Notorious Russian general, master spy duo organise in Africa after Prigozhin’s demise

In recent weeks, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and General Andrei Averyanov from the GRU military intelligence agency have made several trips to Africa. The two are increasingly seen as the main organisers of the post-Prigozhin era of Russian relationships with Africa following the Wagner Group chief’s demise in a fiery plane crash at the end of August.

Yunus-bek Yevkurov, Russia‘s Deputy Defence Minister, and Andrei Averyanov, a notorious general from the GRU military intelligence agency, touched down in Bamako, Mali, on Saturday, September 16.  They were slated to meet political leaders from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, according to local media and various sources on Telegram.

This was not the first of the duo’s visits to Africa. They have made several visits to the continent since the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin on August 23, 2023… and even prior to that. Yevkurov, always flanked by Averyanov, was in Libya – one of the main African bases for Wagner’s mercenaries – the day before the plane crash back in Russia which killed the Wagner Group chief, as well as two others from the organisation’s top leadership who could have replaced him.

Yevkurov, the negotiator

The meeting in Mali was not coincidental: Yevkurov and Averyanov were scheduled to hold talks with representatives of the countries Prigozhin had last visited. Riley Moeder, an Africa specialist studying the role of Wagner’s mercenaries on the continent at the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center, holds that Russia is playing on a sense of continuity: “Prigozhin was filmed in that region before his plane crashed, and this region is looking for support. So Moscow wants to assure them that it remains committed to that region,” she says.

The Russian deputy defence minister had already visited Mali and Burkina Faso in the first week of September to assure local authorities that Moscow would “do everything in its power to help” them, The New York Times reported in an investigation into the future of Wagner’s African “empire” published on September 8.

Yevkurov and Averyanov would therefore appear to African leaders to be the successors to the late Wagner boss. What’s more, as The New York Times reports in the same investigation, they also met with some of the remaining Wagner mercenaries in Mali. Several media outlets have already presented the GRU’s Averyanov as “Prigozhin’s successor” in Africa.

Indeed, the profiles of both men correspond to some of the roles hitherto played by Wagner’s former leader.

For example, Deputy Defence Minister Yevkurov is a decorated general with “quite a good military reputation”, says Ivan Klyszcz, a specialist in Russian foreign policy at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Estonia. That may be enough to inspire respect among the Wagner mercenaries.

Yevkurov also has a solid reputation as a peacemaker and negotiator from his time spent in Ingushetia, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation located in the Greater Caucasus mountain range. He led this Russian republic from 2008 to 2019, at a time when the region “was more violent than Chechnya“, says Klyszcz, who has focussed on this part of Russia. “The region was almost as safe as everywhere else in Russia when he left.”

For the Kremlin, Yevkurov has a certain diplomatic finesse that is perfectly suited for being “the new face of relations between the Russian government when dealing with these African regimes”, says Andreas Heinemann-Gruder, a Russia specialist who studies private paramilitary groups at the University of Bonn.

Averyanov and the GRU assassins

Diplomatic finesse is arguably not Averyanov’s strong suit. General Averyanov is best known for having led the GRU’s infamous 29155 unit, which specialises in covert operations like sabotage and assassination. Spies from this unit are suspected of having blown up an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic in 2014, attempting to stage a pro-Serbian coup in Montenegro in 2016 and the attempted poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in 2018.

Read moreUnit 29155, the Russian spies specialising in ‘sabotage and assassinations’

In other words, “[Averyanov’s] qualification is preparing special operations abroad. He is the ‘hit and kill guy’ you call when you need this kind of service,” says Heinemann-Gruder.

What’s in it for African regimes? “Averyanov can … take over some elements of regime security, and not only bodyguard services, but also in [his] area of specialisation: repression and targeted assassination,” adds Klyszcz.

But Averyanov is more than a cold-blooded killer. “Averyanov is a decorated veteran from Afghanistan and Chechnya and was also active in Moldova and Crimea. As with all Russian special operatives, he is trained to take the initiative, operate cut off from superiors’ orders, and make links with local allies,” says Jeff Hawn, Russia specialist and an external consultant for the New Lines Institute. This pedigree makes him an ideal candidate to negotiate with local military groups, just as Wagner’s managers would do when arriving in a new country in Africa.

Yevkurov, the shrewd politician, and Averyanov, the master spy, thus appear to be as different as they are complementary. However, they both have one quality in common setting them apart from the late Yevgeny Prigozhin: “They’re both reliable, loyal soldiers who are not the type of personality which could be expected to ‘go rogue’,” says Hawn.

“Loyalty is a very powerful advantage in the Putin system right now,” says Klyszcz. This would be especially the case for anyone aspiring to take over for Prigozhin, who, after his abortive rebellion attempt against the Russian defence ministry in June, came to epitomise treachery in the eyes of the Russian leadership.

More openly official support

Is all of this enough for the Kremlin to hand the keys to Wagner’s kingdom in Africa to the duo? According to the experts interviewed by FRANCE 24, they will play a role, but not as sole operators. Yevkurov and Averyanov embody, as representatives of the Russian state, a move from the semi-clandestine operations and relations carried out by Wagner to more open relations with the African regimes in place. “It’s no longer hybrid warfare but official support. They show that communication is continuing with Russia, but now through official channels,” says Heinemann-Gruder.

But this does not mean that the structures set up by Wagner will simply be absorbed by the Russian ministry of defence. Wagner’s very decentralised model is still useful to Moscow, because “it’s easier to adapt to local situations. What is happening in Mali is not what is happening in the Central African Republic,” says Moeder. The situation in Mali, with its imperative to fight terrorism, has little in common with the nature of operations in the Central African Republic, where Wagner’s main aim is to secure lucrative mining activities. Wagner also runs propaganda operations in several countries and even manages a brewery and vodka distillery in the Central African Republic.

Such diverse activities and hybrid warfare, wherein conventional tactics are blended with subversive actions,  “require greater dexterity than the Russian security bureaucracy is likely capable of”, writes Joseph Siegle, Director of the Center for African Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, in an article published on The Conversation.

Finally, it will still be useful to let the mercenaries carry out certain actions to be able to continue denying official involvement on the part of Moscow in the event of exactions or reprisals in a country.

Yevkurov and Averyanov are thus an important part of the first stage of the reorganisation of Russian operations in Africa. “The Russians are beginning to learn some lessons from past experience with Wagner and other PMCs (private military companies). We can expect less autonomy and clear political leadership,” says Heinemann-Gruder.

And if Moscow’s progress in taking control of operations is rather slow, it’s also because the Wagner Group also has well-entrenched financial interests in Africa. “There is a web of [Russian] oligarchs and businessmen who benefitted from Prigozhin’s businesses and shell companies, and who have everything to gain from the system remaining,” says Moeder. Moscow’s interests therefore also lie in making sure that everyone involved in Wagner’s African operations continues to benefit.

This article was translated from the original in French. 

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Another Russian mercenary group shows discontent with the Kremlin: ‘A sign of more to come’

At the end of August, Ukraine declared it had finally managed to pierce Russia’s first line of defence after retaking the small village of Robotyne in Ukraine’s south. This key advance coincided with a Russian mercenary group’s threat to stop fighting on Russia’s behalf on the front lines of the village and could be a sign of more anti-Kremlin sentiment brewing among those fighting for Moscow.

Robotyne has been liberated,” Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar announced on August 28.

Although the tiny village, which had a pre-war population of fewer than 500 people, may be of little importance in itself, it lies along a strategic road that leads to the Russian-occupied road and railway hub of Tokmak. From there, another road leads to the key city of Melitopol, which, prior to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, was known to Ukrainians as the “gateway” to the peninsula. Last week’s victory was therefore an important advance for Ukraine.

