The insider who rocked the Kremlin. Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin and what’s next for him?

Yevgeny Prigozhin used his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin to enrich himself and build a private army – then unleashed it on Moscow in a breathtaking challenge to his former boss’ regime.

The leader of the Wagner mercenary group now appears to have abandoned that rebellion for exile in Belarus, in a deal that leaves more questions than answers.

“Prigozhin would be naive to think it’s over,” Michael A. Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst who is the chief intelligence officer at consulting firm Le Beck, told NBC News.

Here’s a look at the man behind Russia’s biggest insurgency in its post-Soviet history, who rose from prison to lead a military revolt that reached a hundred miles from Moscow.

Who knows what’s next.

How did Prigojine construct Wagner?

Hailing from St Petersburg like Putin, Prigozhin, 62, has one of the most varied biographies among the Kremlin elite.

He admitted to serving 10 years in prison as a young man, although he did not say why. He then turned a hot dog stand into a chain of high-end restaurants, eventually catching the eye of the Russian president and securing lucrative contracts to cater to public school and Kremlin events, earning him the nickname of “Putin’s leader”.

Over time, Prigohzin responded to a variety of other Putin needs.

The Russian leader has sought to project his influence around the world – from his Eastern European neighbors to the Middle East and Africa – and Prigozhin has helped him do just that.

Around 2014, he created Wagner, according to a member who was recruited into the mercenary group by Prigozhin in its early days.

The Kremlin had just seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and was targeting the eastern region of Donbass, where a conflict was simmering after mass protests in Kiev toppled a pro-Russian government. Suddenly Putin had a war on his hands but didn’t want to send in regular army troops or call a draft and face the possibility of the Russians coming home in body bags.

So Prigozhin provided a solution.

He created a force of junkies, people with military experience or a history of violence who sought employment and might be less likely to be missed if killed. Wagner’s early operations in Ukraine were somewhat successful, and the conflict there continued without pushback from the Russian public.

Yevgeny Prigozhin shows Russian President Vladimir Putin around his factory outside St Petersburg September 20, 2010.
Yevgeny Prigozhin shows Russian President Vladimir Putin around his factory outside St Petersburg in 2010.Sputnik/Kremlin swimming pool photo via AP file

The Kremlin has always denied any official military presence in eastern Ukraine, and while Prigozhin had previously refuted suggestions that he was linked to Wagner, last year he admitted on social media that he had created the group in 2014 and that he had taken part in the conflict. in eastern Ukraine.

Prigohzin’s next mission attracted much more attention, especially from the United States

He founded the Internet Research Agency, the bot farm that interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, polluting social media with misinformation, lies and skepticism about the legitimacy of the election process. Whether it influenced the election outcome remains an open question, but the US intelligence community exposed it and sanctioned Prigozhin, who said last year that he interfered in US elections and that he would continue to do so.

After that came Russian intervention in the war in Syria. Putin wanted to support President Bashar al-Assad and fight Western-backed rebels, but, again, to do so informally with few official Russian casualties. There, Wagner once again became an instrument of his efforts, and his fighters remain on the ground in the Middle Eastern country many years later.

Always an entrepreneur, Prigozhin has also expanded his operations in Africa.

In the Central African Republic, Prigohzin discovered that if Wagner supported the weak government and helped it fight a rebellion, the group could tap into the resources of the impoverished country, mainly gold and blood diamonds.

Now the man who started his life over with just one hot dog stand had an army that was battle tested, experienced in disinformation and, perhaps most importantly, had his own independent source of funding.

From Bakhmut to Moscow: what sparked the rebellion?

With the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Prigozhin was able and willing to once again prove his worth to Putin.

As the Russian army came up against surprisingly strong resistance, Wagner’s mercenaries proved useful in the bloodiest battles. To bolster their ranks, Prigozhin turned to a place he knew well, promising convicts in Russian prisons freedom if they could survive more than six months on the front lines.

Wagner led the fighting for several key Ukrainian cities, including Bakhmut, an eastern city that became a key symbolic prize for Putin when he claimed he seized it last month at the cost of thousands.

As he touted his mercenary forces as game changers in Ukraine and gradually moved into the public spotlight, Prigozhin increasingly clashed with Moscow’s military establishment.

Using his well-oiled social media machine, Prigozhin became a prominent voice for hardliners and influential pro-war figures who criticized the Kremlin’s approach to war.

He accused the Defense Ministry and its chief, Sergei Shoigu, of downplaying Wagner’s role and failing to supply enough ammunition to his fighters, while blaming ‘incompetent’ military leaders for Russia’s failures in Ukraine. .

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 21, 2023.
Prigozhin’s nemesis, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, at the Moscow Kremlin earlier this month.Egor Aleev / AFP – Getty Images

The bitter row escalated in recent weeks as Moscow gave all private mercenary forces until July 1 to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, which Prigozhin refused.

The stalemate then exploded and Prigozhin launched an armed rebellion on Friday after alleging that the Russian army had fired on its mercenaries.

While Putin initially seemed happy to let the infighting play out, it seems even the Russian leader underestimated just how powerful and bold Prigohzin had become.

“I think what really sparked his decision to go on a mad dash to Moscow was the order issued earlier this month,” Horowitz said, referring to the demand that his fighters sign. contracts with the Ministry of Defence. Prigozhin saw it as a “prelude to disbanding” the private army he had worked for years to build, Horowitz said.

It was a signal to the mercenary leader that “Putin had sided with his enemies”, he said, adding that Prigozhin “may have felt that his own safety was no longer guaranteed, long term, and that if he didn’t act, he would end up sidelined (at best) or dead. He had nothing to lose.”

Prior to the rebellion, U.S. intelligence agencies had gathered information that Prigozhin intended to challenge senior Russian military officials and informed congressional leaders about it last week, a source familiar with the matter told NBC News. They added that the intelligence revealed that Wagner had amassed forces and weapons, although the intelligence was not definitive.

And now?

In the end, it is not known what Prigozhin won.

He said on Saturday he was less than 120 miles from the Russian capital but decided to turn back to “avoid spilling Russian blood”.

The Kremlin said Prigozhin would not face any charges and would travel to Belarus, whose leader Alexander Lukashenko apparently helped broker the deal.

A big question that remains unanswered is what will happen to his Wagnerian troops?

The Kremlin said it would not prosecute fighters who took part in the rebellion and that Wagner’s forces could still sign contracts with the Defense Ministry if they so wished.

It is possible that Wagner’s roughly 25,000 fighters are dispersed, “under suspicion”, in the Russian regular army, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, at a funeral in Moscow on April 8, 2023.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the paramilitary company Wagner, at a funeral in Moscow in April.vvsmolnikov/AP file

As for Prigozhin himself, the true nature of the crisis resolution remains unknown, as does the future of the Wagnerian leader.

But Putin is not known for allowing his enemies to live quietly in exile, and his portrayal of Prigozhin as a traitor suggests he viewed the revolt, like many analysts, as a direct threat to his regime.

“Going to Belarus may be an option – he seems to know and trust Lukashenko very well – but he would still be in danger there,” Horowitz said. “My best bet is that he will continue to operate in Ukraine, rather than Belarus, where he can justify maintaining relative freedom among men loyal to him.

“But somehow he got stuck going too far or not far enough,” Horowitz said. “If he keeps a low profile, he can still end up drinking poisoned tea, and if he is too loud, he will become even more of a liability for Moscow.”

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