The last days of Prigozhin: what he went to do in Africa and why he urgently returned to Russia

A view shows a portrait of Wagner’s mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin at a makeshift monument in Moscow, Russia, August 24, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer (STRINGER/)

The late chief of Wagner’s mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhinhe refused to lose the international paramilitary influence he had built and which was increasingly at risk, after the coup attempt he led in June against the regime of Vladimir Putin.

For this reason, Prigozhin spent the days before his plane crashed in Russia traveling to other countries where his paramilitary company had influence in order to maintain control of his criminal empire.

In a conversation with Faustin Archange Touaderathe president of the Central African RepublicPrigozhin told him that his abortive June mutiny in Russia would not prevent him from bringing new fighters and investment to his trading partners in that country, according to the American media. Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

“Shortly after, a Wagner helicopter landed nearby with five commanders of the Sudan Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group that relies on mercenaries to wage war against the government of their country,” reports WSJ.

The delegation had traveled to Banguithe Central African capital from the province of Darfur with a “gift” for Prigozhin, who had provided them with missiles: gold bars from the mines his mercenaries helped secure in war-torn western Sudan, the WSJ adds.

Meanwhile, since the Russian Defense Ministry were conveying the opposite message to Wagner’s clients in Libya. The Kremlin claimed it was formally assuming control of a corporate network headed by Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, a personal enemy of Prigozhin.

This motivated him to travel he returned to Russia almost immediately, stopping in Mali, then flying through the airspace of the client states he was trying to save from Kremlin control.

This was unknowingly Prigozhin’s “farewell tour”.

two years of wigs

The Wagner leader had been carrying out an international contest in silence for two months, which was interrupted when his private plane, the Embraer Legacy 600crashed in the Russian region of Tver, with him on board and his most important lieutenants.

Prigozhin had spent the last two years on the run, wearing wigs to pose as Arab military officers, donning false beards so they can fuel up their planeat a diminishing number of airports that granted him permission to land.

The fortune of his mercenary group rests on the construction, supply and paramilitary logistics, mining and illegal exploitation of natural resources. His income was derived from exports of Sudanese gold to Russia, diamonds and timber from the Central African Republic to the United Arab Emirates and Chinaaccording to reports published by the WSJ.

Authorities found firearms, cash and gold at Prigozhin's house.
Authorities found firearms, cash and gold at Prigozhin’s house after a search. Capture

“Different factions linked to the Russian military will likely try to take over these lucrative business contracts and create new proxy forces”David Lewis of the University of Exeter in the UK told the WSJ. “Prigozhin was particularly adept at managing these transnational networks, but he is not indispensable.”

His death leaves the future of those businesses uncertain. The Kremlin now seeks to nationalize an opaque network centralized around Prigozhin’s personal authority.“, he says journal.

Despite hints of a possible link to Prigozhin’s death, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent condolences to the families of all those aboard the crashed plane.

“Regarding the plane crash, first of all I want to express my deepest condolences to the families of all the victims. It is always a tragedy,” Putin said.

And immediately afterwards he spoke particularly about the Wagner leader.

“He was a talented man who made serious mistakes“, said. In addition, he described him as someone with a “complicated life story”, just like his future.

Countries like Mali and Syria had come to depend on Prigozhin’s hitmen, and just days ago, he was offering his services to Niger’s new military regime, which seized power last month in a coup.

However, new mercenary companies, run by the Russian military intelligence agency (GRU), were vying for Wagner’s contracts.

The WSJ revealed that the Putin had personally told Touadera that the time had come to distance himself from Prigozhin. When Touadera visited St. Petersburg, Prigozhin’s hometown, last month, he refrained from taking a photo with the Russian warlord.

Many of the deals Prigozhin struck with foreign governments were carried out by handshake, and the details were unknown, known only to a small circle of Wagner officials personally selected by Prigozhin. One of them was Dmitry Utkinthe former officer of GRU, who had no problem displaying his Nazi tattoos, and who also died in the plane crash on Wednesday.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin meets with Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera during the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, July 27, 2023. Sputnik/Pavel Bednyakov/Pool via REUTERS
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meets with Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera during the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, July 27, 2023. Sputnik/Pavel Bednyakov/Pool via REUTERS (SPUTNIK/)

“His thousands of workers, mercenaries, cooks, mining geologists and social media trolls were often paid in cash, sometimes with a plastic bag, by Prigozhin himself, who in turn often billed governments by sending their private planes to collect their cash arrears”, revealed the WSJ.