Just a few days earlier, however, fighters from Rusich, a small Russian neo-Nazi paramilitary group stationed at Robotyne’s front line, had threatened to lay down their arms – a move that may have contributed to Russia’s stinging loss there.

The official reason for the threat to lay down arms, Rusich explained in an August 25 statement on Telegram, was that one of the group’s top commanders and founding members, Yan Petrovsky, had been detained in Finland and faced extradition to Ukraine – and the Russian government was not doing much about it.

Petrovsky, a dual Russian-Norwegian national, co-founded Rusich back in 2014 to take part in the Russian occupation of Donbas and is believed to have been a contractor for the Wagner Group at one point. He faces various terrorism-related charges in Ukraine and risks being sentenced to between 15 and 20 years in prison if he is extradited.

In a series of messages screen-grabbed by the research project Antifascist Europe, Rusich members expressed frustration with their treatment by the Russian authorities.

“If the country cannot protect its citizens, why should the citizens protect the country?” asked one.

According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the group did indeed seem to be operating near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast, describing it as “a critical area of the front line where the Russian military command likely cannot afford for any units to rebel and refuse to conduct combat missions”.

Soon after ISW issued its analysis, Robotyne fell to Ukraine.

There has been no official confirmation – either from Rusich or the Russian defence ministry – that the group’s fighters did stop fighting.

According to Jeff Hawn, a non-resident fellow at the Washington, DC-based think-tank New Lines Institute and an expert in Russian military matters, it would have been a credible scenario.

“There’s a very strong possibility” that the mercenaries laid down arms, which would likely have contributed to the fall of Robotyne, he said. Russia is so short of fighters it cannot replace units that give up, he said, adding that we likely won’t know “for years” what really happened.

Hawn said the reason for a revolt would likely have less to do with the detention of the group’s leader than with a loss of motivation among Russian mercenary fighters in general, coupled with Moscow’s increasing inability to keep them under control.

“These guys are likely just looking for an excuse to get out,” he said. “They’re realising that Ukraine isn’t just going to break and give up.”

The situation for paramilitary groups has been further complicated by Wagner’s attempted mutiny back in June and the death of the mercenary group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, late last month.

Under Prigozhin’s leadership, Hawn explained, Wagner had long served as an organising tool for other Russian militia groups operating in Ukraine. Prigozhin had also established a culture of paying his mercenaries well, and in dollars – a culture that spread to the other militias fighting in Ukraine.

“Even though he had a reputation of being a tough guy, a thug, Prigozhin was known to take good care of his people, paying them more, and in hard currency.”

Following the group’s botched mutiny, however – and Moscow’s subsequent attempts to try to dissolve the group – the working conditions for Prigozhin’s “militia collective” in Ukraine worsened.

“They’re probably getting paid in rubles now – if they’re getting paid at all,” Hawn said.

“They’re also probably not getting supplied, because militia groups are at the very lowest end of the totem pole when it comes to Russian logistics, which are completely overstretched already.”

Before his death, Prigozhin had long complained that the Russian military was not supplying his mercenaries with enough ammunition, even threatening to pull his troops from the front line in the hard-fought city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin’s death – and that of his reported right-hand man Dmitry Utkin in a plane crash on August 23 – also wiped out a whole shadow power structure built upon both connections and the ability to command the “thugs and criminals” fighting as mercenaries.

“There’s no one like Prigozhin who currently has the will, or ability to challenge the government directly,” Hawn said. With the Wagner leader now out of the picture, he said, it will become even harder for Moscow to control the dozen or more militia groups still in Ukraine.

Even worse for Moscow, Hawn said, would be if they were willing to switch sides.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if some of these guys repent and suddenly joined the Free Russian Legion, especially if they’re getting paid in dollars,” he said, referring to a group of pro-Kyiv Russian fighters that claimed to have staged several attacks in Russia’s Belgorod region in recent months.

 “I do think the incident in Robotyne is significant, and that it’s a sign of more things to come.”

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Wagner group’s future hanging in the balance after Prigozhin’s death

Wagner military chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was officially confirmed dead by Russian authorities on Sunday. The fate of his mercenary group – and its operations in Africa and the Middle East – now hangs in the balance. FRANCE 24 spoke to Anastasiya Shapochkina, a political analyst and researcher with a focus on Russian domestic policy, about possible scenarios for the private army’s future.

Wagner military chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was officially confirmed dead on Sunday. Forensic testing on the 10 bodies recovered from the site of the plane crash on August 23 “conform to the manifest” for the flight, Russian officials said.

The plane crash came exactly two months after Prigozhin staged a day-long mutiny against Russia’s military, leading his fighters from Ukraine towards Moscow. President Vladimir Putin had slammed the advance as “treason” and vowed punishment for those involved.

Dmitry Utkin, a Russian army officer believed to be Prigozhin’s right-hand man, was among those killed in the crash. Utkin had run the mercenary group’s operations since it was founded in 2014 and was responsible for overall command and combat training.

Valery Chekalov, who played a key role in the group’s finances, was also killed in the crash.

In the wake of Prigozhin and two of his top lieutenant’s deaths, questions are now being raised about the Wagner group’s future, and its extensive operations in Africa and the Middle East.

Wagner funds its war chest by exploiting natural resources in the countries where it operates. Gold trafficked illegally in Sudan finds its way directly into Russian state coffers.

Wagner group mercenaries have also fought in some of the Ukrainian conflict’s bloodiest battles, notably spearheading the capture of the eastern city of Bakhmut. Thousands of Wagner fighters are currently stationed in Belarus, where they relocated after Prigozhin’s failed rebellion against Moscow.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Anastasiya Shapochkina, President and founder of the Eastern Circles thinktank and lecturer on EU-Russia in Sciences Po Paris, about possible scenarios for the private army’s future.

FRANCE 24: Why are the Wagner Group’s activities important for Russia and what do you think lies ahead for the group after Prigozhin’s death?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: There are several possible scenarios. Wagner is a money-making machine which exploits gold and resources from Africa in exchange for assuring the security of African leaders. This business is important for Russia.

One of two things can happen: either the Wagner brand will be changed and it will keep the same functions, with attempts to integrate them into the Russian army, or the brand will be preserved in order to continue recruitment and change the leaders.

To devalue the Wagner brand, the Kremlin would bring down the rest of its leaders and send out the message that everybody who is not a leader can go home to their families. The activities of Wagner would be merged with other activities. It would lose its resources and become a shell company. This is the most likely scenario.

Before the events of June, we thought Prigozhin and Utkine were totally controlled by the regime, and the regime thought the same. A third scenario, the least likely one, is for Wagner to continue as a group with a new leader and it will eventually regain value. This scenario is unlikely because the Russian elite has understood the danger of mercenaries accumulating too much power and influence.

FRANCE 24: How is the turmoil around Wagner going to affect the situation in Ukraine?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: Other than holding Bakhmut, Prigozhin cannot claim any huge military success in Ukraine. The Russian army management is intact, with the highest commanders still in place. [General Sergei] Surovikin, [a former commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine from October 2022 to January 2023 who was fired the day Prigozhin’s aircraft crashed] had been removed, but the two highest commanders – Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov – have been maintained in their positions.

We can expect a worsening performance from the Russian army in Ukraine whatever the future holds in store for Wagner.

The credit Prigozhin gave to Wagner is over exaggerated. Wagner has not been effective in Ukraine and they have not been original in their military strategy besides proposing the sacrifice of prisoners. To me, turbulence within Wagner won’t change the course of the war. The Russian army is bogged down in this conflict and nothing can change that.

