Yevgeny Prigozhin used his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin to enrich himself and build a private army, then brought it to Moscow in a stunning challenge to his former boss’s government.
The head of Wagner’s mercenary group now appears to have abandoned that rebellion to go into exile in Belarus, in a deal that leaves more questions than answers.
«Prigozhin would be naive to think this is over,» Michael A. Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst who is the head of intelligence at consultancy Le Beck, told NBC News.
Here’s a look at the man behind Russia’s largest insurrection in its post-Soviet history, who went from prison to leading a military revolt that came within a hundred miles of Moscow.
Who knows what’s next.
How did Prigozhin build Wagner?
A native of St. Petersburg like Putin, Prigozhin, 62, has one of the most varied biographies among the Kremlin elite.
He has admitted serving 10 years in prison as a young man, although he has not said why. He then turned a hot dog stand into an upscale restaurant chain, eventually attracting the attention of the Russian president, and landed lucrative contracts to cater events at public schools and the Kremlin, earning him the nickname «Putin’s chef.» .
Over time, Prigohzin has served a variety of other Putin needs.
The Russian leader has sought to project influence across the globe, from his neighbors in eastern Europe to the Middle East and Africa, and Prigozhin has helped him do it.
Around 2014, he created Wagner, according to a member Prigozhin recruited for the mercenary team in its early days.
The Kremlin had just seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and had its sights set on the eastern Donbas region, where a conflict was brewing after mass protests in Kiev toppled a pro-Russian government. Suddenly, Putin had a war on his hands, but he didn’t want to send in regular army troops or call conscription and face the possibility of Russians coming home in body bags.
So Prigozhin provided a solution.
It created a force of undesirables, people with military experience or a history of violence who were looking for work and are less likely to be missed if killed. Wagner’s early operations in the Ukraine met with some success, and the conflict there continued unopposed by the Russian public.
The Kremlin has always denied any official military presence in eastern Ukraine, and while Prigozhin had previously refuted suggestions that he was related to Wagner, he admitted on social media last year that he had created the group in 2014 and had taken part in the conflict. in eastern Ukraine.
Prigohzin’s next mission received much more attention, particularly from the US.
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 electoral process. Whether he influenced the outcome of the election remains an open question, but he was called out and sanctioned by the US intelligence community and sanctioned Prigozhin, who said last year that he had interfered in the US election and that I would continue to do so.
Then came Russia’s intervention in the war. In Syria. Putin wanted to back President Bashar al-Assad and fight Western-backed rebels, but again, do it unofficially with few official Russian casualties. There, Wagner again became central to his efforts, and his fighters remain on the ground in the Middle Eastern country many years later.
Always an entrepreneur, Prigozhin also expanded his operations to Africa.
In the Central African Republic, Prigohzin discovered that if Wagner supported the weak government and helped it fight a rebellion, the group could help itself with the resources of the impoverished country, mainly gold and blood diamonds.
Now the man who restarted his life with a single hot dog stand had a battle-tested army, 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 eager to prove his worth to Putin again.
When the Russian army faced surprisingly strong resistance, Wagner’s mercenaries proved useful in the bloodiest of battles. To bolster his ranks, Prigozhin turned to a place he knew well, promising freedom to convicts from Russian prisons if they could survive more than six months at the front.
Wagner led the fight for several key Ukrainian cities, including Bakhmut, an eastern city that became a key symbolic prize for Putin when he claimed to have taken it last month at the cost of thousands of men.
As he promoted his mercenary forces as game changers in Ukraine and gradually entered the public spotlight, Prigozhin increasingly clashed with the military establishment in Moscow.
Using his well-oiled social media machine, Prigozhin emerged as a leading voice for hardliners and influential pro-war figures who criticized the Kremlin’s approach to the war.
He accused the Defense Ministry and its boss, Sergei Shoigu, of downplaying Wagner’s role and failing to provide his fighters with enough ammunition, while blaming «incompetent» military leaders for Russia’s failures in Ukraine.
The bitter dispute escalated in recent weeks when Moscow gave all private mercenary forces until July 1 to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, which Prigozhin refused.
Clashes broke out and Prigozhin launched an armed rebellion on Friday after claiming that the Russian army fired on his mercenaries.
While Putin initially seemed happy to let the infighting play out, it seems even the Russian leader may have underestimated just how powerful and bold Prigohzin had become.
“I think what really triggered 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 Defense Ministry. Prigozhin saw this as a «prelude to disbanding» the private army he had worked for years to build, Horowitz said.
This was a signal to the mercenary boss that “Putin had sided with his enemies,” he said, adding that Prigozhin “may have felt that his own safety was no longer guaranteed, in the long run, and that if he did not act , you would end up sidelined (at best) or dead. He had nothing to lose.»
Before the rebellion, US intelligence agencies had collected information that Prigozhin had been planning to challenge Russia’s top military leaders and briefed congressional leaders about it last week, a source told NBC News. familiar with the matter. They added that intelligence revealed that Wagner had been amassing forces and weapons, although the intelligence was not definitive.
In the end, it is not clear what Prigozhin won.
He said on Saturday that he was 120 miles from the Russian capital, but decided to turn his troops around to «avoid spilling Russian blood.»
The Kremlin said Prigozhin would not face any charges and would go to Belarus, whose leader Alexander Lukashenko apparently helped broker the deal.
One big question that remains is what will happen to Wagner’s troops?
The Kremlin has said it would not prosecute fighters who participated in the rebellion and that Wagner’s forces could still sign contracts with the Defense Ministry if they wanted.
Wagner’s roughly 25,000 fighters may disperse, «under suspicion,» into Russia’s regular army, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former US Army commander in Europe.
As for Prigozhin himself, the true nature of the crisis resolution is unknown, as is the future of Chief Wagner.
But Putin has not been known to allow his enemies to live peacefully in exile, and his portrayal of Prigozhin as a traitor suggests that he saw the revolt, as did many analysts, as a direct threat to his rule.
“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 the Ukraine, rather than Belarus, where he can justify maintaining relative freedom among his loyal men.
«But either way, he’s trapped himself in either going too far or not going far enough,» Horowitz said. «If he stays low-key, he may still end up drinking poisoned tea, and if he is too loud, he will become an even bigger liability for Moscow.»