Impromptu memorial to Wagner’s two dead leaders

From chef to payback

Eddie Ford gives his thoughts on the predictable death of Wagner’s public face and the likely culprit

Y evgeny Prigozhin’s abrupt demise surprised no-one. Indeed, a few weeks ago the Weekly Worker advised the Wagner chief to be very careful when going near any high windows, while CIA director William Burns gave similar advice. Given that Putin is “the ultimate apostle of payback”, he recommended that Prigozhin does not fire his food taster.

Prigozhin might well have done these things - even arranged for extra bodyguards - but he made the fatal mistake when he got into his private jet that crashed en route from Moscow to St Petersburg on August 23 - killing all 10 on board. Something that was officially confirmed four days later by the Investigative Committee of Russia, following DNA analysis of remains recovered from the wreckage.

Among the charred bodies was that of Dmitry Utkin, Prigozhin’s deputy and Wagner’s founder. An avowed admirer of Nazi Germany, supposedly Utkin named the mercenary group after Richard Wagner, who Adolph Hitler admired so much. He greeted subordinates by saying ‘Heil!’ - wearing a Wehrmacht field cap around Wagner training grounds. This should surely puncture the idea on the pro-Kremlin left that the ‘special military operation’ was designed to de-Nazify Ukraine.

Of course, there are plenty of fascists in Ukraine - above all the Bandlerite Azov Brigade. But you have the same thing on the other side as well. The Russian right is certainly full of Slavophile blood-and-soil nationalists - Vladimir Putin is one for sure. Not that he is a fascist - he continues to rule in the old way. The so-called oligarchs are now firmly under the state thumb and the working class presents no immediate challenge - the ‘democracy’ that is permitted is highly controlled. We know what the result of an election will be before a single vote is cast: a convincing Putin victory.

A Wagner-associated Telegram channel claimed that Prigozhin’s jet was shot down by Russian air defences over Tver Oblast, but there seems little evidence for this. Flightradar24 data indicates that the aircraft was flying too high to be hit by a short-range, man-portable air-defence system, while a hit from a more potent medium-range SAM would have caused much more severe and readily identifiable damage. Rather, experts have said that the large debris field - with the fuselage being found some two miles away from the actual tail assembly - indicated that the aircraft sustained a catastrophic structural failure that could not be explained by a simple mechanical problem. In other words, an intentional explosion caused the airplane to crash, whether due to a bomb or some other form of sabotage.

Then and now

The story of Yevgeny Prigozhin is strange, but instructive. Having emerged from a prison stretch he found himself amidst the post-Soviet chaos of robber capitalism - actively encouraged by the victorious west - Prigozhin sold hotdogs with his mother and stepfather in a local street market. He later became involved in the grocery business, getting appointed by a schoolmate to the position of managing director of St Petersburg’s first chain of supermarkets.

Always having an eye for a quick buck, he entered the lucrative gambling business and became acquainted with Vladimir Putin, who was then head of the supervisory board for casinos in the city. By 2002 Prigozhin was a multimillionaire entrepreneur, with investments in restaurants, supermarkets and construction - the embodiment of the Russian dream. When George W Bush visited Russia that year, Putin invited his American guest to dine in a luxury, floating restaurant on the River Neva that Prigozhin owned. Prigozhin was filmed personally serving both presidents and their wives - hence earning the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’.

He then got involved in the even more lucrative mercenary business, joining the private military company, Wagner - which doubtless begun life as a private security firm, but quickly morphed into a deniable and highly useful extension of Russian foreign policy. Wagner was used to some considerable effect in Syria, Libya and Mali, and more than proved its worth in Ukraine - both after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the 2022 invasion.

Throwing wave after wave of human cannon fodder at enemy lines - initially with grunts recruited straight from Russia’s penal colonies - Wagner took the symbolically important town of Bakhmut: in this way Prigozhin become an instant hero not only amongst the nationalist far right, but also the regular army rank and file too. They admired his humble origins and blunt language. In the meantime, Prigozhin reportedly amassed a personal fortune worth at least $1 billion.

But, with the story getting stranger, here is a man who was awarded the title, ‘Hero of the Russian Federation’, in June 2022 and once proclaimed his political credo as ‘Motherland and Putin’. Yet a year later, after a constant battle with the Russian high command - especially defence minister Sergei Shoigu - he attempted a coup against the Russian president after severely criticising the invasion of Ukraine as being based on lies: an incendiary accusation, given that it is illegal to “discredit the armed forces”. His Wagner group took control of Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, the official command centre of the invasion, and demanded the resignation of the defence minister and the chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov.