FRANCE 24: What kind of prospects does Russia have for playing a role in various African theatres following Prigozhin’s death, and will the operations continue to be as lucrative as in the past?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: Like any other company, Wagner can withstand a blow to its leadership. The CEO does not matter, he can be replaced. There are many other people on the ground ensuring the personal security of African leaders and securing resources. All of this is already happening through other private military companies (PMCs). The African cash flow will be assured in the long term.

FRANCE 24: Russia has been calling on other PMCs to achieve its foreign policy goals, especially in Africa. Do you see a paradox in the proliferation of PMCs when the Kremlin has already experienced a significant threat to its hold on power from Prigozhin’s Wagner Group?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: I see it as dissolving Wagner to give birth to another Wagner. PMCs have been born out of this dynamic; the downfall of one does not mean the end of them all. When the Russian state empowers a PMC, tens of thousands of people acquire weapons. This is internally a time bomb for Russia. If you have dozens of PMCs all over Russia, you have local oligarchs, governors, regional leaders (like Kadyrov), who are heavily armed, and this represents a weaponisation of society.

The fact that you have tens of thousands of men with weapons and military experience seals the political fate of Russia, and it is Putin who created the end of the monopolisation of military power in Russia. As soon as you have scores of the political elite who have PMCs, it is impossible to imagine that each of these people would not have a stab at power, making a peaceful transition of power highly unlikely.

FRANCE 24: Two days after Prigozhin’s death, Putin signed a decree forcing paramilitary fighters to swear an oath to the Russian flag. What does this say about the Russian president’s trust in his own security forces?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: This is revelatory of the level of the Russian president’s insecurity. From his point of view, no one in the siloviki (Russian security apparatus) is to be trusted. If the state requires a contract reminding people who they are loyal to, it implies that people are not very loyal at all. Experience has shown that people in the Russian forces are more motivated by money than anything else. In Russia, the word “motherland” is synonymous with the leader. The requirement to sign a contract to ensure loyalty to the motherland is a sign of the insecurity and fear Putin is experiencing, as well as the limited trust he has in his security forces.

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Is there correlation between Wagner, warlordism, and the Fall of Rome?

By Dr Jeroen W.P. Wijnendaele, Senior Fellow, Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is losing its monopoly on violence, and thus is at risk of becoming a failed state, if it is not one already, Dr Jeroen W.P. Wijnendaele writes.

On Wednesday, it was announced that a plane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, had crashed.

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While his death has still not been confirmed, it would be an unsurprising end for a man often labelled as Russia’s most prominent warlord who had dared stage a mutiny against Vladimir Putin in the midst of the ongoing war against Ukraine.

Earlier in July, Prigozhin shocked the Kremlin and the world after he captured Rostov-on-Don and staged a march on Moscow, and it wasn’t long before his mutiny inspired commentators to draw parallels with episodes from Ancient Rome.

Direct comparisons between ancient and contemporary history rarely work, but they can be stimulating to think about. The so-called “Fall of Rome” in particular has proven to be a highly popular parallel in explaining major problems of our time.

Rather than drawing explicit correlations, which might fray under scrutiny, it might be better to explain how “warlordism” contributed to the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the West.

Readers can then make up their own minds about whether the fate of the Wagner company bears any resemblance.

What is a warlord, anyway?

The term “warlord” is often used generically in ancient history which can lead to analytical confusion, as ancient sources did not use it.

But it’s not because they didn’t use the vocabulary that they did not recognise the phenomenon. The 5th-century historiographer Orosius, for instance, at one point drew up a catalogue of “usurpers and dissident commanders”, the latter essentially equating to what we would see as warlords today.

Warlordism became a domain of political sciences after the collapse of China’s Empire in the early 20th century. China entered its Junfa (軍閥) era, with former generals separating themselves and taking control over provinces with forces loyal to them.

They violently competed over economic resources to secure local autonomy. To maintain their personal forces’ loyalty, warlords needed goods and money. Hence they often extorted these from the local population.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, and the rise of “failed states” in Central Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, warlordism resurfaced.

The concept of “failed state” is based on what Max Weber called the “monopoly on violence”.

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And what about the state?

Weber defined the state as a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence.

In a nutshell: you need three pillars to maintain this monopoly. An army to ward off external enemies. A police to maintain internal order. And a bureaucracy that can collect taxes to pay for all of that.

Weber used this to define the modern nation-state. Nearly every pre-modern polity fails to meet his criteria. Yet Rome’s Empire comes close, and this is why it’s often brought up in the context of modern conflicts.

Imperial Rome certainly aspired to a monopoly of violence, especially military violence as the type that had brought down the Republic.

This is why Augustus created a standing army and forbade private citizens to carry arms.

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The Later Empire built on this with a greater governmental apparatus, mainly to avoid the disasters of the 3rd century that had seen civil wars galore.

Yet these were driven by men who aimed for the legitimate rule of the empire — unlike warlords, as we’ll see. This new model worked pretty well between 285 and 375 CE.

Civil wars did not disappear but certainly occurred less frequently. This was a period of competent rule, driven by emperors who acted like traveling supreme commanders.

Where did it go wrong? We now get to what people call “The Fall of Rome”.

A crash course on the ‘Fall of Rome’

This is a bit of a misnomer given the Roman Empire continued for another millennium in the East.

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But what did happen in the 5th century was the dissolution of Western Roman emperorship, and warlordism played a big part in it.

In the crucial period between 375 and 395 CE, three underlying causes started impinging on the functioning of the Western Roman military and domestic security.

None of these individually should have been dramatic, but together they created a volatile cocktail.

Firstly: child-emperorship. Between 375 and 455 CE, the four legitimate Western emperors got to the throne aged 16, 4, 10, and 6.

The first one tried, but the others were in no position to take up the role of travelling supreme commander. Roman child emperors are not unique to this era, but it proved detrimental at a time when many crises were unfolding.

Secondly: the contraction of military resources. The Western army had suffered atrocious casualties during civil wars in 388 and 394. Meanwhile, the rise of Hunnic hegemony in the barbarian world cut off Imperial recruitment to what had been a reliable reserve of manpower in the previous century.

Thirdly: with the emperor becoming a ceremonial figurehead, the senatorial aristocracy saw their chance to renege on contributing taxes thus depriving the government of funds it needed to defend the Empire.

One generalissimo to rule them all

All of this comes together to help us understand the rise of Stilicho as the “military manager” of the Western court after 395.

Swiftly after the last civil war, the emperor Theodosius I died leaving his infant sons as successors in East and West. Officially, Stilicho was just a senior commander.

But because he’d been Theodosius’ confidant, was married to Theodosius’ adoptive daughter, and became the new emperor’s father-in-law, he practically was the Western court’s generalissimo.

The dark side of this? He reformed the Western chain of command in such a way that his command dominated the other ones — unlike the East which had five more or less equal senior generals.

Plus, for all his de facto power, he is not the legitimate emperor. When things go bad, he will be vulnerable.

Stilicho, and every generalissimo after him, will do his best to manage the West’s military and foreign agenda.

But they are constantly struggling for recruits and resources, and here we see our first cases of warlordism.

The real history of violence

This was a new form of military opposition to whoever was the supreme commander controlling the court in today’s Italy.

This matters because men are no longer fighting for the Imperial office, which is a serious sign of state weakness. In the period around 395 and 454 CE, various junior commanders tried taking over the position of supreme commander, whilst ignoring the ceremonial emperor.

It is important to note that they often did this through underhand tactics because they controlled less resources.

This could manifest itself in different guises: from disrupting food supplies, recalling troops the generalissimo needs for a major campaign, organising assassination attempts, or separating themselves with loyal troops in frontier provinces — not coincidentally, the first cases happened in Roman Africa.

Late Roman warlordism sometimes meant opting out of the system. But this is key: nobody wanted to be a warlord forever.

