(CNN) — Yevgeny Prigozhin accused the Russian army on Friday of attacking a Wagner camp and killing a “large number” of his men. He swore to retaliate with force. In response, the Russian Defense Ministry denied attacking Wagner’s troops, calling the allegation “informational propaganda”. And the FSB also opened a criminal investigation against Prighozhin for his threats, accusing him of calling “an armed rebellion”.
What is the Wagner group?
Wagner was founded by Prigozhin as an organization of ghost mercenaries fighting in eastern Ukraine and, increasingly, for other causes that Russia supported in various parts of the world.
CNN followed Wagner’s mercenaries in the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, Mozambique, Ukraine and Syria. Over the years, they have acquired a particularly fanciful reputation and have been linked to various human rights violations.
While many Russian regular troops suffered setbacks on the battlefield, Wagner’s fighters seemed the only ones capable of realizing tangible gains.
Known for their disregard for the lives of their own soldiers, the Wagner Group’s brutal and often lawless tactics are said to have resulted in many casualties, as new recruits are sent into battle with little formal training, a process described by US Lt. Gen. retired Mark Hertling as “feeding meat to a meat grinder”.
Prigozhin has known Putin since the 1990s. He became a wealthy oligarch by landing lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin, earning him the nickname “Putin’s boss”.
His transformation into a brutal warlord came in the aftermath of the 2014 Russian-backed separatist movements in Donbass, eastern Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s political star soared in Russia after Moscow’s full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Prigozhin has used social media to push for what he wants and has often clashed with Russian military leaders, portraying himself as competent and ruthless in contrast to the military establishment.
His disagreements with the Russian high command came to light during the bloody and relentless Battle of Bakhmut, during which he repeatedly accused the military leadership of not supplying his troops with enough ammunition.
In a particularly grim video from early May, Prigozhin stood next to a pile of dead Wagner fighters, specifically targeting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the Russian armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov.
“The blood is still fresh,” he said, pointing to the corpses behind him. “They came here as volunteers and they’re dying so you can sit like fat cats in your fancy offices.”
Putin presides over what is often described as a judicial system, where infighting and competition between elites is actually encouraged to produce results, as long as the “power vertical” remains loyal and accountable to the head of state. .
But Prigozhin’s increasingly outrageous outbursts have sparked speculation in recent weeks that even he may be going too far.
This article was produced with information from CNN’s Nathan Hodge and Tara John