By RFE RL
By Todd Prince
(RFE/RL) — Yevgeny Prigozhin, the 62-year-old former petty criminal-turned-restauranteur-billionaire warlord, has tackled many difficult assignments over the years as a Kremlin fixer: from propping up kleptocratic, authoritarian African rulers to sacking the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Now, following an aborted mutiny that challenged Russia’s military and handed President Vladimir Putin a major political crisis, Prigozhin stands on the precipice of his most daunting assignment yet:
Staying alive. Or staying out of prison. Or both.
Four days after his Wagner troops raced toward Moscow, then withdrew following a deal brokered in part by Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Prigozhin’s whereabouts were still unclear.
Prigozhin was in Belarus, Lukashenka said on June 27, though there was no independent confirmation of that.
‘If I Were Prigozhin, I’d Be Looking Over My Shoulder Constantly’
Putin has gone on the record saying that the one thing he cannot forgive is betrayal. He has backed that up over the years through violence, sometimes lethal, meted out to those whom he believes have turned on him or the nation.
On the morning of June 24, after Prigozhin’s forces had taken the headquarters of Russia’s southern military district in Rostov-on-Don, Putin denounced his erstwhile ally as a “traitor” and conveyed a stern warning of impending consequences.
“As a general rule, Putin doesn’t let traitors get off lightly. So I would imagine that Prigozhin’s days are numbered,” said Thomas Graham, who served as Russia director on the White House National Security Council in the mid-2000s.
“If I were Prigozhin, I’d be looking over my shoulder constantly,” he told RFE/RL. “Belarus wouldn’t be the safest place to be.”
Under Putin’s leadership, Russian special services have carried out assassination attempts against “traitors” on foreign soil, including Western nations.
Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former Federal Security Service officer who died in London after being exposed to a highly radioactive isotope, and Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer and double agent who was nearly killed in the U.K. by a Soviet-era nerve agent, are two of the best-known examples.
Belarus, a Russian ally, would be even easier for Russian agents to infiltrate.
But the Kremlin’s intentions, or those of Russian intelligence agencies — where Prigozhin is believed to have allies and supporters — remains unclear.
The Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, said on June 27 that it was dropping “armed mutiny” criminal charges against Prigozhin and Wagner members.
Given Putin’s harsh rhetoric and his historic condemnation of traitors, some experts said that appeared to be a sign of weakness.
Putin’s allies and supporters, however, have said that crushing the Wagner rebellion would have been far worse for Russia, and for the president, whose public support — founded on maintaining stability and prosperity — has begun to slip amid the sputtering Ukraine invasion.
For his part, Prigozhin hasn’t been seen since the evening of June 24, where supporters snapped selfies and posed alongside his SUV as he left the city of Rostov-on-Don.
He did post an audio message to his Telegram channel on June 26 saying that Lukashenka had reached out “to find solutions to enable the Wagner group to continue its work in a legal manner.” He did not give his whereabouts.
Lukashenka, speaking a day later to Belarusian military officers in Minsk, said that Prigozhin had arrived in the country.
That same day, a private business jet previously used by Prigozhin landed at a military airbase outside the Belarusian capital, Minsk. RFE/RL could not confirm whether the mercenary leader was on it.
“The last thing [Prigozhin] wants to do is go to Belarus and give up control of Wagner,” Dmitri Alperovitch, a Russia expert and chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington-based think tank, said in a June 26 podcast. “I am not sure that is how it is actually going to play out.”
Onward and Upward?
Even if Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus is confirmed, the larger question is whether he will stay there or move on to another country — for example, to one of several African countries where his companies and his soldiers have had business operations for years.
Olga Romanova, a Russian political commentator and former journalist, doubted Prigozhin would remain in Belarus due to security concerns.
“I think he will [leave Belarus] very quietly and will suddenly emerge somewhere in Africa, if he emerges at all,” she told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “I don’t think that Prigozhin will live a long life. He definitely won’t survive until the end of the year.”
