Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday made his first comments on the reported death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch and mercenary warlord who led a mutiny against the Russian armed forces in June, seemingly reconciled with Putin over the next two months, and then allegedly died along with nine others in a mysterious plane crash on Wednesday.
Putin told journalists at the Kremlin Thursday that Prigozhin was “a man of complicated destiny.”
The Russian dictator reminisced about meeting Prigozhin in the 1990s, after which the onetime hot-dog vendor and restaurant entrepreneur became known as “Putin’s Chef” for winning lucrative contracts to cater to the Kremlin and supply food to the Russian military.
Prigozhin used his profits to co-found a private military company (PMC) called the Wagner Group in partnership with a former Russian special forces operator named Dmitry Utkin, who was also reportedly killed in the plane crash on Wednesday.
“He’d made serious mistakes in his life, but also got results – for himself as well as our common cause, when I asked it of him in these last months,” Putin said, alluding to Wagner mercenaries participating in his bloody invasion of Ukraine. The brutality of Wagner’s forces made them one of the most effective elements of the Russian invasion force.
“It seems that the primary data indicate that employees of the Wagner company were also there. I would like to note that these are people who have made a significant contribution to our common cause of fighting the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine,” Putin said, citing one of the excuses he gave for attacking Ukraine in February 2022.
Wagner has long served Putin in other ways, leading to suspicions that Prigozhin’s gang was a vicious and easily deniable instrument of Putin’s foreign policy, perhaps even more than it was a mercenary operation looking to turn a profit. Wagner troops were involved in Russia’s illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea and its efforts to spread influence through Africa, for example.
Putin referenced the latter campaign when he hailed Prigozhin as a “talented businessman” who knew his way around oil, gas, precious metals, and gems. Others might say Prigozhin was a landlocked pirate whose gunmen had a knack for ending up in control of valuable African resources. Prigozhin eagerly boasted of his desire to get back to work in Africa in his final videotaped message to supporters on Monday.
Putin offered “sincere condolences to the families of all the victims” of the plane crash and brushed aside deep worldwide suspicions that he ordered Prigozhin’s death.
“Let’s see what the investigators will have to say in the nearest time,” he said.
Some of Prigozhin’s men seem unwilling to wait for that lengthy investigation to conclude. Masked militants claiming to be Wagner mercenaries released a video Thursday threatening revenge for the death of their boss.
“There’s a lot of talk right now about what the Wagner Group will do. We can tell you one thing, we are getting started, get ready for us,” they said.
Another post on a Telegram messaging channel linked to Wagner threatened to march on Moscow again if Prigozhin is truly dead.
“There are rumors about the death of the head of Wagner PMC Yevgeny Prigozhin. We directly say that we suspect the Kremlin officials led by Putin of an attempt to kill him!” the post said.
“If the information about Prigozhin’s death is confirmed, we will organize a second ‘March of Justice’ on Moscow! He’d better be alive, it’s in your own interests,” it warned.
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