Yevgeny Prigojin, the leader of the Russian private military group Wagner, and Dmitry Utkin, the group’s general command and military training director, along with 8 others, lost their lives in a plane crash on their way from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The news of the deaths of the Wagner members due to the crash of a VIP plane, two months after the attempted uprising that shook Russia, made headlines worldwide. It continues to be the main agenda in Russian media. Someone believed to have betrayed the country, regardless of their position, was punished in a way that the whole public could see and understand. It was clearly shown that in the difficult times the country was going through, there would be no room for dissenting voices or opposing stances. The fact that all major media outlets did not attribute the incident to Ukraine or foreign intelligence suggests an intention to send a warning.
Putin, who has known Prigojin since the late 90s during the Petersburg period and their association, made brief and casual statements like “condolences” in his initial assessment of the incident. Putin said, “I have known Prigojin for a long time. Since the early 90s. He was a resilient person. He made mistakes, but he also achieved the desired results; he worked for common goals. He was a talented person. He worked not only in our country but also abroad, in Africa. He also worked in the fields of oil, gas, and precious metals.” Putin noted that the head of the Russian Investigative Committee had initiated an investigation into the incident and expressed his belief that it would be conducted thoroughly and reach a conclusion. He added, “Let’s see what the investigators will say.”
While debates about whether Prigojin was on that plane continued, and while the question of “Will Putin attend the funeral?” was being asked, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “Is he still alive or not? We don’t know, we will decide when the DNA tests are finalized.” At that time, Putin had already expressed words in memory of Prigojin. In other words, his thoughts and words were clear about his death. It is also important to note that the person investigating the crash of Prigojin’s plane is Ivan Sibula, who had previously investigated the crash of Total’s CEO Christophe de Margerie’s jet in 2014 at Vnukovo Airport. The famous journalist and politician Ksenya Sabchak also shared the message on her Telegram channel, “There were two private armies in Russia that were difficult to control, one was Prigojin’s and the other was Kadyrov’s.”
The Wagner leadership disappeared. While Wagner’s uprising attempt had been punished in June, I do not think that Wagner will be completely liquidated. From now on, Wagner will continue without Prigojin and his assistant Utkin. After all, it plays an important role on behalf of Russia in places like Africa and the Middle East, and its influence will continue to grow. Therefore, Wagner has become a large private army that has grown significantly, and it now has its own sources of finance. After the uprising incident, Prigojin went to Belarus and some guarantees were given, but he was not pardoned. The top management of Wagner who was with him was not pardoned either. Problems he had with the Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff during the Ukraine war created the first crack. For the subsequent uprising, Putin had said, “I cannot forgive their betrayals.”
The System Built Prigojin
Prigojin’s first imprisonment was in 1981 for various “hooliganism” offenses. He was released early in 1990. After his release, he entered the restaurant business and opened a fast-food chain selling hot dogs in St. Petersburg. In 1995, he started the Wine Club Bar business, and in 1996, he opened the Old Customs restaurant. In the same year, he founded the Concord Catering food distribution company. In 1997, he registered Concord LTD Management and Consulting. He then started winning government contracts. For example, in 2014-2015, Concorde won cleaning contracts worth 10.3 billion rubles in Defense Ministry barracks and educational institutions. He also undertook various construction projects. In 1998, he opened a restaurant on New Island. In 2001, President Vladimir Putin met with Jacques Chirac there, and a year later, with George W. Bush. From 2002 to 2012, he developed the fast-food chain Blin! In an interview with American media in 2018, Vladimir Putin said, “I know such a person, but he is not among my friends.”
Troll Factory and Media Empire Since 2013, Prigojin’s name has been associated with the Internet Research Agency (also known as the “troll factory”). In 2019, he chaired the Patriot Media Group, which included the Federal News Agency, Ekonomika Segodnya, and many other portals. For a long time, he denied any connection to the Wagner PMC.
In September 2022, a video was posted on social media showing a man resembling Prigojin hiring prisoners to join the Wagner PMC as part of an operation in Ukraine. On September 26, Prigojin announced that he was the founder of this armed formation. According to him, the tactical battalion group “Wagner” was established on May 1, 2014, in Ukraine with the aim of “protecting Russians.” Prigojin’s company was named “Wagner” after Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel from the Russian army’s special forces. Since then, Wagner has been involved in various armed conflicts, including Africa. According to Prigojin, Wagner participated in military operations in Ukraine for the first time on March 19, 2022.
Wagner in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Africa
However, Wagner first gained international attention in April 2014, shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of separatist conflicts in eastern Ukraine. Despite a significant amount of evidence, Russia denied sending its own weapons and soldiers to support the separatist uprising in the industrial hub of Donbas in eastern Ukraine. Deploying private contracted military personnel allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of plausible deniability.
The Wagner team provided support to Bashar al-Assad in Syria and was accused of being the primary backer of the Syrian government in the eyes of the international community. In Libya, they aligned with Khalifa Haftar’s forces and fought against the UN-recognized government based in Tripoli. The group also operated in the Central African Republic and Mali. Prigojin is said to have used the deployment of Wagner to Syria and African countries to secure profitable mining contracts.
In January, the U.S. State Department officials stated that the company used its access to gold and other rich resources in Africa to finance its operations in Ukraine. Opposition Russian media claimed that Wagner was involved in the killing of three Russian journalists investigating the group’s activities in the Central African Republic in 2018. Western countries and United Nations experts accused Wagner’s mercenaries of human rights abuses, including torture, extrajudicial and arbitrary executions, and massacres in Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. In 2021, the European Union accused Wagner of “serious human rights abuses, including torture, extrajudicial and arbitrary executions, and massacres,” and of carrying out “destabilizing activities” in Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.
Wagner’s Role in Ukraine
In the war that Russia initiated in Ukraine in February last year, Wagner took on an increasingly prominent role as regular Russian forces suffered heavy losses and faced setbacks and territorial losses on behalf of the army. Prigojin visited Russian prisons to recruit fighters for Wagner. He promised that prisoners would be pardoned if they served six months on the front lines. In May, he revealed in an interview that he had gathered around 50,000 prisoners from prisons, about 10,000 of whom were killed in Bahmut, and a similar number of his own fighters were killed in the same city. He said he had 50,000 personnel under his command, with approximately 35,000 of them always on the front lines. However, he did not provide information on whether prisoners were included in this number.
The Development That Ended Prigojin
In January, Prigojin took full responsibility for the capture of the salt mining site Soledar in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, accusing the Russian Defense Ministry of trying to steal Wagner’s victory. He repeatedly complained that the Russian army did not provide enough ammunition to capture Bahmut and threatened to withdraw his personnel. Armed individuals who were said to be fighting in Ukraine and identified as Wagner personnel posted videos cursing Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov and accusing him of not providing ammunition. Prigojin also harshly criticized Defense Minister Shoigu and accused Russian military leaders of incompetence.
These complaints frequently repeated by Prigojin created an unprecedented rift in Russia’s tightly controlled political system, where only Putin could make such criticisms. Once a shadowy figure, Prigojin began praising the “victories” Wagner achieved almost daily. He raised his profile in the public eye by mocking his enemies and criticizing high-ranking Russian military officials. These criticisms and the armed uprising he initiated on June 24, with fighters under his command, threatened Putin with the biggest challenge in recent years. In the incident, Prigojin took control of military facilities in two Russian cities in the direction of the capital. The crisis was only resolved after Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko mediated an agreement that allowed Prigozhin to move to Belarus.