Prigozhin’s final months were dominated by questions about what the Kremlin had in store for him

Tallinn, Estonia (AP) — Yevgeny Prigozhin smiled as a crowd of admiring fans surrounded his black SUV on June 24 in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and cheered him on.

“You rock!” Fans yelled while taking selfies with them Head of the Wagner Mercenary GroupWho was sitting in the car after dark. “You are a lion! Be patient!”

Prigozhin and his masked fighters in camouflage were leaving the city after A.S An all-day rebellion against the country’s military leadership. President Vladimir Putin denounced what happened as “treason” and vowed to punish him, but then reached an agreement not to prosecute Prigozhin. Beyond that, his fate seemed uncertain.

Two months later, on August 23, the business jet Prigozhin was traveling in plummeted from the sky and crashed in a field halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Everyone on board was killed, including Prigozhin and some of his top aides.

The two scenes, revealed only two months apart, provide an end to the mysterious last days of an outspoken brutal mercenary leader who at first seemed to escape any revenge for his murder. The rebellion, which posed the biggest challenge to Putin’s authority during his 23-year rule.

Doubts arose immediately And that the Kremlin was behind the incident and that it was vindictive. The Kremlin denied this.

In remarks on camera praising Prigozhin, the Russian president sought to show that there was no hardship between them. He described Wagner’s boss as a “talented man” he had known for a long time who had made “grave mistakes” but still seemed to do business with the government.

The last weeks of Prigozhin’s life were overshadowed by questions about what the Kremlin really had in store for him. Had he already dodged a bullet? Or was his punishment farther afield?

Shortly before footage emerged of Prigozhin driving at night in Rostov-on-Don, the Kremlin announced a deal to end the rebellion. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Prigozhin would “withdraw to Belarus,” without saying if that meant permanent exile.

Prigozhin himself fell silent, which was unusual for a man accustomed to issuing many written and spoken statements every day. Responding to an email from the Associated Press on June 25, the day after the mutiny, Prigozhin’s press office said only that he “says hello to everyone” and will answer all questions as soon as he gets “appropriate contact.”

elaborate An 11-minute statement from Prigozhin appeared the next dayBut it did not include anything about his whereabouts or what was the next step for him and his forces. Instead, he defended himself and the rebellion in his usual defiant and bullish style.

He said his march to Moscow began because of the injustice, an alleged attack on his fighters in Ukraine by the Russian military. He mocked the military, calling Wagner’s march a “master lesson” in how government soldiers carried out the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. He pointed to the security breaches that allowed Wagner to advance 780 kilometers (500 miles) without resistance and block all military units in its path.

The next morning, on 27 June, the Russian authorities announced this Drop the criminal investigation into the rebellion, with no charges filed For the leader of Wagner, nor for any other participants – although about a dozen Russian soldiers were killed in the clashes and several military planes were shot down.

Later in the day, Putin hinted there might be a new investigation, this time into Prigozhin’s finances. The Russian leader told a military rally that the state paid Wagner nearly $1 billion in just one year, while Prigozhin’s other company received roughly the same amount from government contracts. Putin asked aloud if any had been stolen and promised to “find out”.

On the day the charges were dropped. Prigozhin’s plane has been spotted in BelarusBelarussian authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who helped broker the deal to end the rebellion, said the Wagner leader had arrived. Soon, Belarusian activists reported that a camp had been set up There for the fighters who decide to follow him.

And in Russia, Prigozhin’s main business asset – a media company called Patriot – has been shut down. Many of its owned news outlets have been banned by the authorities. Prigozhin’s media operations included the infamous “troll factory” that led to his indictment in the US for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Wagner also announced the cessation of recruiting new mercenaries “due to the move to Belarus.”

But on July 6, Lukashenko told reporters that Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg – or “Maybe he went to Moscow, or maybe somewhere else, but he’s not in Belarus.” The remarks came amid media reports that money and equipment seized during police searches of Prigozhin’s property had been returned to him.

“What will happen to him next? Well, anything can happen in life. But if you think that Putin is so insidious and vindictive that he will be offended somewhere tomorrow. No, this will not happen,” Lukashenko assured.

As it turned out, Putin met Prigozhin several days after the revolution.

Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on July 10 The meeting took place in the Kremlin and was attended by more than 30 Wagner leaders in addition to Prigozhin.. The revelations came after Peskov repeatedly said the Kremlin knew nothing of Prigozhin’s whereabouts, including on the day of the meeting with Putin, June 29.

Putin’s spokesman did not provide any details about the meeting, saying only that the leaders pledged loyalty to the Russian president.

Putin later echoed this notion, saying in a July 13 interview that “many were shaking their heads” when he offered to allow them to continue serving under one of Wagner’s commanders. But Prigozhin spoke for them and said they did not like the proposal, according to the Russian president.

Comments from the head of Wagner himself became rare. His spokespeople did not release anything more than the 11-minute audio message released two days after the mutiny.

Instead, words or pictures of Prigozhin appeared on one of the many Telegram channels believed to be linked to Wagner. The relative calm has raised questions about whether keeping a low profile was part of his deal with the Kremlin.

One of these videos is dated July 19th He reportedly came from Belarus. Blurred footage showed a silhouette of a man resembling Prigozhin in the sky at dusk, his distinctive voice heard addressing the ranks of men in uniform.

“Hello guys! I am glad to greet you all. Welcome to the Belarusian land! He said.

Prigozhin repeated his criticism of the conduct of the fighting in Ukraine. “What is happening on the front lines today is a disgrace that we should not be involved in,” he said, adding that Wagner forces could return to Ukraine in the future.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin said, Wagner will train in Belarus and then embark on a new trip to Russia Africa, where his mercenaries are active in several countries.

Another video, posted Aug. 21 to a different Telegram channel, A close-up showed Prigozhin holding a rifle as he stood on a dusty plain. Prigozhin did not say where the video was recorded, but indicated that the temperature was 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Just the way we like it,” he boasted. He said that Wagner “makes Russia greater on all continents Africa and freer.”

And two days later, the plane crash occurred—exactly two months after Briogin had first announced his revolution.

Although the Kremlin Allegations that she was behind the accident were dismissedPolitical analyst Abbas Galliamov said that the reality of these two months was most likely not satisfied with Putin.

Galliamov, who once worked as a speechwriter in the Kremlin, said the rebellion “showed Putin’s weakness to everyone.” After that, Prigozhin “felt normal.” He was working on projects in Belarus and Africa, and the case against him was closed.

This reality, Galliamov said, “did not satisfy Putin at all because it was an open invitation to potential rebels.”

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