Only Imperial offices conferred legitimacy and the resources that came with it. These men used violence to withdraw from the government, only to get back into it — preferably as high as possible.

Do you remember the battle of Rimini?

A crucial element here is the rise of armed retainers. The fifth century saw the rise of irregular companies of elite soldiers, who were not paid by the Imperial government but out of their commanders’ own pockets.

And they mostly sided with their patrons. When their commander could not pay his retainers, because he was revolting against his superior, he often let them loot the population they were previously expected to protect.

All of these elements culminated in the battle of Rimini in 432, where two competing commanders fought each other with their respective retainers within the direct hinterland of the Imperial residence. Neither aspired the purple.

This effectively meant that Emperorship, for over four centuries the most important political function in the western Mediterranean, ceased to matter most.

This crippled the Western emperor’s authority, even if after 454 CE, several emperors tried restoring it.

Yet, by then, the clashing ambitions of emperors and their senior commanders created a downward spiral of civil wars which only ended with the last Western emperor’s murder in 480.

Which brings us to Putin’s Russia

Western Roman warlordism started as an experiment, to counter or take over military leadership at the Imperial court. It was never intentionally meant to destabilise the Imperial government. But in the end, it did so permanently.

We might not need direct comparisons with the disintegration of the western Roman empire to understand the political and military crisis in contemporary Russia.

But certainly Weber would have regarded the semi-privatisation of a state’s armed forces, able to a march on its capital, and the inability of its central government to dispose of commanders of questionable loyalty by non-violent measures, as pointing towards the same phenomenon: Vladimir Putin’s Russia is losing its monopoly on violence, and thus is at risk of becoming a failed state. If it hasn’t already.

Dr Jeroen W.P. Wijnendaele is a Senior Fellow of the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies. He is the author of “The Last of the Romans”, and has published widely on Late Roman political and military history.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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How Putin uses assassination to keep his enemies at bay

Assassination attempts against Vladimir Putin’s foes have been a consistent feature of his nearly quarter-century in power.

Over the years, many of Vladimir Putin’s critics, former agents and inconvenient investigative journalists have been killed or assaulted in a variety of ways. The methods used range from the exotic to the mundane, from radioactive tea to shootings at point blank range.

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There also have been reports of prominent Russian executives dying under mysterious circumstances, including falling from windows, although whether they were deliberate killings or suicides is sometimes difficult to determine.

And on Wednesday, a private plane carrying mercenary chief Yvgeny Prigozhin, who staged a brief rebellion in Russia this summer, plummeted into a field from tens of thousands of feet after breaking apart.

Those close to the victims and the few survivors have blamed Russian authorities, but the Kremlin has routinely denied involvement – as it did on Friday by saying it was “a complete lie” it had anything to do with the jet crash.

It was, in itself, a stunning event – but it’s hardly the first time Putin’s government has denied any role in the death of a problematic opponent.

The opposition

In August 2020, opposition leader Alexei Navalny fell ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. The plane landed in the city of Omsk, where Navalny was hospitalised in a coma. Two days later, he was airlifted to Berlin, where he recovered.

His allies almost immediately said he was poisoned, but Russian officials denied it. Labs in Germany, France and Sweden confirmed Navalny was poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent known as Novichok, which he reported had been applied to his underwear.

Navalny returned to Russia and was convicted this month of extremism and sentenced to 19 years in prison, his third conviction with a prison sentence in two years on charges he says are politically motivated.

In 2018, Pyotr Verzilov, a founder of the protest group Pussy Riot, fell severely ill and also was flown to Berlin, where doctors said poisoning was “highly plausible.” He eventually recovered.

Prominent opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza survived what he believes were attempts to poison him in 2015 and 2017. He nearly died from kidney failure in the first instance and suspects poisoning, but no cause was determined. This year, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The highest-profile killing of a political opponent in recent years, though, was that of Boris Nemtsov. Once deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, Nemtsov was a popular politician and harsh critic of Putin.

On a cold February night in 2015, he was gunned down by assailants on a bridge adjacent to the Kremlin as he walked with his girlfriend in a death that shocked the country.

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Five men from the Russian region of Chechnya were convicted, with the gunman receiving up to 20 years, but Nemtsov’s allies said their involvement was an attempt to shift blame from the government.

Ex-spies

One of the most infamous of all Putin-era assassinations came in 2006 with the death of defector Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent for the KGB and its post-Soviet successor agency, the FSB.

Litvinenko became violently ill in London after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210, dying three weeks later.

He had been investigating the shooting death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya as well as the Russian intelligence service’s alleged links to organised crime. Before dying, Litvinenko told journalists the FSB was still producing poisons at a Soviet-era facility.

A British inquiry found that Russian agents had killed Litvinenko, probably with Putin’s approval, but the Kremlin denied any involvement.

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Another former Russian intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, was poisoned in Britain in 2018. He and his adult daughter Yulia fell ill in the city of Salisbury and spent weeks in critical condition. They survived, but the attack later claimed the life of a British woman and left a man and a police officer seriously ill. Authorities said they both were poisoned with military grade Novichok.

Britain blamed Russian intelligence, but Moscow denied any role.

Journalists

Numerous journalists critical of authorities in Russia have been killed or suffered mysterious deaths, which their colleagues in some cases blamed on someone in the political hierarchy. In other cases, the reported reluctance by authorities to investigate raised suspicions.

Anna Politkovskaya, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper journalist whose death Litvinenko was investigating, was shot and killed in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on October 7th 2006 – Putin’s birthday.

She had won international acclaim for her reporting on human rights abuses in Chechnya. The gunman, a Chechen man himself, was convicted of the killing and sentenced to 20 years in prison, and four other Chechens were given shorter prison terms for their involvement.

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Yuri Shchekochikhin, another Novaya Gazeta reporter, died of a sudden and violent illness in 2003. Shchekochikhin was investigating corrupt business deals and the possible role of Russian security services in the 1999 apartment house bombings blamed on Chechen insurgents. His colleagues insisted that he was poisoned and accused the authorities of deliberately hindering the investigation.

Wagner

Wednesday’s plane crash that is presumed to have killed Yevgeny Prigozhin and top lieutenants of his Wagner private military company came two months to the day after he launched an armed rebellion that Putin labeled “a stab in the back” and “treason.”

While not critical of Putin specifically, Prigozhin slammed the Russian military leadership and questioned the motives for going to war in Ukraine.

On Thursday, a preliminary US intelligence assessment found that the crash that killed all 10 people aboard was intentionally caused by an explosion, according to officials speaking on condition of anonymity. One said the explosion fell in line with Putin’s “long history of trying to silence his critics.”

Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, rejected allegations the Kremlin was behind the crash.

“Of course, in the West those speculations are put out under a certain angle,” he told reporters Friday, “and all of it is a complete lie.”

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Mercenary chief Prigozhin is presumed to have died in a plane crash seen as the Kremlin’s revenge

Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and some of his top lieutenants were presumed dead in a plane crash — widely seen Thursday as an assassination to avenge a mutiny that challenged President Vladimir Putin’s authority.

The founder of the Wagner military company and six other passengers were on a private jet that crashed on Wednesday, soon after taking off from Moscow with a crew of three, according to Russia’s civil aviation authority. Rescuers found 10 bodies, and Russian media cited anonymous sources in Wagner who said Mr. Prigozhin was dead. But there has been no official confirmation.

At Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, lights were turned on in the shape of a large cross, and Prigozhin supporters built a makeshift memorial, piling red and white flowers outside the building Thursday, along with company flags and candles.

Mr. Putin remained silent as speculation swirled, addressing the BRICS summit in Johannesburg via videolink without mentioning the crash. Russian state media also have not covered it extensively, instead focusing on the summit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The police, meanwhile, cordoned off the field where the plane went down in Kuzhenkino, about 300 kilometres northwest of Moscow, as investigators studied its wreckage. Vehicles took away the bodies.

