Eugene Prigojine, the leader of the Wagner militia, died on Wednesday in a plane crash between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In recent months, he had gradually established himself as a key figure in the war in Ukraine, capitalizing on the difficulties of the Russian army facing Kiev. But this situation generated sharp tensions with the Russian military “establishment” until the breaking point, with an armed rebellion in June, which finally aborted. Portrait.
Since the rebellion he orchestrated on June 24, Eugene Prigojine kept a low profile. Russian civil aviation confirmed on Wednesday August 23 that he and his right-hand man, Dmitri Utkin, were present in a plane that crashed halfway between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, in the Tver region.
There has not yet been official confirmation of his death, but the disappearance of the founder of Wagner raises many questions, in particular that of a potential revenge on the part of the one of whom he has long been considered one of the allies. : Russian President Vladimir Putin, to punish him for his coup last June.
Read alsoDeath of Prigozhin, show of force or admission of weakness for Putin?
Eugene Prigojine then justified his action by his desire to dismiss the Russian military commanders, in the forefront of which the Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of Staff Valéri Guerassimov, whom he accused of having failed in Ukraine by their corruption and incompetence.
“In 24 hours, we approached within 200 km of Moscow. During this time, we have not shed a single drop of blood from our fighters,” the Wagner chief, in military uniform, said in a video. “Aware (…) that Russian blood would flow on one side, we turned around and returned to our combat bases as planned. »
On the evening of Saturday June 24, videos showed the leader of the Wagner Group boarding an SUV and leaving the Russian army headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, which serves as a logistics base for “the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. As for his mercenaries, they withdrew in the night from Saturday to Sunday from Rostov after ending their advance towards Moscow, which posed for a whole day an unprecedented challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 23 years in power. .
During the months preceding this rebellion, Eugene Prigozhin had openly criticized the military “establishment”, going so far as to ask his “protector”, Vladimir Putin, to carry out “Stalinist purges” in the administration. France 24 retraces the career of this warlord of Vladimir Putin who became public enemy number one in the Kremlin.
Prigozhin, from shadow to light
This close adviser to the Russian president – they both grew up in Saint Petersburg and have known each other for twenty years – has always been presented as both the “cook” of the master of the Kremlin and his man of the dirty works.
The first nickname comes to him from his past as a restaurateur. He met Vladimir Putin in 2001 when he owned one of St. Petersburg’s most prominent restaurants. Legend has it that Vladimir Poutine, newly elected president, had opted for his establishment in order to impress his guest of the day: Jacques Chirac.
Eugene Prigojine then followed his new mentor to Moscow, where he became the good little soldier responsible for carrying out the most unmentionable tasks of the Kremlin, both nationally and internationally. But nothing could be officially attributed to him, since Putin’s “leader” was acting behind the scenes, avoiding the spotlight as much as possible.
Before the war in Ukraine, he was mainly considered as the founder of the Wagner group – a detachment of mercenaries whose existence Moscow even denied – and as the boss of the Internet Research Agency, the famous “troll factory”. credited with being at the heart of the influence operation of the 2016 US presidential campaign. But again, Eugene Prigojine refused to be associated with it, even threatening legal action against those who claimed otherwise.
Read alsoBehind the scenes of Russia’s troll factory, Internet Research Agency
But that was before the start, on February 24, 2022, of a “special military operation” which continues to come up against Ukrainian resistance. Since then, the man in the shadows has turned into a media beast who confesses and claims almost everything.
The Wagner group? It is indeed him, and he hastened to open an official office of this agency of mercenaries in Saint-Petersburg, Friday November 4th. The chief troll in Russia? Him again. On the eve of the 2022 midterm elections in the United States, Eugene Prigojine claimed to have tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Gone are also the days when Putin’s men acted in silence. He appeared on Telegram to applaud, Monday, November 14, the brutal murder of a deserter by his mercenaries from the Wagner group.
He also demanded the arrest of Alexander Beglov, the governor of Saint Petersburg. The two men had been arguing behind the scenes for years over dark public procurement stories. But this time, Eugene Prigozhin made the confrontation public by accusing Alexander Beglov of all the evils: he would lead an “organized crime network” in Saint Petersburg, but would also regularly promote “Ukrainian nationalism”.
The revenge of the violent “gangster”
This new posture of Evguéni Prigojine was “both surprising, because he spent so much time denying everything, and completely understandable”, affirmed in June Stephen Hall, specialist in Russia at the University of Bath. (England).
As the disappointments of the Russian army progressed, “the security and technocratic apparatus in place lost credibility in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, and Eugene Prigojine wanted to take advantage of this to increase his political influence”, summarized for his part Jeff Hawn, specialist in security issues in Russia and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center.
Indeed, despite the countless published portraits of the “leader of Putin” which present him as an intimate of the master of the Kremlin, “he was never in the first circle of political advisers”, added Stephen Hall.
Evguéni Prigojine did not have the right profile. He never passed through the Communist Party before the fall of the wall, had no relay in the intelligence services and had no political support apart from Vladimir Putin. “He’s a Russian self-made man, that is to say a gangster who got rich by being more ruthless than the others,” explained Jeff Hawn. He was sentenced to prison in his youth for robbery and membership in organized crime.
A perfect CV to put on the clothes of Vladimir Putin’s henchman, but less so to put on the costume of a respectable political adviser who counts. Except that the war reshuffled the cards “and Prigojine saw the opportunity to demonstrate that it was his methods that worked best”, for Stephen Hall.
The increasingly public positions of the ex-man in the shadows in recent months were, according to Jeff Hawn, “the signal of a turf war taking place behind the scenes of power”.
Survive with or without Poutine
If he had multiplied the accusations against the Russian military command, Eugene Prigojine had always been careful not to criticize Vladimir Putin. The Russian president had adopted the same strategy, turning a deaf ear, in public, to the repeated provocations of his protege.
“It’s true that Vladimir Putin let him do a lot,” said General Dominique Trinquand, former head of the French military mission to the UN, pointing to the “extremely troubled bond” between the two men. But by declaring war on the army command, Eugene Prigojine reached a point of no return. He must then leave Russia for Belarus.
Denouncing the “betrayal” of the man who was long his protege, but whose name he never mentioned during his speech on television, the Russian president had promised an “implacable” response against the perpetrators of the armed rebellion. .
Update of an article originally published on June 24, 2023.
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