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Prigozhin, Leader of Private Military Contractor Wagner Group, Launches Short-Lived Insurrection Against Russian Government

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, launched a short-lived insurrection against the Russian government, accusing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of ordering deadly airstrikes on Wagner mercenaries. In addition, Prigozhin challenged Putin's official narrative for launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, a significant act of defiance in a conflict that Prigozhin and his forces had actively participated in. His words met sharp backlash and criticism from Russian state officials, who launched a criminal probe into Prigozhin.[0] One Russian military leader warned that the events represented a “state coup.”

Prigozhin is a high-profile, provocative mercenary leader with a penchant for trolling media outlets.[0] He has led the private Wagner Group’s involvement in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. For decades, he has had a long-standing involvement in leadership in Moscow.[0] His sprawling businesses include not only the Wagner mercenary group but also an online army that has fought wars over information from Sudan to the United States, where Prigozhin remains under federal indictment over his alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Born in 1961 in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), Prigozhin was once sentenced to 13 years in a penal colony following a conviction on charges ranging from armed robbery to fraud to “involving minors in criminal activity,” according to a leaked resume published by The Intercept earlier this year.[1] After his release, he established a fast-food franchise that rapidly expanded into a vast catering enterprise that served the Kremlin. This earned Prigozhin the moniker “Putin’s chef” and provided him with the opportunity to meet numerous world leaders.[1]

The circumstances of how Prigozhin got so far with little to no interdiction by Russia’s ground forces, National Guard, security officials, or police are still unclear.[2] This is the reason for his sudden change of opinion.[2] Despite earlier rumors that he had been granted amnesty and permitted to live in exile in Belarus, Prigozhin is reportedly still being investigated for criminal activities as reported by the Russian media.[2]

The Russian military's already chaotic and poorly managed front is now facing even more complications as Wagner turns against its leadership.[0] Additionally, the impact of the move could extend to the level of backing that the Russian public provides for the war effort, thereby potentially weakening Putin's regime domestically. Since the commencement of the war, the deployment of numerous young men has been subjected to severe criticism.[0] Following reports of Prigozhin's statements, Russian police forces worked to secure government buildings in Moscow on Saturday, as reported by a Russian news agency.[0]

Prigozhin's months-long effort to control the narrative surrounding Wagner's involvement in Ukraine reached its climax with the social media frenzy surrounding the weekend insurrection. As his name became as recognizable as Putin’s over the last year, leading to speculation that he might be angling to replace him, Prigozhin issued dozens of often bombastic statements to journalists — including to The Intercept — through the PR arm of his catering business, while also increasingly turning to Telegram to launch screeds against his rivals in Russia and finally, to chronicle his rebellion against them in real-time.[1]

Prigozhin’s rebellion against the Russian military could have a significant impact on Putin’s regime and the war effort in Ukraine. The mobilization of hundreds of thousands of young men has been heavily criticized since the war’s beginning, and the move could affect the strength of Putin’s regime at home in terms of public support for the war effort. The circumstances of Prigozhin's about-face and how he managed to get so far without interdiction are still unclear, but his campaign to dominate the narrative around Wagner and its role in Ukraine culminated in a social media blitz around the weekend insurrection.

0. “Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? – POLITICO” POLITICO, 24 Jun. 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/2023/06/23/yevgeny-prigozhin-russia-ukraine-00103521

1. “Prigozhin Used Information Warfare in Mutiny Against Putin” The Intercept, 26 Jun. 2023, https://theintercept.com/2023/06/26/priogzhin-wagner-africa-disinformation/

2. “What the Hell Just Happened in Russia?” New Lines Magazine, 26 Jun. 2023, https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/what-the-hell-just-happened-in-russia/