Several Russian social media channels reported that the bodies were burned or disfigured beyond recognition and would need to be identified by DNA. The reports were picked up by independent Russian media, but the Associated Press was not able to independently confirm them.

Prigozhin supporters claimed on pro-Wagner messaging app channels that the plane was deliberately downed, including suggesting it could have been hit by an air defense missile or targeted by a bomb on board. Those claims could not be independently verified.

Russian authorities have said the cause of the crash is under investigation.

Kuzhenkino resident Anastasia Bukharova, 27, said she was walking with her children Wednesday when she saw the jet, “and then — boom! — it exploded in the sky and began to fall down.” She said she was scared it would hit houses in the village and ran with the children, but it ended up crashing into a field.

“Something sort of was torn from it in the air, and it began to go down and down,” she added.

Numerous opponents and critics of Mr. Putin have been killed or gravely sickened in apparent assassination attempts, and U.S. and other Western officials long expected the Russian leader to go after Prigozhin, despite promising to drop charges in a deal that ended the June 23-24 mutiny.

“It is no coincidence that the whole world immediately looks at the Kremlin when a disgraced ex-confidant of Putin suddenly falls from the sky, two months after he attempted an uprising,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, while acknowledging that the facts were still unclear.

“We know this pattern … in Putin’s Russia — deaths and dubious suicides, falls from windows that all ultimately remain unexplained,” she added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also pointed the finger. “We have nothing to do with this. Everyone understands who does,” he said.

Further fueling speculation that the plane crash was a strike at the heart of Wagner, among those aboard was a top Prigozhin associate, Dmitry Utkin, according to the civil aviation authority. Utkin’s call sign was Wagner, which became the company’s name.

The crash also came the same week that Russian media reported that Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a former top commander in Ukraine who was reportedly linked to Prigozhin, was dismissed from his post as commander of Russia’s air force.

Prigozhin was long outspoken and critical of how Russian generals were waging the war in Ukraine, where his mercenaries were some of the fiercest fighters for the Kremlin. For a long time, Putin appeared content to allow such infighting — and Prigozhin seemed to have unusual latitude to speak his mind.

But Prigozhin’s brief revolt raised the ante. His mercenaries swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there without firing a shot. They then drove to within about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of Moscow and downed several military aircraft, killing more than a dozen Russian pilots.

Putin first denounced the rebellion — the most serious challenge to his authority of his 23-year rule — as “treason” and a “stab in the back.” He vowed to punish its perpetrators — and the world waited for Putin’s move, particularly since Prigozhin had publicly questioned the Russian leader’s justifications for the war in Ukraine, seen as a red line.

But instead Putin made a deal that saw an end to the mutiny in exchange for an amnesty for Prigozhin and his mercenaries and permission for them to move to Belarus.

Now many are suggesting the punishment has finally come.

“The downing of the plane was certainly no mere coincidence,” Janis Sarts, director of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, told Latvian television.

Even if confirmed, Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to have an effect on Russia’s war in Ukraine. His forces fought some of the bloodiest battles over the last 18 months, but pulled back from the frontline after capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut in late May. After the rebellion, Russian officials said his fighters would only be able to return to Ukraine as part of the regular army.

The Institute for the Study of War argued that Russian authorities likely moved against Prigozhin and his top associates as “the final step to eliminate Wagner as an independent organization.”

Flight tracking data reviewed by The Associated Press showed a private jet that Prigozhin had used previously took off from Moscow on Wednesday evening, and its transponder signal disappeared minutes later.

Videos shared by the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone showed a plane dropping like a stone from a large cloud of smoke, twisting wildly as it fell, one of its wings apparently missing. A freefall like that typically occurs when an aircraft sustains severe damage, and a frame-by-frame AP analysis of two videos was consistent with some sort of explosion mid-flight.

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Yevgeny Prigozhin | The Wagner chief killed in a plane crash

Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin?

On September 14, 2022, a few days after Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Kharkiv by a Ukrainian counter-offensive, a video of a man talking to inmates at a Russian prison emerged on the Internet. “I am a representative of a private military company. You have probably heard of it. It’s called PMC Wagner,” said the tall man with a shaved head to a group of prisoners and guards who were standing around him in a semicircle. The video shot with a low-quality mobile camera, was published by the team of Alexei Navalny, a jailed opposition leader. The man in the video was Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian tycoon with close ties with the Kremlin. His mission: recruit prisoners for Wagner to fight in Ukraine.

Explained | Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson

In the video, he said that if the inmates, aged between 22 and 50, agreed to join Wagner, he would give them freedom after six months of service or a hero’s burial if they died in combat. “Do you have anyone who can take you out of prison,” he asked the prisoners. “There are two others who can — Allah and God — but they only take you out in a wooden box. I can take you out of here alive.”

When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Prigozhin was one of the most powerful men in the country. He had the blessings of the Kremlin. He recruited prisoners and his troops were instrumental in seizing several Ukrainian regions, including Bakhmut, Russia’s only significant territorial gain this year. Yet, Prigozhin fell out with Russia’s elite. Earlier in the year, he said the war, in which the Russians suffered huge casualties, could have been avoided. He called Russia’s Defence Ministry leadership corrupt and incompetent. The crisis within Russia’s military complex erupted into an unprecedented mutiny on June 23-24 when Wagner troops launched a march towards Moscow and shot down Russian helicopters. Then, Mr. Putin struck a deal with Prigozhin to avoid bloodshed. Exactly 18 months after the war began, Prigozhin is now a dead man. He was killed in a plane crash northwest of Moscow, according to Russian authorities.

The hotdog seller of St. Petersburg

Prigozhin’s rise and fall were closely linked to Mr. Putin.

Born in 1961 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the former Tsarist capital, Prigozhin grew up in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. At a young age, he was arrested for robbery. According to court papers released by Russian media outlet Meduza, Prigozhin and his accomplices attacked a woman in March 1980 in St. Petersburg, took her gold earrings and left her lying on the street unconscious. There were other reported similar incidents. He was convicted and jailed in 1981 in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. When he was released in 1990, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, was already on its deathbed.

Prigozhin started a new life, like the post-Soviet Russia, selling hotdogs in St. Petersburg. The subsequent years would see him steadily expanding his business to supermarkets and restaurants. By the mid-1990s, he opened Old Customs House (Staraya Tamozhnya), on Vasilevsky Island of St. Petersburg. It would soon become one of the finest and most sought-after dining locations in the city. Influential people, including celebrities, billionaires and politicians, used to visit the restaurant. One of them was Anatoly Sobchak, the Mayor of St. Petersburg. Sometimes, Sobchak’s young deputy would accompany him to the diner — a former KGB operative, who just started building a political career, called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Also Read | Putin’s inner circle: All the President’s men 

Putin’s chef

The relationship between Mr. Putin and Prigozhin, probably established in one of those meetings, would flourish in the following years. By late 1990s, Mr. Putin would become President Boris Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, and then his successor. With Mr. Putin in the Kremlin, Prigozhin would go on winning lucrative government catering contracts. His business started booming, so did his influence. As a measure of his growing clout, he was occasionally seen with President Putin and global leaders. He accompanied Mr. Putin when he visited the U.K. in 2003 and appeared in a photograph with Mr. Putin and Prince Charles (now the King of the U.K.). When Mr. Putin hosted George W. Bush in 2006 as part of the G8 Summit, Prigozhin can be seen serving the U.S. leader. In a 2015 photograph released by the Kremlin, Prigozhin can be seen serving food to Mr. Putin, then Brazil President Dilma Rouseff and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This closeness to Mr. Putin and his ever-expanding catering business earned him the nickname, “Putin’s chef”.

