Two months later, on August 23, Prigozhin’s business jet fell from the sky and crashed in a field halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Everyone on board was killed, presumably including Prigozhin and some of his top lieutenants.
The two scenes, which took place just two months apart, provide a bookend for the mysterious final days of the outspoken, brutal mercenary leader, who at first appeared to have escaped any retaliation for the uprising that posed the greatest challenge to Putin’s authority in his 23rd century. annual rule.
Suspicions immediately arose that the Kremlin was behind the crash and that it was revenge. The Kremlin denied this.
By eulogizing Prigozhin in front of the camera, the Russian president wanted to show that there was no bad blood between them. He described the Wagner boss as “a talented man” whom he has known for a long time and who made “a serious mistake” but apparently still does business with the government.
The last few weeks of Prigozhin’s life were overshadowed by the question of what the Kremlin really had in store for him. Had he already dodged a bullet? Or was his compensation later?
Just before footage of Prigozhin driving into the night in Rostov-on-Don surfaced, the Kremlin announced an agreement to end the mutiny. Prigozhin will “retire to Belarus,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, without specifying whether this meant permanent exile.
Prigozhin himself remained silent, which was unusual for a man who published several written and oral statements every day. In response to an email from The Associated Press dated June 25, the day after the mutiny, Prigozhin’s press service simply replied that he would “say hello to everyone” and answer any questions as soon as he had “the right connection.”
A lengthy eleven-minute statement from Prigozhin appeared the next day, but said 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 brawny manner.
He said his march on Moscow began over an injustice – an alleged attack by the Russian military on its fighters in Ukraine. He mocked the military, calling Wagner’s march a “master class” on how government soldiers should have carried out the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He pointed out security flaws that allowed Wagner to advance 780 kilometers (500 miles) unopposed, blocking any military units in his path.
The next morning, June 27, Russian authorities announced they were dropping criminal investigations into the revolt with no charges against the Wagner leader or other participants — although about a dozen Russian soldiers were killed in clashes and several Military planes were fired down.
Later in the day, Putin hinted that there might be another investigation – this time into Prigozhin’s finances. The Russian leader told a military rally that the state paid Wagner nearly $1 billion in just one year, while Prigozhin’s other company earned about the same amount from government contracts. Putin wondered aloud if any of it was stolen and promised to “find out.”
On the day the charges were dropped, Prigozhin’s plane was sighted in Belarus, and authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who had helped broker the deal to end the mutiny, said the Wagner boss had arrived. Soon after, Belarusian activists reported that a camp was being set up there for fighters who decided to follow him.
In Russia, Prigozhin’s main business asset – a media company called Patriot – has been shut down and many of the news outlets he owns have been blocked by the authorities. Prigozhin’s media activities included the notorious “troll factory” that led to his indictment for interference in the 2016 presidential election in the US.
Wagner also announced a freeze on recruiting new mercenaries “due to the move to Belarus.”
However, on July 6, Lukashenko told reporters that Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg — or “maybe he went to Moscow, or maybe somewhere else, but he’s not in Belarus.” The comments came amid media reports that Cash and equipment seized from Prigozhin’s property during police searches were returned to him.
“What will happen to him next? Well, anything can happen in life. But if you think that Putin is so vicious and vindictive that he will be insulted somewhere tomorrow. … No, that won’t happen,” assured Lukashenko.
As it turned out, several days after the revolt, Putin met with Prigozhin.
Belarusian soldiers take part in a training session of mercenaries from private military company Wagner about 55 miles southeast of Minsk, Belarus, July 14, 2023. After Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny against Russia, the Kremlin struck a deal for him to move to Belarus. A camp was set up there for his fighters, where they trained alongside the Belarusian military. | Belarusian Ministry of Defense via VoenTV via AP, file
Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, 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 of Prigozhin’s whereabouts, even on the day of the meeting with Putin, June 29.
Putin’s spokesman gave no details about the meeting, saying only that the commanders had sworn their loyalty to the Russian president.
Putin later reiterated this idea, saying in a July 13 interview that “many nodded” when he offered them continued service under one of the Wagner commanders. But a defiant Prigozhin spoke for them, saying they didn’t like the proposal, according to the Russian president.
Comments from the Wagner boss himself became rare. His spokesmen did not release anything other than the 11-minute audio message released two days after the mutiny.
Instead, words or images from Prigozhin appeared on one of several Telegram channels believed to be connected to Wagner. The relative silence raised questions about whether keeping a low profile was part of his deal with the Kremlin.
One such July 19 video reportedly came from Belarus. Blurred footage showed a man who looked like Prigozhin silhouetted against the sky at dusk, and his distinctive hoarse voice could be heard addressing rows of men in work overalls.
“Welcome guys! Glad to welcome you all. Welcome to Belarusian land!” he said.
Prigozhin repeated his criticism of the conduct of the fighting in Ukraine. “What is happening at the front today is a disgrace that we should not take part in,” he said, adding that Wagner troops could return to Ukraine in the future.
In the meantime, Prigozhin said, Wagner will train in Belarus and then embark on a new trip to Africa, where his mercenaries are active in several countries.
Another video published on August 21 on another Telegram channel showed a close-up of Prigozhin carrying a rifle while standing on a dusty plain. Prigozhin did not say where the video was taken, but did point to a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
“Just the way we like it,” he boasted. He said Wagner was making “Russia even bigger on all continents and Africa even freer”.
The plane crashed two days later – exactly two months after Priogshin first announced his uprising.
Though the Kremlin has denied claims that it was behind the crash, the reality of those two months probably hasn’t boded well for Putin, political scientist Abbas Gallyamov said.
The mutiny “made everyone aware of Putin’s weakness,” said Gallyamov, who once worked as a Kremlin speechwriter. After that, Prigozhin felt “normal”. He worked on projects in Belarus and in Africa and the case against him was dropped.
This reality “made Putin completely dissatisfied because it was an open invitation for potential mutineers,” Gallyamov said.