The conflict in Ukraine has allowed the unpredictable boss of the paramilitary group Wagner to establish himself as a leading player in Russia. But by calling for the uprising of the Russian army and population against the General Staff, Yevgeny Prigojine crossed the Rubicon.
Russian President Vladimir Putin vigorously denounced on Saturday the “betrayal” of Yevgeny Prigojine, “caused by excessive ambitions and personal interests”, pointing to the risk of “civil war”.
The impetuous billionaire with a shaved head and hard features claimed to have seized “without a shot” from the headquarters of the Russian army in Rostov, the nerve center of operations in Ukraine, after accusing the army the day before Russian for having bombed the camps of his group.
Claiming to have “25,000” fighters “ready to die”, the 62-year-old mercenary leader called on the Russian army and population to join him, while defending himself from any “military coup”.
In response, Russia’s powerful security services have opened an investigation against him for “calling for armed mutiny”, a serious charge that could theoretically send him behind bars for a long time.
But nothing is certain when it comes to Mr. Prigojine, a past master in the art of provocation and reversals.
“We still have to understand what is happening,” notes independent Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, for whom the authorities are “perhaps seeking to put Prigozhin out of the game, with the latter’s active participation”.
“For the FSB and the staff, it is clearly holy bread. At the very least, Prigojine will take a blow to the head, ”she adds.
master of provocation
The conflict in Ukraine, however, seemed to have provided a golden opportunity for the businessman to emerge from the shadows from which he had operated for years, to finally assert himself as a leading player in Russia.
In May 2023, after months of hard and bloody fighting, Mr. Prigojine achieved consecration by claiming Wagner’s capture of Bakhmout (eastern Ukraine), celebrating a rare battlefield victory for Russian forces.
But it was also during this battle that tensions with the general staff increased: Mr. Prigojine accused him of depriving Wagner of ammunition and multiplied the videos in which he insulted the Russian commanders.
Unthinkable for anyone else in Russia, in a context of total repression.
His passage from shadow to light began in September, when the Russian army suffered setback after setback in Ukraine, a humiliation for the warmongers of which he is a part.
He then comes out of the woodwork by admitting, for the first time, that he is indeed the founder in 2014 of the paramilitary group Wagner, active in Ukraine as in Syria, but also in Africa. And stands out as a leader.
“These guys, heroes, defended the Syrian people, other peoples of Arab countries, the poor Africans and Latin Americans, they became a pillar of our homeland,” he claims.
In October, he pushes this logic of advertising even further, installing with great fanfare in a glass building in Saint Petersburg (north-west) the headquarters of the “private military company Wagner”.
A master of provocation, he published a video in February showing him on board a war plane where he proposed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to decide the fate of Bakhmout during an aerial duel.
To equip himself with an army to match his ambitions, Mr. Prigojine, a native like Mr. Putin of Saint Petersburg, recruits thousands of prisoners to fight in Ukraine, in exchange for an amnesty.
The world of prison, Evguéni Prigojine knows it well, having himself spent nine years in detention during the Soviet era for common law offences.
He was released in 1990, when the USSR was collapsing, and set up a successful business selling hot dogs.
He then moved upmarket, opening a luxury restaurant which became one of the most popular in Saint Petersburg, where Vladimir Poutine experienced his own political rise at the same time.
After Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, his catering group officiated in the Kremlin, which earned him the nickname “Putin’s cook” and the reputation of having become a billionaire thanks to public contracts.
It is this money that he would therefore have used to found Wagner, a private army initially composed of hardened veterans of the Russian army and special services.
In 2018, while this group, already noticed in Ukraine, Syria and Libya, is suspected of gaining a foothold in Africa, three Russian journalists investigating the affairs of the paramilitary company are killed in the Central African Republic.