Yevgeny Prigozhin: Who is head of the Wagner mercenary group that 'died' in plane crash?

PA Credit: Yevgeny Prigozhin, 62, has made scathing criticism of Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, is presumed dead after a plane he was on crashed in Russia on Wednesday.

Russia's civil aviation agency said that Prigozhin and six top lieutenants were on the jet that crashed soon after it took off from Moscow with a crew of three.

The US and other Western countries long expected Putin to go after Prigozhin despite promising to drop charges in a deal that ended the Wagner mutiny in June.

“I don’t know for a fact what happened but I’m not surprised,” US President Joe Biden said. “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”

While countless theories about the events swirled, most observers saw Prigozhin's death as Putin's punishment for the most serious challenge to his authority of his 23-year rule.

Here, ITV News takes a look at the history of the Wagner group, its leader, and its conflict with Russia's military brass.

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

After he was convicted of robbery and assault in 1981 and sentenced to 12 years in prison, Prigozhin opened a restaurant business in St Petersburg in the 1990s.

It was in this capacity that he got to know now-President Vladimir Putin, then the city’s deputy mayor.

Prigozhin used that connection to develop a catering business and won lucrative Russian government contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef”.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former restaurateur an Wagner Group owner, has been dubbed ‘Putin’s chef’ Credit: AP Photo/Pool, File

He later expanded into other areas, including media and an infamous internet “troll factory” that led to his indictment in the US for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

In January, Prigozhin acknowledged founding, leading and financing the shadowy Wagner company.

What happened during that mutiny, and what was it about?

Prigozhin was the man behind an armed insurrection against Russia's military leadership which was called off in a surprise turn of events.

It posed one of the biggest crises ever faced by Putin during his 23-year reign, and has made him appear weaker than ever.

In a series of angry video and audio recordings before the insurrection, Prigozhin accused Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu of ordering a rocket strike on Wagner's field camps in Ukraine.

Prigozhin said his troops would punish Shoigu in an armed rebellion and urged the army not to offer resistance.

“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin declared. The Defence Ministry denied carrying out the rocket attack.

Prigozhin said in June that his forces had crossed into Russia from Ukraine and had taken over the city of Rostov-on-Don before travelling onwards to Moscow at pace.

However, in an unexpected turn of events, he ordered his troops to halt when they were just 200km away from the Russian capital, amid claims a peace deal had been brokered by Belarus.

Yevgeny Prigozhin's claims have been denied by Russia's Ministry of Defence. Credit: AP

At the time, the Kremlin said Prigozhin would have criminal charges against him dropped as he was banished to Belarus as part of the agreement in order to diffuse tensions.

Mercenaries who joined in the uprising will not face prosecution and those who did not will be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry, the Kremlin previously said.

The militia group had up to 50,000 mercenaries in Ukraine in June, according to British intelligence, and has played a significant role in the conflict.

The National Anti-Terrorism Committee, which is part of the Federal Security Services, or FSB, said Prigozhin would be investigated on charges of calling for an armed rebellion.

The FSB urged Wagner’s contract soldiers to arrest Prigozhin and refuse to follow his “criminal and treacherous orders.”

It called his statements a “stab in the back to Russian troops” and said they amounted to fomenting an armed conflict in Russia.

Responding to Putin's comments, Prigozhin said his fighters would not surrender, as “we do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”

In an audio message on his Telegram channel, he added: “Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president was deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland.”

In the months since, Prigozhin has been reportedly spotted in St Petersburg and in Africa.

The warlord said he was in Africa “making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even freer,” CNN reports.

Where has Wagner operated?

Wagner was first seen in action in eastern Ukraine soon after a separatist conflict erupted there in April 2014, in the weeks following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

While backing the separatist insurgency in the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, Russia denied sending its own weapons and troops there despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Engaging private contractors in the fighting allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of deniability.

Social media videos appear to show Wagner troops on the streets of Moscow. Credit: Ostorozhno Novosti

Prigozhin’s company was called Wagner after the nickname of its first commander, Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Russian military’s special forces.