However, in recent months the Kremlin had been trying to exercise control over this dark network of shady agreements, after the failed Prigozhin mutiny that forced it to take refuge in Belarus.

But the chief of the Wagners did not like the shadows and he went out to explore Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa in an attempt to keep his ties and business influence alive.

That is why it was normal to see him often posting audio and video messages on social networks, such as the one in which he appeared offering mercenaries to the military regime that had recently taken power in Niger, or the video in Mali posing with a sniper rifle and four magazines strapped to a bulletproof vest, vowing to “make Russia even greater… and Africa even freer.”

The man who lived incognito

The head of the mercenaries was used to living on the run due to the sanctions that weighed on him by more than 30 countries.

That is why, flew in planes that regularly turned off their transponders and avoided airspace where Western-allied governments could claim a $10 million reward offered by the State Department in exchange for information about who was identified as responsible for meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Prigozhin was forced to make at least one emergency landing in the middle of the Sahara after running out of fuel and frequently he held meetings on the runways of his plane in case he had to make a quick exit.

He was traveling with false passports and sent out advance parties of Wagner cybersecurity experts to look for bugs. He preferred to inform his followers on social networks through audio messages, impossible to geolocate, or through videos in places that are difficult to identify.

Prigozhin using different disguises to go unnoticed. Capture

Many say Putin seemed intent on killing Prigozhin as his convoy of mutinous mercenaries neared Moscow. However, a source told the WSJ that in the midst of the plot, the Russian president recalled dictator Alexander Lukashenko from neighboring Belarus and upon contacting him, Lukashenko dissuaded him from that intention, offering instead to send him to Belarus as a place where the mercenaries could be sure.

For this reason, Prigozhin stopped the advance towards Moscow and withdrew in a private jet to Belarus three days later.

“Having betrayed their country and their people, the leaders of this riot also betrayed those whom they dragged into their crime”Putin said. “They were lied to, pushed to their deaths, attacked and forced to shoot their people,” he added.

Africa, his last attempt

In the midst of his struggle to maintain his influence, leaving Bangui, Prigozhin flew to Maliaccording to the flight logs of a private jet he used frequently to cross the continent, posing in front of local army vans in a video, before returning to Moscow.

On Tuesday, a day before Prigozhin’s death, a Russian Defense Ministry delegation traveled to Libya at the invitation of Khalifa Belqasim Hafter Alferjanithe Libyan warlord who had paid Wagner to secure his oil wells and territory.

The Prigozhin mutiny in Russia had left Haftar’s inner circle nervous about Wagner’s presence in Libya, he told the WSJ Mohamed Eljarhmanaging director of the security consulting firm Libya Desk with connections in Haftar’s camp.

Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, Libya.  REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori/File Photo
Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, Libya. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori/File Photo (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/)

“They felt that if they did it in Russia, they could do it in Benghazi (city in northeastern Libya),” Eljarh said.

“Russian intelligence officers would now be stationed in Benghazi, and the head of the Russian contractors will be replaced by a new mercenary company created in Wagner’s place”, reports the WSJ.

“Russia wanted to send the message that it is now a partnership between two militaries,” a Libyan security official told the WSJ.

Prigozhin’s death in Russia remains unknown, but several world leaders have expressed suspicion of the plane crash, including Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky.

I think everyone knows who it concerns”, he declared to the press.

For his part, the President of the United States, Joe Biden, said he was not surprised by the outcome: “I have no concrete information about what has happened, but it does not surprise me,” he said in statements to the press.

There isn’t much going on in Russia that Putin isn’t behind, but I don’t have enough information to know the answer. I have been working out for the last hour and a half”, he added.

after the fall

The intelligence of USA spread in the last hours new theories about the causes of the crash of the plane in which he was traveling Yevgeny Prigozhin, that ended his life.

A preliminary assessment from Washington maintains that the tragedy originated after a intentional explosion inside the aircraft although no further details were provided in this regard.

This, according to one of the officials, is in line with the “long history” and the maneuvers employed by the Russian president. Vladimir Putin to “try to silence his critics.”

the body of Prigozhinwas identified this Thursday after verifying that said corpse was missing a fragment of one of the fingers of his hands.

The records indicate that Prigozhin suffered that injury to his left hand while serving a sentence in a penal colony. Furthermore, a senior Wagner commander identified the body through the injury, and also recognized his second-in-command, Dmitry Utkin. Because of his Nazi tattoos.

Keep reading:

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