Prigozhin’s transformation from an influential Kremlin contractor to a vital player in Russia’s security complex began in 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea and started supporting separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine’s civil war. Wagner was founded in the same year, by Dmitry Utkin, a former Lieutenant Colonel in Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. (Utkin is also believed to be dead in the plane crash). Prigozhin emerged as the main financier of the group. According to one account, he approached the Defence Ministry in 2014, seeking land to train “volunteers”. Ministry officials were not happy with his demand. Then he told them, “The orders came from Papa,” referring to Mr. Putin.

He got what he wanted and Wagner would train thousands of private soldiers, who would be deployed to Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Initially, the Kremlin denied that it had sent troops to Ukraine — it was technically right as Wagner was not officially part of the Russian defence forces. But there were “little green men” across Ukraine’s Donbas. Within a few years, Wagner became an all-powerful mercenary entity. Mr. Putin’s critics saw Prigozhin as one of their formidable rivals. According to Leonid Volkov, a close aide of Navalny, Prigozhin was “the most dangerous criminal in Putin’s entourage”. A Belling Cat investigation in August 2020 claimed that Prigozhin’s business ventures — government contracts, Wagner and troll farms — were closely linked to the Kremlin. Robert Muller, the Special Counsel who probed alleged Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, indicted Russia-based Internet Research Agency, which was linked to Prigozhin, for running an online campaign to discredit Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. He was also wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for “conspiracy to defraud the United States”. In 2021, the FBI declared a reward of up to “$250,000 for information leading to the arrest” of Prigozhin.

Fall from grace

When Russia adopted a more aggressive foreign policy, expanding its strategic footprint in West Asia and Africa, Wagner came handy for the Kremlin — it can send troops to these regions with plausible deniability. In 2015, Mr. Putin sent troops to Syria to back the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war. Wagner soldiers fought alongside Syrian troops and Hezbollah and other Shia paramilitaries against the regime’s rivals. They were also sent to Mali, Libya, Mozambique and the Central African Republic. When Wagner became an integral part of the Kremlin’s foreign security outreach, Prigozhin’s stock rose in Moscow’s fortified elite power circles. But his fall from grace was swifter.

The irony is that the same Ukraine war, which initially turned him into one of the most important players in Russia, also spelt doom for his stature. When Russian troops performed poorly in the war, Prigozhin publicly slammed the defence establishment and asked for the ouster of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Mr. Putin seemed to have tolerated the tensions initially but he was not going to publicly back a private military company owner over his defence establishment. That’s where Prigozhin erred. Mr. Putin’s decision in January to replace Gen. Sergey Surovikin, who was close to Wagner and Prigozhin, with Gen. Gerasimov, the man Prigozhin wanted to be sacked, as the commander of the Ukraine operations was a clear signal on where the Kremlin was standing on the matter. But Prigozhin continued his attacks against the defence brass. When the Defence Ministry, with Mr. Putin’s blessings, moved on to integrate Wagner into the regular Russian army, soon after Bakhmut was captured, Prigozhin launched his mutiny. His fate was sealed on that day.

Wagner’s mutiny had exposed the weak links of Mr. Putin’s regime. His authority was challenged in the streets with weapons at a time when his troops were fighting a prolonged war against Ukraine’s West-backed forces. It was a twin challenge. The day August 23, exactly two months since the Wagner mutiny, saw dramatic developments in Russia. In the morning, the Defence Ministry announced that Gen. Surovkin, who has gone missing since the mutiny, has been sacked. Later in the day, the plane carrying Prigozhin and reportedly Utkin, crashed, killing all passengers. These developments strengthen Mr. Putin’s standing, at least in domestic politics.

Explained | Understanding the Wagner mutiny 

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Horror and lies: Ex-Wagner fighter talks Bakhmut and mutiny

“I always carried three grenades, two for the enemy and one in case I had to commit suicide,” he told Euronews. “I refuse to become a prisoner of war”.

A former Wagner mercenary has spoken exclusively to Euronews to share his chilling stories.

Sasha, not his real name, fought in the gritty months-long battle for Bakhmut, likened to a “meat grinder” by Western analysts.

Due to their sheer lack of discipline and will to fight, he said Wagner acted as a second line behind regular Russian troops on the front, which Sasha described as “conscripts barely 21-years-old”, to ensure they would not retreat.

“They [Russian conscripts] are not motivated, they’re weak, they were taken from the streets and told: Go to war,” he said. “If their commander falls, they tend to surrender fast.”

The mercenary would not say if violence was used to keep unruly troops in line. However, a Euronews report found Moscow has deployed Chechen loyalists to discipline and even execute dissenting soldiers.

Sasha, who recently completed a six-month contract with the Wagner Group, says he will not return to Ukraine – unless forced.

“Honestly, I have no desire to go back,” he told Euronews. “I just don’t want to fight anymore.”

Claiming he has Ukrainian roots in Kharkiv and Popasna, Sasha says he grew “disillusioned” by the bloodshed.

“This is a fraternal war. This is the nastiest war that could be. We [Russians and Ukranians] speak the same language. We think the same way, we act the same way,” he told Euronews. “We’re killing like-minded people.”

His unit would sometimes accidentally end up in Ukrainian trenches and often not even realise they were in the “enemy camp”, Sasha claimed.

“The only difference is they see us as aggressors because we’re in their territory. Maybe it’s true, but I don’t want to go into that nuance.”

“I really don’t know.”

Russia and Ukraine share an intertwined history, forming part of successive historical empires. But Ukrainians have their own distinct identity, language and culture, with many claiming Moscow’s failure to recognise this lies behind the invasion.

‘Thanks to Wagner, Russia is winning’

Adding to his sense of disillusionment were the rampant ‘lies ‘about the conflict, with Sasha revealing this was one reason why he wanted to speak to Euronews – “even if something happens to me in the next month”.

“After being on the front line, I can tell that everyone is lying to us,” the mercenary said, adding he had stopped watching the news as a result.

Sasha pointed to the massive deception surrounding Russia’s near-defeat during the early stages of the invasion, claiming Wager brought things back from the brink.

Another was that the promised outcomes of the war had simply not materialised, with Finland joining NATO and – despite claims it would weaken the US dollar – foreign currencies becoming more expensive.

The Russian ruble hit its lowest value in July since fighting broke out last year. But the currency – along with Russia’s economy – have defied economists’ expectations and remained resilient, in spite of Western sanctions.

Dodging the draft for several months, Sasha said he “very randomly […] happened to come across Wagner”.

He seemed reluctant to answer why he joined the mercenary group.

“Before the war, I had more loyal and patriotic views,” he told Euronews, alluding to this love of country as what motivated him to sign up, though the “decent” salary certainly helped.

“I thought everything we [Russia] was doing was right. Now, my opinions have changed.”

Decorated for his “bravery” in Bakhmut, Sasha served as an “assault trooper”, with the particular skill of spotting for the artillery, thanks to his knack for maths.

The young man has “no idea” how many people he killed in battle, armed with an AK 74,  grenade launchers and landmines.

“What’s the point of trying to count?”

Saying it had “no ranks like the [Russian] army”, he likened Wagner to a well-ordered fraternity of elite troops – in stark contrast to the ruckus regular soldiers.

“We call each other brothers, [it] doesn’t matter how long we’ve been in the group. One day I’ll save his life, the other he will save mine.”

“I can tell you that the Ministry of Defense is very scared of us,” he continued. “Most Wagner fighters went to war to die, not fight. I was 70% sure I wasn’t going to come back.”

“I always carried three grenades, two for the enemy, and one in case I had to commit suicide because I refuse to become a POW.”