Then, remarkably, he sent a column of troops and tanks up the main highway towards Moscow - which was attacked by helicopters loyal to Putin. Wagner troops shot down an Ilyushin Il-22M airborne command post plane and several military helicopters - at least 13 Russian military personnel were killed. Moments later, Putin addressed the nation, denouncing Wagner’s actions as “treason” and vowed to take “harsh steps” to suppress the rebellion - stating that the situation threatened the existence of Russia itself, which may have had some truth to it. Furthermore, Putin made an appeal to the Wagner forces, stating that “by deceit or threats” they had been “dragged” into participating in the rebellion. In reply, Prigozhin said that Russia’s president was “mistaken”, and Wagner fighters are “patriots, not traitors: we have been fighting for our country and continue to fight”.

Yet within hours a deal was struck, in which Prigozhin called off his mutiny in the name of avoiding more bloodshed that could have led to civil war. His men were allowed to return to their camps in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, while he was promised immunity from prosecution and safe passage to exile in Belarus. Putin said the Wagner forces were being spared punishment because of their “heroic role” in the fighting in Ukraine - words that were never entirely convincing. Nobody believed that Putin would let bygones be bygones and not move against those who tried to depose him - it would merely be a question of timing.

Well, at the end of June, Prigozhin did turn up for the Russian-African summit in St Petersburg. He was seen shaking hands with ambassador Freddy Mapouka, a presidential advisor in the Central African Republic - a picture that was posted on Facebook by Dmitri Syty, who reportedly manages Wagner’s operations in the CAR and was the first confirmed sighting of the Wagner boss since the failed mutiny. There are several hundred Wagner mercenaries in the diamond-rich CAR, helping the government fight various rebel groups, and over the past few years Wagner has deployed several thousand troops in at least five African countries, propping up local autocratic regimes. All clearly done with the permission of Vladimir Putin.

The last images of Yevgeny Prigozhin were on August 21 from a video address that appeared to be shot in Africa, possibly Mali. He said he was going to sort out al-Qa’eda and Isis - “making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free”. He confidently added that Wagner is recruiting people and the group “will fulfil the tasks that were set.”

Forty-eight hours later his Embraer Legacy 600 jet plummeted our of the air.


So who killed Prigozhin? The question is similar to asking who blew up Nord Stream 2 or who assassinated Darya Dugina, daughter of Putin’s rightwing ally, Alexander Dugin. Obviously, we do not absolutely know the truth. But it is always sensible to start with the principle of going for the obvious. It is very likely indeed that Putin was responsible for the destruction of Prigozhin’s aircraft (or the Salisbury poisonings), that America did in Nord Stream 2, and Ukraine was behind the car bomb that killed Darya Dugina.

What is the future for Wagner? Here it is important to flag up that Wagner actually took its business model from the United States: Blackstone, Xe, Academi, KBR, MVM Inc, etc. These companies were used in US operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. That is, Wagner was a copy of the US turn to mercenary outfits. Then you had the very extensive privatisation of the war in Iraq. But, similar to Wagner, these American mercenaries from the 1980s onwards were not just in it for the money: they had a definite ideological character too - rolling back ‘global communism’, and so on. This is a tradition, as it were, going straight back to the Pinkerton men in America, who were strike-breakers out of thuggish political conviction.

Anyway, regarding Wagner, we should expect a name change in the relatively near future. It is unlikely, though, that we will see a repeat of a mercenary outfit playing a lead role in the fighting in Ukraine. After all, following Prigozhin’s death, Putin signed a decree ordering Wagner fighters and all other private military companies to swear an oath of allegiance to the Russian state.

More to the point, the latest news about some sort of Ukrainian breakthrough in the south is probably pure hype. What we are seeing is a war of attrition, a more or less static front. We should not expect to see the Ukrainian army going all the way to the Azov Sea, splitting Russian held Ukraine into two clear parts. Instead, expect the fighting to slowly grind to a halt in the autumn as the rains set in - with Russia digging in again and reinforcing its defence lines.

Rather, look to changes in high politics. Like the elections next year in the US, with a possible Donald Trump victory, and change in Ukraine too - particularly following the failure of the so-called ‘spring offensive’, which in reality happened in summer … and was not much of an offensive anyway. Perhaps some sort of change could occur in the Kremlin too. All of those scenarios are quite possible - a lot more likely than a dramatic breakthrough in the battlefields of Ukraine itself.