by Elpidio R. Estioko
While the rebellion in Russia was called off by the Wagner group, a paramilitary force or group of mercenaries that waged the short-lived rebellion in Russia, its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is still on the loose!
Because there were no charges filed against them by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his exact location in Belarus is unknown. Nobody knows where he is. Is Putin scared of him?
If there’s one person who can challenge Putin, observers say, it’s Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group.
Unknown to many, Prigozhin was a close friend of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. So, the latter considered the former’s action as a “stab in the back.”
Also, not many know it, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the Wagner Group was part of the Russian forces. They were in the frontline (although the group was operating on its own… its leader was in command of the group and not the Russian generals in the field.)
Did Wagner’s crucial participation in the Russia-Ukraine impact the ongoing war? Ukraine president Vladimir Zelenskyy said the rebellion in Russia staged by the Wagner group “weakened” Putin as a leader.
Zelenskyy thinks they now see the light at the end of the tunnel as they embarked on their massive counter-offensive against Russia.
Prigozhin, however, never acknowledged that he was the leader of the group until last year after Russia began its full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.
Under his command, the group has been instrumental in several of Russia’s victories, securing victory in the battle for Bakhmut and the capture of the salt mine town of Soledar.
Starting as a small group, its ranks swelled due to a tactic of recruitment from Russian prisons as well as from ultra-nationalists.
The mercenary group was part of the Russian military that invaded Ukraine (although the group is operating as an independent group under Russian forces), fighting side by side with the Russian military forces on the ground.
At the very start, however, there was tension between Russia’s defense ministry and Wagner which became apparent when Prigozhin alleged that Russian forces had attacked Wagner camps in Eastern Ukraine, killing dozens of his men.
Prigozhin’s Wagner forces left Ukraine and marched into Russia seizing control of the Russian military headquarters for the southern region in Rostov-on-Don, which oversees the fighting in Ukraine.
That started the rebellion on June 23, 2023! The Wagner Group went against the government of Russia amidst escalating tensions between the Russian Ministry of Defense and Prigozhin.
Following negotiations with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, Prigozhin agreed to stand down and, late on 24 June, began withdrawing from Rostov-on-Don.
However, he remains to be a force to reckon with ready to strike at any time depending on his temperament as his whereabouts are not known to many but his close adjutants.
After denouncing Wagner’s actions as treason, Putin offered not to press charges against members of the Wagner Group who participated in the rebellion, after they withdrew their forces in compliance with the negotiation made by Belarus president Lukashenko.
While the group ended the rebellion, up to now there is no knowledge of where the leader of Wagner is. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on “Face the Nation” that he couldn’t get into where Prigozhin currently is located but said it’s something they are “tracking” through intelligence.
Leading a group of mercenaries is expensive and maintaining it is even more lavish. How can a former hot dog seller do it?
Well, after becoming a close friend of Putin, he set up a catering business that handed numerous Russian government contracts – leading to him being dubbed as “Putin’s chef.” That’s how he started getting rich as an ally of Putin.
Analysts say that Putin’s image as a tough leader was badly tarnished by the Ukraine war, now on its 16 months. Saturday’s march toward Moscow by forces under the command of his onetime protege, Prigozhin, exposed further weaknesses, analysts added.
The crack in Putin’s leadership is becoming bigger and bigger and being exposed to the whole world while the intentions of Prigozhin were still being guessed and still hanging on the air.
Prigozhin had shown that he is capable of leading and is an expert in using force to attain his goal. This is what is dangerous if he changes his mind to resume what he started to do – rebellion.
In addition to deploying Wagner troops to Ukraine, the Wagner Group has been active in Africa, where some nations have turned to the private army to fill security gaps or prop up dictatorial regimes.
Wagner not only operated in Ukraine but also in some countries, like the Central African Republic. Wagner exchanges services for almost unfettered access to natural resources. A CBS News investigation found that Russian cargo flights stopped in the country twice a week, possibly smuggling billions of dollars worth of gold back to Russia.
In addition to gold, CBS News also found Wagner was involved in illegal timber harvesting in CAR, another lucrative source of income.
His emergence as one of the only power centers in Russia able to challenge Vladimir Putin has led many to question whether he was after the top job himself.
After his success in the fast food world, Prigozhin went on to buy supermarkets and ran several restaurants and other businesses.
In 1995 he opened a swanky restaurant called Old Customs House which Putin patronized. During the early years of his rule in the early 2000s, Putin often met foreign dignitaries in his home town St Petersburg and often took his guests to Old Customs House or one of Prigozhin’s other restaurants, including New Island, a boat he transformed into a floating eatery.
That’s how Putin and Prigozhin became close friends.
The group gained a reputation for doing the military’s dirty work when unleashed in Ukraine and as an arm of the Russian state in Africa – and is renowned for brutal violence, rapes, and war crimes.
But tensions flared up repeatedly between Prigozhin and the Kremlin officials in charge of the war – defense minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the Russian armed forces General Valery Gerasimov – who the Wagner chief accused of deliberately starving his group of supplies and using his men as cannon fodder.
While the rebellion stopped, Wagner’s leader is still roaming around Belarus and may still be planning to attain his ambitions either as a Defense Minister or president of Russia!
The chef is still on the loose!
ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and an award-winning journalist here in the US. He just published his book Unlocking the Chain of Poverty: In Pursuit of the American Dream, which is now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Xlibris Publishing. For feedbacks, comments… please email author at email@example.com).
by Elpidio R. Estioko