A mix of battle-hardened veterans and criminals, he said his fellow fighters had helped crush past “coups” in Syria and US-agitated uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Sasha believed that meddling by Washington was why Moscow needed to invade its western neighbour.

‘There are no rapists in Wagner’

During his stint in Bakhmut, Sasha said he felt “very sorry” for civilians.

“When we would arrive dirty, all dressed in uniform, they [Ukranians] would be too afraid of us to come out [of their homes] even.”

“They’re told by the other side [Kyiv] that if you go to… Russia, we will shoot you,” he explained.

Bakmut saw months of vicious fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces, grinding the city to dust. The small salt mining town’s pre-war population of 71,000 now stands at less than 500, as all but a few have fled the onslaught.

Wagner forces have been accused of raping and killing civilians by their ex-commanders, including children as young as five.

Yet Sasha pushed back against this allegation, noting all fighters were contractually bound by strict rules, which forbid looting (except trophies from dead combatants), rape, drugs, and even alcohol.

“We didn’t pose any threat ,” he told Euronews, claiming civilians told him they preferred Wagner to the Ukrainian Armed Forces because they “could rely on us.”

“We even helped people with their gardens” and one colleague saved a “wounded 6-year-old girl, carrying her several kilometres to a hospital” he said, though recognised innocent people could get killed by the odd “stray bullet”.

Euronews cannot independently verify these claims.

Sasha – himself a great admirer of Vladimir Putin – painted a picture of confusion around Wagner’s abortive mutiny in June, although he had already returned home when it happened.

He said colleagues told him many commanders, wishing to remain loyal to the Russian president, refused orders to march on Rostov-on-Don, a Russian stronghold near the Ukrainian border, where Wagner seized a military base.

Analysing the clash between Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Putin-backed Russian military – with regular troops reportedly attacking mercenary bases – Sasha was curt.

“I’ll put it simply: I don’t like Shoigu [the Russian defence minister].”

Before the Wagner rebellion on 23 June, which saw it march on Moscow, tensions had been escalating between Prigozhin and the Russian defence establishment, with the mercenary boss openly slamming their campaign.

Having faced down “really good” Ukrainian artillery, Sasha felt gratitude to be home in one piece.

“I sleep very well at night. Don’t have any nightmares. I got back with all my limbs. I was never wounded. I was quite lucky compared to others.”

“After what I’ve been through, things change and you have different priorities in life such as family,” he continued. “I have brothers… parents [and] a woman I love”.

“That’s also why I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to risk it all a second time,” he added.

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Armed rebellion by Wagner chief Prigozhin underscores erosion of Russian legal system

Russia’s rebellious mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin walked free from prosecution for his June 24 armed mutiny, and it’s still unclear if anyone will face any charges in the aborted uprising against military leaders or for the deaths of the soldiers killed in it.

Instead, a campaign is underway to portray the founder of the Wagner Group military contractor as driven by greed, with only hints of an investigation into whether he mishandled any of the billions of dollars in state funds.

Until last week, the Kremlin has never admitted to funding the company, with private mercenary groups technically illegal in Russia. But President Vladimir Putin revealed the state paid Wagner almost $1 billion in just one year, while Mr. Prigozhin’s other company earned about the same from government contracts. Mr. Putin wondered aloud whether any of it was stolen.

Also Read | Explained: Understanding the Wagner mutiny

The developments around Mr. Prigozhin, who remains unpunished despite Mr. Putin’s labelling of his revolt as treason, underscored what St. Petersburg municipal council member Nikita Yuferev called the “gradual erosion of the legal system” in Russia.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, writing about the mutiny in a column, concluded: “The fabric of the state is disintegrating.”

After Putin indicated the government would probe financial irregularities by Mr. Prigozhin’s companies, state TV picked up that cue.

Commentator Dmitry Kiselyov said Wagner and another company owned by Prigozhin earned over 1.7 trillion rubles ($18.7 billion) through government contracts. Russian business daily Vedomosti cited a source close to the Defence Ministry as saying the earnings occurred between 2014 and 2023, years when both Prigozhin and Russian officials denied any ties to Wagner or even its existence.

“Big money made Prigozhin’s head spin,” Mr. Kiselyov said Sunday, saying the private army’s battlefield successes gave the mercenary boss “a feeling of impunity.”

One possible reason for Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny, he said, was the Defence Ministry’s refusal to extend a multibillion-dollar contract with his legal catering company, Concord, to supply food to the army.

According to Mr. Kiselyov, Wagner earned 858 billion rubles from government contracts, while Concord earned another 845 billion. Those numbers were 10 times higher than what Putin gave last week.

Also unclear is whether Mr. Prigozhin will move to Belarus, Moscow’s closest ally, under a deal with the Kremlin to end the rebellion. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday that Prigozhin was in Russia. The Kremlin refused comment.

Russian media on Wednesday — including popular state TV channel Russia 1 — showed video of searches of Mr. Prigozhin’s St. Petersburg offices and an opulent mansion he purportedly owned, complete with helipad and indoor swimming pool. They also showed a van with boxes of cash, as well as gold bars, wigs and weapons in the estate.

Russia 1 programs also alleged Mr. Prigozhin’s adult children amassed significant wealth through him and said the searches were a part of an ongoing investigation, contrasting his lifestyle to his anti-elite image.

“So it turns out, Yevgeny Prigozhin didn’t have enough and wanted more?” an anchor mused.

The goal of these revelations is “to smear the person, show he is an oligarch,” said Ilya Shumanov, Russia director for Transparency International, noting Mr. Prigozhin often made crude and plain-spoken attacks on the military leadership.

“And here they say that he’s a billionaire, and all this (money) isn’t his, it’s from the (state) budget, and he was sitting on it, and there would have been no private military company with the Defence Ministry,” Shumanov told The Associated Press.

The revelations raised questions of how the government could fund Wagner at all, given that laws prohibit mercenary activities, including funding and training private troops, that put the company in a legal gray area.

Until the rebellion, Putin always denied any link between the state and Mr. Prigozhin’s mercenaries. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said as recently as 2020 that “there is no such thing as a private military company in Russian law,” and that he wasn’t aware of one.

By then, however, Wagner had sent its soldiers-for-hire to Syria and African countries as Russia expanded its global influence. By Mr. Prigozhin’s own admission, his forces also operated in eastern Ukraine to support a separatist uprising and later fought there after the 2022 invasion.

Asked Monday about the legality of state funding for Wagner, Peskov refused comment.

Shumanov told AP that Wagner was likely funded either with cash through shell companies, or through government contracts via Mr. Prigozhin’s other entities. How much is impossible to know, he noted, but added it was clear Mr. Putin’s remarks “gave a green light” to investigate the Wagner chief’s finances.

“I’d wait several weeks, and I think there will definitely be a reaction from the security forces in terms of Mr. Prigozhin and his economic activities,” he said.

The Kremlin’s message is that “we are dealing with a thief, a corrupt person, a thief and an oligarch, who went too far and stole money from the budget,” Shumanov said: “This is a very clear explanation, and no one needs to be sacrificed except for Prigozhin.”

Besides the finances, there is the matter of whether anyone will face prosecution for the deaths of the Russian troops who died at the hands of Mr. Prigozhin’s fighters.

Russian media reported about 15 military troops were killed during the rebellion as thousands of his soldiers seized a military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, then headed for Moscow, shooting down military helicopters and other aircraft on what Prigozhin called his “march of justice.” At a June 27 Kremlin ceremony, Mr. Putin held a minute of silence to honor the dead, although he didn’t say how many were killed.

A deal struck with Mr. Prigozhin to end the uprising stipulated that the Federal Security Service, or FSB, would drop charges against him and his fighters of mounting a rebellion. That agreement went against Putin’s vow in a nationally televised address during the uprising to punish those behind it.

