The Demise of Prigozhin, Putin’s Dear Friend Turned Biggest Problem

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
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Yevgeny Prigozhin, the foul-mouthed Russian mercenary boss and former hot dog vendor, was killed in a plane crash on Wednesday after bringing the country to the brink of civil war with an armed uprising, Western intelligence sources confirmed to The New York Times.

The ex-con turned Kremlin caterer turned warlord, who was tasked with bringing Vladimir Putin victory in Ukraine, died after his private plane crashed in the Tver region of Russia along with nine other passengers, according to initial reports from Russia’s federal aviation agency.

His death comes two months after he ordered his private army of mercenaries, the Wagner Group, to march on Moscow in a failed mutiny that made headlines around the world. The coup attempt, prompted by Prigozhin’s frustration at Moscow’s approach to the war and their lack of support for his fighters in Ukraine, marked the most significant challenge to the Russian president’s rule since he rose to power two decades ago.

During the violent uprising, six Russian aircraft were shot down by Wagner fighters, killing 13 crew members—much in the same way Prigozhin would eventually meet his end.

Yevgeny Prigozhin is shown in a car shaking hands with a supporter in Russia

Prigozhin seen shaking hands with a supporter after the Wagner Group’s failed coup.

Alexander Ermochenko/Getty Images

Ultimately, a deal was made between Putin and Prigozhin which saw thousands of Wagner fighters relocated to neighboring Belarus, under the watchful eye of Putin’s close ally, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. That arrangement quickly prompted panic on the borders between Belarus and neighboring NATO countries like Poland, with officials fearing Wagner fighters might try to infiltrate their borders.

In Prigozhin’s most recent public statements—a video message from somewhere in Africa posted to Telegram—the Russian mercenary boss said that “the Wagner PMC [private military company] makes Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa—more free,” adding that the group “will fulfill the tasks that were set” in the region.

Now, it appears the men of Wagner will have to pursue those goals without the guidance of their notorious boss.

Putin’s Chef

Previously known primarily as a shadowy businessman sanctioned by the U.S. over his empire of internet trolls’ election interference, Prigozhin had long denied links to the Wagner Group until a few months into the Ukraine war.

After admitting to founding the group, he quickly became a national hero of sorts among Russians who supported the war, brazenly injecting a bit of the criminal underworld into Moscow’s battlefield strategy.

He spent months publicly attacking Russian Defense Ministry officials whom he accused of “treason” for botching the war effort against Ukraine. And he appeared at times to be testing the limits of what the Kremlin would let him get away with, suggesting that military officials should be executed by firing squad and targeting regular Russian soldiers on the battlefield whom he claimed failed to recognize Wagner’s authority.

At one point seen as a galvanizing force in Moscow’s war, Prigozhin and his band of mercenaries quickly turned into a dangerous wildcard, popularizing extrajudicial killings and the so-called “hammer of revenge” with a brutal video of a defector being executed by sledgehammer. The mercenary group was also later accused of abducting Russian troops in Ukraine and torturing them or trying to sell them for supplies.

But Prigozhin won praise for his cutthroat tactics among pro-war hardliners and he used his media holdings to spread his own narrative about the war, one that often undercut the claims made by the Kremlin and called for a class struggle against the country’s elite.

A screen grab captured from a video shows Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin surrounded by fighters of the paramilitary Wagner group.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin (second from left) at the headquarters of the Southern Military District surrounded by fighters of the Wagner group on June 24, 2023.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Many experts suspected Prigozhin, long a close confidante of Putin behind the scenes, was pulled out from the shadows for strategic reasons, and perhaps tapped by the Russian leader to keep the more radical political elements in line.

But for Putin, it was always likely a gamble. Prigozhin’s war-time ascendance to center stage meant two worlds colliding that were never meant to collide: the one occupied by those linked to the criminal underworld that Putin navigated in St. Petersburg in the out-of-control 1990s, and the one made up of members of the Russian president’s inner circle now controlling all the levers of power.

Prigozhin may have been widely known as “Putin’s chef” for his catering contracts with the Kremlin, but long before he was a powerful businessman he was a convict.

Just after turning 18, the man now seen by many in Russia as a national hero was sentenced to prison for assaulting a woman while his friend threatened her with a knife, according to records from St. Petersburg’s Primorsky District Court (then known as the Zhdanovsky District Court of Leningrad).

Prigozhin “continued to choke [the victim] until she lost consciousness,” the court found, after which he and two friends made off with her pair of gold earrings, worth less than a dollar by today’s standards.

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