been returned to him. This adds another layer to the mystery as to why Putin has, so far, let Prigozhin go free even though he doesn’t respect the Lukashenko deal.
Before falling out of favor, Prigozhin was a social media rock star. He was a badass who strutted around in camouflage, whose fighters could win battles in Ukraine that the regular Russian army couldn’t handle. He swore at military leaders and other elite government officials, but crossed a red line when he accused them of lining their pockets and tricking Putin into launching an invasion of Ukraine as there was no real threat.
Prigozhin’s ensuing march to Moscow – which saw his troops take over the city of Rostov-on-Don, shoot down Russian planes and kill several servicemen – enraged Putin, who accused him of having “stabbed Russia in the back”.
It’s well known that Putin can’t tolerate traitors, but Lukashenko, using a gangster-like Russian word that Putin used of Chechen terrorists, assured reporters that Putin wasn’t “malicious and vindictive” enough. to “eliminate” Prigozhin.
Putin himself a few days ago hinted at another way of dealing with Prigozhin, admitting that the government paid him billions of dollars, adding that he hoped “no one stole anything”, but that the Kremlin would take care of it.
Prigozhin’s ultimate fate is still unclear, but he is just one of Putin’s problems. What it does with Prigozhin’s valuable businesses is another: the Kremlin currently seems to be dissecting its empire, putting control of the more valuable businesses into more “reliable” hands.
Will he end up in prison? Or in a coffin? The only thing that seems even vaguely clear is that Putin will have to settle this “razborka,” a word Russian mobsters use to describe their infighting. And that portends more repression, more “score settling” and more behind-the-scenes fighting in Putin’s Russia.
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