Instead, the Kremlin said Mr. Prigozhin agreed to end the mutiny and go to Belarus — a settlement that didn’t sit well with some.

Yuferev, the St. Petersburg municipal council member, filed a request with the Prosecutor General’s Office and the FSB, asking who would be punished for the rebellion.

Thousands of people “rolling toward Moscow on tanks shoot down aircraft, kill 15 troops. … The president speaks, says: I will punish all of you, you are mutineers,’ the FSB launches a case -– and then nothing,” he added.

He said authorities must respond in 30 days, and while he doesn’t expect a substantive reply, he at least hopes to draw attention to this “erosion of the legal system of a state. It is very interesting what they will write there, how they will justify people committing an armed rebellion,” Yuferev said.

Whether other charges will be filed is unclear. Prominent lawyer Ivan Pavlov told AP that mounting an armed rebellion is only one charge, and that Mr. Prigozhin may face others -– especially since deaths occurred — but so far, “no one is talking about it.” Another topic drawing official silence is how the FSB — the successor agency to the feared KGB — failed to prevent the uprising, even though it routinely boasts of averting terrorist attacks, sabotage plots and other major crimes.

Russian security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan said the FSB’s Rostov department “barricaded itself in its city headquarters,” while its military counterintelligence operatives assigned to Wagner ”did nothing.”

After Mr. Prigozhin announced his intentions June 23 to act against Russia’s Defence Minister, the FSB issued a statement urging Wagner fighters not to follow the rogue commander and for the troops “to detain him.”

Soldatov and Borogan wrote in a recent article that such a call for the mercenaries to take that action was odd, since only law enforcement agencies and security services like the FSB have the power to detain people.

Mark Galeotti of University College, London, an analyst on Russian security affairs, said the rebellion tested previous assumptions that Putin could count on his security forces.

“Now, the first time there’s a real challenge we actually see, security forces are willing to hang back and wait and see what happens,” he told AP.

So far, there has been no negative impact on the FSB, which Galeotti called “Mr. Putin’s favoured institution,” having been a former member.

Asked by AP during a conference call with reporters Monday why the FSB failed to stop the mutiny, Kremlin spokesman Peskov refused comment, except to say that such services “perform their functions, they do it properly.”

He also noted Putin last week had praised soldiers, law enforcement and security officers and “expressed his gratitude” to them.

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Putin’s media machine turns on ‘traitor’ Prigozhin

From national hero to drug-addled, bewigged zero: the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has turned against Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In a sensational report on state-run Rossiya-1’s “60 Minutes” program on Wednesday evening, the Kremlin’s propaganda attack dogs played footage of what they claimed was a raid of Prigozhin’s mansion and offices, showing cash, guns, drugs, a helicopter, multiple (Russian) passports — and a closet full of terrible wigs.

“The investigation is continuing,” said pundit Eduard Petrov at the top of the program, referring to the probe into the mutiny led by Prigozhin last month, during which the leader of the Wagner Group of mercenaries marched his men to within 200 kilometers of Moscow in a bid to oust the country’s military leadership. “In reality, no one planned to close this case,” he added.

It was an open declaration of war on Prigozhin, and came after Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides issued improbable assurances that the criminal case into those who had organized the mutiny would be dropped if the warlord and his Wagnerites agreed to either disarm, sign contracts with the Russian defense ministry, or leave for Belarus. On Thursday morning, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who ostensibly negotiated the exile agreement with Prigozhin and Putin, told state media the warlord was not in the country.

“We need to figure out who was on whose side,” Petrov pronounced on “60 Minutes.” “Who was on the mutineers’ side? They should be punished and brought to criminal justice. So the nation understands that if a person acts against their government, they will be punished very, very harshly. Not ‘see you later, I’m going out.’”

“Tomes” of evidence is being combed over by Russian authorities, a gloating Petrov told the audience of the evening show. “Very soon, very very soon, we will hear what stage the criminal case is at.”

Cue: Footage — obtained from unnamed siloviki (a term used to describe members of the military or security services) — of Russia’s special forces raiding what Petrov described as Prigozhin’s “nest” — aka the offices of his now-shuttered Patriot Media company, and his palatial home.

“I believe the image of Yevgeny Prigozhin as a champion of the people was entirely created by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s well-fed media empire,” Petrov said contemptuously and seemingly unironically — never mind that Rossiya-1 itself portrayed Prigozhin as a hero mere weeks ago.

Remaking a murder

Until recently, the Kremlin’s propagandists painted Prigozhin, a 62-year-old one-time caterer and convicted felon, as a macho hero, a Russian Rambo decapitating traitors with sledgehammers on the front line.

Things got complicated when Prigozhin began publicly railing against Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, ranting and raging to his growing cadre of devoted fans on social media.

Still, Prigozhin never criticized Putin, and Putin allowed Prigozhin to continue building his brand, so long as his men kept holding down the fort in the most brutal battles in the war on Ukraine. Then Prigozhin crossed the line by marching his men on Moscow.

Putin’s retribution was always going to be brutal — first, though, he’s destroying Prigozhin’s image and undermining his reputation.

Back to Wednesday night’s “60 Minutes.”

“Why did we forget about Prigozhin’s past?” an impassioned Petrov asked. “Everyone knew about it. Everyone talked about it. Spoke about the fact that he has been on trial twice. His criminal past.”

Showing footage of what he said was Prigozhin’s 600 million ruble (€6 million) mansion, Petrov crowed: “Let’s see how this champion of the truth lived — a twice-convicted champion — a champion who spoke about how everyone around him is stealing.

“Inside Yevgeny Prigozhin’s little house there’s currency lying around like this, in a box, held together by rubber bands,” Petrov continued. “Now let’s see the palace of the fighter of corruption and criminality, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Here’s his palace. Here’s his house. His daughter sometimes posts videos from here, by the way — and she’s not always in good condition.”

Then, the pièce de résistance of the video: a closet full of bad wigs.

“Oh!” exclaimed Petrov as the footage rolled. “This is a closet full of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s secrets — wigs! Why does he need wigs at his house?”

It wasn’t long until Telegram, the social media platform popular among Russians, was flooded with photos of Prigozhin in a variety of wigs and disguises. (Though intriguingly, the photos appeared to come from a Prigozhin-friendly account called “Release the Kraken,” which said it had sourced them from the Patriot Media archive.)

The program also aired footage of what Petrov speculated were drugs found in Prigozhin’s mansion. A Prigozhin-friendly Telegram account which has previously featured voice messages from the warlord himself denied the house in the video belonged to Prigozhin, and claimed the “drugs” were actually laundry detergent.

Divide and conquer

Wednesday night’s program was also designed to reassure Russians that not all Wagner fighters were traitors and mutineers — with his war effort stuttering, Putin can’t afford to lose tens of thousands of men from the front.

“There were worthy people in Wagner,” Petrov insisted — moments after a diatribe about Prigozhin recruiting some of Russia’s worst criminals into the mercenary army’s ranks.

“The majority!” cut in “60 Minutes” host Yevgeny Popov. “The majority of people acted heroically, took cities, served in good faith … and bought their freedom with blood.”

“What’s absolutely clear: Prigozhin is a traitor,” Popov continued. “But Wagnerites — the majority of them are heroic people who with guns in hand defended our motherland. And many of them were lied to.”

Referring to Prigozhin’s Concord catering company and other businesses that Putin admitted were fully funded by the Russian state, Popov said the warlord had received “billions in contracts.”

And seeking to cleave Prigozhin’s men from their exiled boss, Petrov said: “The question is whether this money reached the fighters and heroes of Wagner!”

Translation: Watch your back, Yevgeny.



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