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

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TALLINN, Aug 27: Yevgeny Prigozhin smiled as a crowd of adoring fans surrounded his black SUV on June
24 in Russia’s southern city of Rostov-on-Don and cheered him on.
“You rock!” fans shouted while taking selfies with the chief of the Wagner mercenary group, who was
sitting in the vehicle after nightfall. “You’re a lion! Hang in there!”
Prigozhin and his masked, camouflage-clad fighters were leaving the city after a daylong mutiny against
the country’s military leadership. President Vladimir Putin decried it as “treason” and vowed
punishment, but then cut a deal not to prosecute Prigozhin. Beyond that, his fate looked uncertain.
Two months later, on August 23, Prigozhin’s business jet plummeted from the sky and crashed in a field
halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Everyone aboard was killed, presumably including Prigozhin and some of his top lieutenants.
The two scenes, which unfolded just two months apart, provide bookends to the mystery-shrouded final
days of the outspoken, brutal mercenary leader who initially appeared to have escaped any retribution
for the rebellion that posed the greatest challenge to Putin’s authority in his 23-year rule.
Suspicions immediately arose that the Kremlin was behind the crash and that it was vengeance. The
Kremlin denied it.
In on-camera remarks eulogising Prigozhin, the Russian president sought to show that there was no bad
blood between them.
He described the head of Wagner as “a talented man” whom he had known for a long time and who
made “serious mistakes” but was still apparently doing 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 comeuppance just further down the road?
Shortly before footage emerged of Prigozhin driving off into the night in Rostov-on-Don, the Kremlin
announced a deal to end the mutiny.
Prigozhin would “retreat to Belarus,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, without elaborating on
whether that meant a permanent exile.
Prigozhin himself went silent, which was unusual for a man who used to release multiple 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 service said only that he “says hi to everyone” and would respond to all questions once he gets
“proper connection.”
An elaborate 11-minute statement from Prigozhin appeared the next day, but it contained nothing
about where he was or what was next for him and his forces.
Instead, he defended himself and the mutiny in his usual defiant and bullish manner.
He said his march on Moscow started because of an injustice — an alleged attack on his fighters in
Ukraine by the Russian military.
He taunted the military, calling Wagner’s march a “master class” in how government soldiers should
have carried out the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He pointed out security breaches that allowed
Wagner to advance 780 kilometres (500 miles) without resistance and to block all military units on its
way.
The following morning, on June 27, Russian authorities announced they were dropping the criminal
investigation into the revolt, with no charges for the Wagner leader nor any other participants — even
though about a dozen Russian troops were killed in clashes and several military aircraft were shot down.
Later in the day, Putin hinted that there might be a new probe — this time into Prigozhin’s finances.
The Russian leader told a military gathering that the state paid Wagner almost USD 1 billion in just one
year, while Prigozhin’s other company earned about the same from government contracts. Putin
wondered aloud whether any of it was stolen and promised to “figure it out.”
On the day the charges were dropped, Prigozhin’s plane was spotted in Belarus, and Belarus’
authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who helped broker the deal to end the mutiny, said the
Wagner chief had arrived.
Belarusian activists soon reported that a camp was being erected there for fighters who decided to
follow him.
In Russia, Prigozhin’s major business asset — a media company called Patriot — shut down, and many of
the news outlets it owned were blocked by 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 a halt to recruitment of new mercenaries “due to the move to Belarus.”

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On July 6, however, Lukashenko told reporters that Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg — or “maybe he
went to Moscow, or maybe somewhere else, but he is not in Belarus.” The remarks came amid media
reports that cash and equipment seized during police searches of Prigozhin’s property were returned to
him.
“What will happen to him next? Well, anything can happen in a lifetime. But if you think that Putin is so
malicious and vindictive that he will be offed somewhere tomorrow. … No, this will not happen,”
Lukashenko assured.
As it turned out, Putin met with Prigozhin several days after the revolt.
Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, told reporters on July 10 that the meeting took place in the Kremlin and
involved more than 30 Wagner commanders in addition to Prigozhin. The revelation came after Peskov
repeatedly said the Kremlin knew nothing about Prigozhin’s whereabouts — including on the day of the
meeting with Putin, June 29.
Putin’s spokesperson wouldn’t offer any details about the meeting, saying only that the commanders
pledged their loyalty to the Russian president.
Putin later echoed that idea, saying in a July 13 interview that “many were nodding” when he offered to
let them continue serving under one of the Wagner commanders. But a defiant Prigozhin spoke for
them and said they didn’t like the proposal, according to the Russian president.
Comments from the Wagner chief himself became rare. Nothing more was posted by his spokespeople
beyond the 11-minute audio message issued two days after the mutiny.
Words or visuals of Prigozhin instead appeared in one of several Telegram channels believed to be
linked to Wagner.
The relative quiet raised questions over whether keeping a low public profile was part of his deal with
the Kremlin.
One such video on July 19 reportedly came from Belarus. Blurry footage showed a silhouette of a man
looking like Prigozhin against the sky at dusk, and his distinctive gravelly voice was heard addressing
rows of men in fatigues.
“Welcome guys! I am happy to greet you all. Welcome to Belarusian land!” he said.
Prigozhin repeated his criticism of the conduct of the fighting in Ukraine.
“What is going on the frontline today is a shame in which we shouldn’t take part,” he said, adding that
Wagner forces could return to Ukraine in the future.
In the meantime, Prigozhin said, Wagner would train in Belarus and then set off on a new journey to
Africa, where his mercenaries have been active in several countries.
Another video, posted on August 21 in a different Telegram channel, showed a close-up of Prigozhin
toting a rifle while standing on a dusty plain.
Prigozhin didn’t say where the video was recorded, but he referenced the temperature being 50 degrees
Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
“Just the way we like it,” he boasted. He said Wagner was “making Russia even greater on all continents
and Africa even more free.”
Two days later came the plane crash — exactly two months after Priogzhin first announced his revolt.
Although the Kremlin rejected allegations that it was behind the crash, the reality of those two months
likely didn’t sit well with Putin, political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said.
The mutiny “showcased Putin’s weakness to everyone,” said Gallyamov, who once worked as a Kremlin
speechwriter.
After that, Prigozhin “was feeling normal.” He was working on projects in Belarus and in Africa, and the
case against him was closed.
That reality “completely dissatisfied Putin because it was an open invitation for potential mutineers,”
Gallyamov said. (AP)

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