Wagner personnel also deployed to Syria, where Russia supported president Bashar Assad’s government in a civil war.

In Libya, they fought alongside forces of commander Khalifa Hifter. The group has also operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.

Prigozhin has reportedly used Wagner’s deployment to Syria and African countries to secure lucrative mining contracts.

In January, US undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland said the company was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to fund operations in Ukraine.

Some Russian media alleged Wagner was involved in the 2018 killings of three Russian journalists in Central African Republic who were investigating the group’s activities. Their deaths remain unsolved to this day.

What is Wagner's reputation?

Wagner soon developed a reputation for brutality, with Western countries and UN experts accusing it of human rights abuses in Africa, including in Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.

In 2021, the European Union accused the group of “torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings,” and of carrying out “destabilising activities” in Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

A 2017 online video showed a group of armed people, believed to be Wagner contractors, torturing a Syrian and beating him to death with a sledgehammer before mutilating and burning his body.

Prigozhin asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in March to withdraw remaining troops from Bakhmut to save their lives. Credit: AP

Russian authorities ignored requests by the media and rights activists to investigate.

In 2022, another video showed a former Wagner contractor beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he allegedly fled to the Ukrainian side and was repatriated.

Despite public outrage and demands for an investigation, the Kremlin turned a blind eye.

What is Wagner's role in Ukraine?

Wagner took an increasingly visible role in the war as regular Russian troops suffered heavy attrition and lost territory in humiliating setbacks.

Prigozhin toured Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising pardons if they survived a half-year tour of front-line duty with Wagner.

In the interview in May, he said he had recruited 50,000 convicts, about 10,000 of whom where killed in Bakhmut; a similar number of his own fighters have died there.

He said he had 50,000 men at his disposal “in the best times,” with about 35,000 on the front lines at all times. He didn’t say whether these numbers included convicts.

However, referring to the current insurrection, Prigozhin said he had 25,000 troops under his command as he urged Russia's army not to offer resistance.

Wagner Group mercenaries wave a Russian national and Wagner flag atop a damaged building in Bakhmut. Credit: AP

Out of the 50,000 personnel previously fighting in Ukraine, the US estimated 10,000 to be contractors and 40,000 to be convicts.

A US official says nearly half of the 20,000 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine since December have been Wagner’s troops in Bakhmut. Washington claims Wagner is spending about $100 million a month in the fight in Ukraine.

In December, the US accused North Korea of supplying weapons, including rockets and missiles, to the company in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Both Wagner and North Korea denied the reports.

What has Prigozhin previously said about Russia's military?

If the claims about North Korean weapons are true, this may reflect a long-running dispute between Wagner and the Russian military's leadership.

Prigozhin claimed full credit in January for capturing the Donetsk region salt-mining town of Soledar in Ukraine and accused the Russian Defence Ministry of trying to steal Wagner’s glory.

He has repeatedly complained the Russian military failed to supply Wagner with sufficient ammunition to capture Bakhmut and threatened to pull out his men.

Troops purported to be Wagner contractors in Ukraine recorded a video in which they showered the chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, with curses and accusations of failing to provide ammunition.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu (right) has been hit with scathing criticism by Wagner's leader. Credit: AP

Prigozhin also aimed criticism at Shoigu while accusing Russian military leaders of incompetence.

The frequency of his complaints are unprecedented for Russia's tightly controlled political system, in which only Putin could air such criticism.

Once a shadowy figure, Prigozhin has increasingly raised his public profile, boasting almost daily about Wagner’s purported victories, sardonically mocking his enemies and complaining about the military brass.

Asked recently about a media comparison of him with Grigory Rasputin, a mystic who gained fatal influence over Russia’s last czar by claiming to have the power to cure his son’s haemophilia, Prigozhin snapped: “I don’t stop blood, but I spill blood of the enemies of our Motherland.”

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