(CNN) — The bizarre story of Yevgeny Prigozhin – President Vladimir Putin’s former friend who later mutinied against the Kremlin – has become much stranger.
The foul-mouthed former head of private military company Wagner – who ran an empire that included a troll farm, a multimillion-dollar catering business and a media group – had the audacity to launch a mutiny on June 23 against senior military commanders. Cheese fries.
The rebellion was put down by an “agreement” reportedly brokered by another Putin friend (some call him a “vassal”), Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. The agreement provided for Prigozhin to leave Russia and settle in Belarus. His men had three options: follow Prigozhin to Belarus, join the regular Russian army, or stop fighting and return home.
After the mutiny ended, Lukashenko claimed that Prigozhin arrived in Belarus. But for weeks, no one could confirm it. On Thursday, Lukashenko backtracked, telling CNN that Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg and could travel “to Moscow or anywhere else.”
In any case, he said, Prigozhin was not where he was supposed to be. Wagner’s fighters were also not in the camps the Lukashenko government had apparently set aside for them in Belarus, raising questions about the fate of the Wagner boss.
Suddenly, Russian state-controlled television began broadcasting videos of security forces raiding Prigozhin’s office and residence in St. Petersburg. His “mansion” or “palace” had a swimming pool, a private operating room and even a “prayer room”, as the Russian propaganda site RT described it, as well as some maces, a tool that Wagner is accused of to use to kill. deserters. Security guards reportedly found 10 million rubles (about $110,000) in cash, along with gold, weapons and wigs, presumably for Prigozhin to dress up.
However, a few hours later it was reported that some of his money and property had been returned to him. This adds another layer to the mystery of why Putin has so far allowed Prigozhin to remain free even though he does not honor the deal with Lukashenko.
The uncertain fate of Prigozhin
Before falling out of favor, Prigozhin was a social media star. He was a swaggering badass in camouflage, whose fighters could win battles in Ukraine that the regular Russian army couldn’t handle. He criticized military leaders and other elite government officials, but crossed a red line when he accused them of lining their pockets and inciting Putin to launch an invasion of Ukraine as there was no real threat.
Prigozhin’s subsequent march on Moscow – in which his troops seized the city of Rostov-on-Don, shot down Russian planes and killed several servicemen – enraged Putin, who accused him of “stabbing Russia in the back”.
It’s well known that Putin can’t stand traitors, but Lukashenko, using a gangster-like Russian word that Putin used to refer to Chechen terrorists, assured reporters that Putin wasn’t “malicious and vengeful” enough. to “disappear” in Prigozhin.
Putin himself a few days ago hinted at another way of dealing with Prigozhin, admitting that the government had paid him billions of dollars, adding that he hoped ‘nobody would steal anything’ but that the Kremlin would take care of it.
Prigozhin’s ultimate fate remains uncertain, but that’s just one of Putin’s problems. What it does with Prigozhin’s valuable businesses is another: Currently, the Kremlin seems to be dissecting its empire, putting control of the more valuable businesses into more “trustworthy” hands.
Will he end up in prison? Or in a coffin? The only thing that seems vaguely clear is that Putin will have to settle this “razborka”, a word that Russian gangsters use to describe their internal conflicts. And that portends more repression, more “reputation,” and more behind-the-scenes fighting in Putin’s Russia.