Yevgeniy Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked mercenary outfit, will not face criminal charges after Russian President Vladimir Putin initially accused him of mounting an insurrection against state military forces.
Prigozhin is expected to go to Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as part of the deal to defuse tensions, the Kremlin said Saturday.
Internal tensions between Prigozhin and Russian military leaders had been simmering for months, though Prigozhin and Putin had carefully avoided directly criticizing each other. Prigozhin’s challenge to the Russian Defense Ministry — and by proxy, to Putin — threw Moscow into an unexpected crisis that threatens to undermine Putin’s war effort in Ukraine.
Here’s what else to know about the Wagner Group leader:
Who is Yevgeniy Prigozhin?
The 62-year-old Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch who emerged from the same wealthy and powerful circles as Putin. Born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Prigozhin spent 12 years in prison for a 1981 conviction on charges of robbery, fraud and the prostitution of minors.
After his release, Prigozhin built his fortune as a private catering magnate by growing a hot dog stand and fast-food business into a well-connected catering firm that held lucrative contracts, including feeding the Russian military. Prigozhin’s ties to the Russian president earned him the nickname “Putin’s Chef.”
Before Russia’s war in Ukraine, Americans may have been most likely to recognize Prigozhin as the financier of the Internet Research Agency — the Russian “troll farm” that the Justice Department indicted in 2018 for interfering with the United States’ 2016 presidential election by weaponizing social media. (The case was later dropped.)
As Wagner’s leader, Prigozhin has cultivated a reputation for being foul-mouthed, ruthless and brutal in combat. His company has been accused of committing war crimes, including rape, execution and child abduction. With his power comes a willingness — or fearlessness — to criticize state leaders, which Putin has abided by until now.
How did he come to lead Wagner?
Widely considered a force of mercenaries for hire, the Wagner Group is a network of several organizations that provide military contractors.
Prigozhin acknowledged for the first time publicly that he founded the Wagner Group in a statement posted in September on the Russian social media site VK.
Prigozhin said he founded the group to help Russian forces annex Crimea in 2014 and to help pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“I flew to one of the training grounds and did it myself. I myself cleaned the old weapons, figured out the bulletproof vests, and found specialists who could help me with this,” he said. “From that moment, on May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, which later acquired the name … ‘Wagner.’”
What has happened since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Russia’s military has suffered major losses since the start of the war in Ukraine, forcing it to rely heavily on Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters, The Washington Post has reported. The paramilitary group at that time was primarily active in Syria and parts of Africa before taking on a more substantial role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Russian mercenaries and convicts — who made up about 80 percent of the 50,000-person Wagner force in Ukraine, according to U.S. assessments — played a major role in Russia’s efforts to capture the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. The winter and spring battle for Bakhmut was the bloodiest phase of the war and came with major losses for Prigozhin’s troops, who at that time were dying by the thousands, according to The Post.
Prigozhin came into increasing conflict with Russia’s military leadership over the course of the long, bitter fight for Bakhmut. He has repeatedly slammed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Gen. Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov for not supplying his forces with enough ammunition and for failing to conduct the war effectively, according to The Post.
“My people are dying in heaps,” he said in February.
What led to Prigozhin’s insurrection?
Tensions between the Wagner boss and Russia’s military brass over leadership failures reached a boiling point Friday when Prigozhin accused Russian forces of conducting a strike on a Wagner camp in Ukraine. The Defense Ministry has denied carrying out the attack.
Prigozhin called for Russians to join Wagner’s “march of justice” against Shoigu and Gerasimov, also accusing the pair of lying about the war in Ukraine and undercounting casualties, The Post reports.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin declared.
Miriam Berger and Adam Taylor contributed reporting.