Here are some key facts about Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenary force, who Russia’s civil aviation authority said was on the passenger list of a plane that crashed north of Moscow on Thursday.
– Prigozhin, 62, soared in prominence after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, where his fighters – including thousands of convicts he recruited from prison – led the Russian assault on the city of Bakhmut in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. Prigozhin used social media to trumpet Wagner’s successes and wage a feud with the military establishment, accusing it of incompetence and even treason.
– In June, Prigozhin led a mutiny in which Wagner fighters took control of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and shot down a number of military helicopters, killing their pilots, as they advanced towards Moscow. President Vladimir Putin called it an act of treachery that would meet with a harsh response.
– The revolt was defused in a deal whereby the Kremlin said that in order to avert bloodshed, Prigozhin and some of his fighters would leave for Belarus and a criminal case against him for armed mutiny would be dropped.
– Confusion has surrounded the implementation of the deal and the future of Prigozhin. The Kremlin said he attended a meeting with Putin five days after the mutiny. On July 5, state TV said an investigation against him was still being pursued, and broadcast footage showing cash, passports, weapons and other items it said were seized on a raid on one of his properties. But in late July, Prigozhin was photographed in St Petersburg while a Russia-Africa summit was taking place in the city. This week he appeared in a video which he suggested was shot in Africa, where Wagner has operations in several countries.
– Born in St Petersburg on June 1, 1961, Prigozhin spent nine years in Soviet prisons for crimes including robbery and fraud. Released in 1990 amid the Soviet Union’s death throes, he launched a career as a caterer and restaurateur in his hometown. He is believed to have met Putin, then a top aide to St Petersburg’s mayor, at this time.
– Leveraging political connections, Prigozhin was awarded major state contracts, becoming known as “Putin’s chef” after catering for Kremlin events. More recently he joked that “Putin’s butcher” would be more appropriate.
– In 2014, Prigozhin founded Wagner, a private military company whose fighters have deployed in support of Moscow’s allies in countries including Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic. The United States has sanctioned it and accused it of atrocities, which Prigozhin has denied.
– Prigozhin has acknowledged that he founded and financed the Internet Research Agency, a company Washington says is a “troll farm” which meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In November 2022 he said he had interfered in U.S. elections and would do so again.