Yevgeny Prigozhin and his mercenary company Wagner will be remembered for many crimes in the troubled history of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Moscow’s destabilizing influence in Africa bears his name, with its armed support for governments such as Mali and the Central African Republic. But in the biggest and bloodiest war the world has seen in decades – the Russian invasion of Ukraine – his role was instrumental in maintaining control of Russian positions in the Donbass region.
The 62-year-old Prigozhin had been one of Putin’s confidants since his fledgling political career as an adviser to the mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the protection of Putin’s state, eager to reclaim Russian imperial influence, Prigozhin created a mercenary company to do the Kremlin’s dirty work in places where it was not officially allowed to be present. But with the invasion of Ukraine, Wagner emerged openly on the international stage as the private arm of Russian power. The paramilitaries would become cannon fodder for the longest and bloodiest Russian offensive: the fight for control of the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk province.
The Russian takeover of Bakhmut, now a devastated and empty city, began in the summer of 2022 and ended in the spring of 2023. The Russian shock troops were Wagner’s men. Most of them – some 30,000 men convicted by courts – were hired in prisons in exchange for reduced sentences. And most died in combat, according to NATO intelligence.
The key to Wagner’s success at Bakhmut was simple, as Prigozhin himself explained and confirmed by the Ukrainian military in this part of the front: there was no way to back down. Leaving an attack on Ukrainian positions was punishable by execution. This was confirmed by videos released by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and also by the Wagner company itself. The mercenaries exhausted the Ukrainian defenses, but paid the price with their lives. After them came the assault troops of the Russian professional army to finish the work.
Prigozhin achieved victories that cost thousands of lives, and while he won victories he was vocal about his dissatisfaction with the Russian conduct of the war, particularly Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. In the crucial moments of the defense of the captured territory in the Donetsk (Donbass) province, Prigozhin published messages in which he criticized Shoigu for his lack of support for Wagner and accused him of wanting to reduce arms supplies to his mercenaries and underestimating their importance in the invasion of Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s bravery during the war in Ukraine – such as his visits to points on the front lines where Putin’s top military leaders dared not go – was celebrated by his supporters. His critical messages against army leaders increased up until his attempted coup last June. Two weeks before launching its attempted military attack on Moscow, EL PAÍS learned of an attempt by the Ukrainian Security Service (SSU) to obtain compromising information about Putin from Prigozhin. The operation came to nothing but served as further proof of the distance between the President and his former friend and ally.
After the threat of a military uprising last June and Moscow’s attempts to bring the Wagner mercenaries under the control of the Russian regular army, Prigozhin’s whereabouts remained a mystery. Belarus, a country dependent on Russia, should be his theoretical exile. The deployment of Wagner’s mercenary troops near the borders of Poland and the Baltic states set alarm bells ringing in NATO. Prigozhin’s last public appearance was in a video taken from Africa, in which he said that Wagner would continue to work on recruiting mercenaries to fight for the continent’s freedom, i.e. against any European and US political influence.
The fate of Prigozhin and Wagner, who had become powerful in Africa and the Ukraine, hung by a thread. A thread that broke off on Wednesday when the plane he was traveling on crashed in Russia.
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