PUTIN’S REVENGE: Prigozhin meets his maker: Payback time as Wagner Group’s leadership decapitated

PUTIN’S REVENGE: Prigozhin meets his maker: Payback time as Wagner Group’s leadership decapitated

The Grey Zone Telegram channel, which is linked to the mercenary group, reported that “a hero of Russia and true patriot . . . died as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia”.

Julia Ioffe, a Russian-born American journalist who has closely followed his chequered career, says that when CIA Director Bill Burns was recently asked why Prigozhin was still alive, he said the mercenary leader was not out of the woods yet because, “Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback”.

On Wednesday, nine people reportedly died alongside him in the crash including the Wagner founder, Dimitry Utkin, who had named the organisation after his call sign, Wagner, who was also Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer, and other members of the high command.

Even in the very slim chance that it was poor piloting skills or a technical fault that caused the crash, the Wagner leadership has been effectively decapitated.

The company’s operations in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine are likely to be absorbed into other agencies of the Russian state or closed down.

At the same time, there has been an apparent purge of Prigozhin’s allies in the military.

Prigozhin’s ally General Sergei Surovikin, the commander of the Russian aerospace forces, has been sacked.

However, Natasha Dukhan, senior investigator for The Sentry which did a major investigative report on Wagner Group titled “Architects of Terror”, warned that “the Kremlin’s strategy to bring the African continent further into its orbit of power and exploitation remains”.

Unimaginable brutality

Dukhan warned that the international community must not take its eyes off this entity that “utilises torture, mass rape, criminality and overwhelming terror for the purpose of domination”.

This frame grab taken from a video on the Telegram account of razgruzka_vagnera on 22 August 2023, shows the leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin as he addresses the camera at an undisclosed location. – The leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video published on 22 August 2023, that his group was making Africa “freer” and suggested he was on the continent. (Photo: Handout / Telegram / @ razgruzka_vagnera)

Prigozhin was the central pillar and the voice of the organisation. He built Wagner into a multi-purpose enterprise: part mercenary army, part Russian military intelligence front, part mining and business empire, and part propaganda, dirty tricks and cybercrime operation.

Wagner became known for its unimaginable brutality. It filmed, and released on social media, one of its own members being bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer.

The organisation participated in atrocities in the Central African Republic and Mali. In March 2022 Wagner, along with Malian government forces, slaughtered about 500 residents of the village of Moura, including children as young as five years old.

After the march on Moscow, Putin admitted what had long been denied – that Wagner was an arm of the Russian government and had received tens of billions of roubles in public money since its inception.

“From the Ministry of Defence, from the state budget, we fully financed this group,” Putin said.

Petty thief and killer

Prigozhin began his working life as a petty thief in the Soviet Union, burgling apartments in Leningrad. He was jailed for 12 years in 1981 for assaulting a woman and robbing her of her fur coat, earrings and boots.

He was released in 1990, at first setting up a hot dog stand and then opening several restaurants in St Petersburg which were hangouts for mobsters and oligarchs – and where presumably he first came to meet Putin and became known as Putin’s chef. Putin was to celebrate his birthday at Prigozhin’s boat restaurant.

He was like a Joe Pesci character out of the movie Goodfellas, the charm and the smiles disguising his true nature as a killer.

Through his connection with Putin, Prigozhin won lucrative catering contracts with the Russian army and the education department. By 2014, Wagner forces were engaged in assisting separatists in the war in Eastern Ukraine, before moving to fight alongside the Russian army in Syria.

Dirty tricks

It was as a propagandist and connoisseur of dirty tricks that Prigozhin must have endeared himself most to Putin.

Prigozhin set up the Internet Research Agency (IRA) which employed hundreds of bloggers and posters to swamp global social media with general hatred as well as pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian propaganda.

During the 2016 US election, his troll farm created thousands of fake social media accounts that reached millions of Americans, spreading disinformation about the Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, focusing on issues that divided the Democratic Party and helping elect Donald Trump.

Prigozhin and 13 others were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller – and Prigozhin later bragged about his role in assisting Trump on behalf of the Russian state.

He soon moved on to Africa where the IRA launched social media disinformation campaigns in several countries including Sudan and Madagascar, and soon Wagner had boots on the ground in French-speaking West and Central Africa where the organisation had some of its greatest successes.

But under Prigozhin, the menace that Wagner posed was sometimes less than the reality on the ground.

African footprint

Wagner’s footprint in Africa remains limited to the Central African Republic, where it literally controls the government, and Mali, where it is assisting the military junta in fighting insurgents – not very successfully.

There are Wagner troops in Eastern Libya and gold mining operations in Sudan operating from areas controlled by the Rapid Support Forces. They have offices in other countries but no apparent boots on the ground.

Prigozhin’s biggest impact came last year in Ukraine when he recruited tens of thousands of prisoners to join Wagner and bolster the flagging Russian war effort in Ukraine. An estimated 20,000 Wagner troops were reported killed in the battle for Bakhmut alone.

As his role within the Russian forces seemed to grow increasingly central, Prigozhin became more and more voluble, with frequent appearances on social media where he pitched himself as a man of the people.

As his ambition seemed to soar, he clashed with the military high command while recruiting his own loyalists in key positions. Leaked US intelligence documents claimed that he had made contact with Ukrainian forces and was offering them a separate deal.

Then came the 23 June 20023 march on Moscow and Putin’s warning that he would punish the traitor Prigozhin.

But nothing happened, even after Wagner shot down army planes and helicopters, killing 13 Russian servicemen.

For two months there has been an air of unreality as Prigozhin had gradually started to wind his way back on to social media. Early this week he claimed to be speaking from somewhere in Africa where he said he was working to make “Africa even more free”.

Little did he know those words would come shockingly true within days. Just not in the way he expected. DM

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