How he would get to Africa is another question.
The United States has sanctioned the mercenary group, as well as a host of affiliated companies and individuals, for “meddling in and destabilizing countries in Africa, committing widespread human rights abuses, and appropriating natural resources.”
Prigozhin himself was indicted by the United States in 2018 for allegedly interfering in the U.S. presidential election two years earlier.
That would make it challenging for him to fly to Africa, even on his private jet.
Prigozhin’s ascent has been meteoric: rising from a hot-dog salesman in St. Petersburg to a powerful billionaire catering Putin’s lavish events, then running a state-sanctioned mercenary force active in Africa and the Middle East.
The businessman turned his focus to Ukraine last year as Russia’s invasion struggled, in part amid a shortage of manpower. He bolstered Wagner’s numbers with convicts from Russian prisons and tossed them into the assault on Bakhmut, largely capturing the city in May, the first major Russian victory in 10 months.
Buoyed by а pyrrhic victory in Bakhmut that he said cost the lives of some 20,000 Wagner fighters, Prigozhin lambasted Russia’s military leadership, accusing it of mismanaging the war effort and withholding supplies to Wagner.
Putin, possibly fearing Prigozhin’s autonomy and growing popularity, agreed to bring Wagner’s forces under the direct control of the Defense Ministry by July 1. Many experts say that was a major factor in triggering the mutiny.
Prigozhin saw the decree as an “existential threat” to his business empire, Catrina Doxsee, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during a June 26 podcast.
The future of the Wagner Group itself is unclear.
The Defense Ministry said that the group’s fighters would turn over their military equipment to the army. Putin also complained publicly that Wagner had received 80 billion rubles, or about $1 billion, over the past year in state funding, a signal that Wagner finances could be under investigation by authorities.
Some men who have fought for Wagner said they would never agree to serve under regular Defense Ministry command.
Though Lukashenka claimed he stepped in to resolve the mutiny, experts said he might have simply been a messenger brought in to spare Putin the embarrassment of negotiating with a rebel.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov appeared to back Lukashenka’s claim, saying the Belarusian leader and Prigozhin had known each other for 20 years.
While Lukashenka in 2020 arrested and deported more than 30 Wagner members he accused of seeking to foment unrest, he may want to keep them around for his own needs this time around, experts said.
Wagner fighters — who may number as many as 25,000 — are considered to be some of the most experienced in the Russian military.
“If their commanders come to us and help us [and] tell us what is important right now…that’s priceless,” Lukashenka said on June 27.
Belarus does not need to fear the sudden Wagner presence in the country, he said, because his government “will keep a close eye on them.”
Lukashenka “may be playing his own game” with this deal, said Mark Katz, a Russia specialist at George Mason University near Washington, D.C.
“Having Prigozhin in Belarus is a certain degree of leverage,” he told RFE/RL. Lukashenka is “no puppet of Putin.”
Katz said the agreement was hatched so quickly, and that Lukashenka, Putin, and Prigozhin are so suspicious of one another, that it may unravel. It was also highly possible that Prigozhin would be assassinated in a few months, he said.
“The possibility of these guys turning on each other is pretty high,” Katz said. “There is a mix of greed and fear at work here on the part of all the major actors. None of them can trust each other.”
It is unclear if Wagner forces will follow Prigozhin to Belarus should the mercenary leader choose to stay there. Prigozhin claimed that only about 2 percent of his fighters were willing to sign a contract with the Defense Ministry.
Speaking on state TV on June 26, Putin made a hard pitch to entice Wagner men to ditch Prigozhin and join the Russian armed forces, which is still facing manpower issues in Ukraine.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that Putin is going to allow Prigozhin to settle in Belarus with his fighters,” Graham said. “Why can’t Prigozhin do from Belarus what he did from eastern Ukraine?”
Lukashenka “can’t protect him,” he said.
With reporting by Current Time and RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service
- Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.