Long before Yevgeny V. Prigozhin seized a major Russian military center and ordered an armed march on Moscow, posing an alarming and dramatic threat to President Vladimir V. Putin, the caterer-turned-mercenary boss was losing his own war. staff.
Mr. Prigozhin’s private army had been sidelined. His lucrative catering contracts with the government were threatened. The commander he most admired in the Russian army had been ousted as the top general overseeing Ukraine. And he had lost his most vital recruiting source for fighters: Russia’s prisons.
Then, on June 13, his only hope of a last-minute intervention to spare him a bitter defeat in his protracted power struggle with Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu faded.
Putin publicly sided with Prigozhin’s opponents, saying that all irregular units fighting in Ukraine would have to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry. That included Mr. Prigozhin’s private military company, Wagner.
Now the mercenary boss would report to Mr. Shoigu, a political survivor without parallel in modern Russia and sworn enemy of Mr. Prigozhin.
“This must be done,” Putin told a meeting of pro-government war correspondents in the Kremlin. “It must be done as soon as possible.”
What happened next shocked the world: Prigozhin mounted an armed insurrection that he insisted was not aimed at overthrowing Putin but rather at overthrowing the Kremlin’s military leadership.
The mutiny, though short-lived, has been widely seen as an ominous political omen for Putin’s leadership, one that could herald more instability as the Russian president continues his costly war.
But it is equally the personal story of an independent, fickle and scandalous warlord who undertook an emotionally desperate attempt to win by force one of the most extraordinary Russian power struggles in recent memory.
Many powerful Russian figures have lost out in factional battles during Putin’s 23 years as Russia’s leader, eventually falling into exile, prison or anonymity.
But with his rebellion over the weekend, Mr. Prigozhin chose a different path, allowing his anguish and anger to play out for the world to see as he took action only available to someone with a national megaphone, and a wronged private and well armed. army.
“Prigozhin’s rebellion was not a bid for power or an attempt to outmaneuver the Kremlin,” wrote Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, in an analysis of the facts. “It came out of a sense of despair; Prigozhin was expelled from the Ukraine and found himself unable to support Wagner as he did before, while the state machine turned against him.
“On top of that,” he added, “Putin was ignoring him and publicly supporting his most dangerous adversaries.”
Mr. Prigozhin had built a considerable financial and military empire. But as the political challenge of him grew, the flow of money from the Defense Ministry and other government contracts risked drying up. And he chafed at the prospect of taking orders from people he considered incompetent.
Still, when Putin denounced his actions on Saturday as treason, Prigozhin seemed caught off guard, unprepared to be a true revolutionary or continue a march on the Kremlin that he knew would almost certainly end in defeat, he said. Stanovaya wrote.
And so, when Mr. Prigozhin was offered the opportunity to end the crisis by withdrawing his forces, he seized it.
“The Prigozhin mutiny was ultimately a desperate act by someone who was cornered,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Virginia-based research group CNA. “Their options for him were dwindling as their bitter feud escalated.”
Over the years, with his connections to Putin and the Kremlin, Prigozhin was able to secure lucrative contracts to provide food for the Moscow school system and Russian military bases, amassing great wealth. At the same time, he engaged in foreign adventurism through Wagner that suited the Kremlin, furthering Moscow’s goals, and his own, in the Middle East and Africa, where his fighters have been accused of indiscriminate killings and atrocities.
He also ran the Internet Investigation Agency, the infamous St. Petersburg troll farm that interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
Prigozhin was so secretive about his activities that he long denied any association with Wagner and even sued the Russian media for reporting his connection to the group.
All of that changed last year with the full-scale invasion of the Ukraine.
In September, Prigozhin went public for the first time as the man behind Wagner.
Less than two weeks later, Putin appointed General Sergei Surovikin to lead the war effort in Ukraine, a boon for the mercenary boss, who had worked with the general in Syria. Mr. Prigozhin described the new leader as a legendary figure and the most capable commander of the Russian army.
Prigozhin’s stature was also growing, as his fighters seemed to be making progress in the protracted battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, while the Russian army had little to show for it. Russian commentators lavished positive coverage on the mercenary group, and a glass tower in St. Petersburg was renamed the Wagner Center. Recruitment posters for the team were put up across the country.
But earlier this year, Mr. Prigozhin’s adversaries in the Defense Ministry began to assert their power.
In January, Mr. Putin appointed General Valery V. Gerasimov, to replace General Surovikin, as the top commander of operations in Ukraine. Prigozhin frequently belittled General Gerasimov in his Telegram audio messages, implying that he was an office worker of the type who suffocates regular soldiers with red tape.
The feud appears to date at least to Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, when Wagner and Russian regular soldiers sometimes clashed as they competed for resources and the spoils of war, according to the published memoirs of two Wagner veterans. Mr. Prigozhin himself made public these tensions in Syria last year.
In February, Prigozhin acknowledged that his access to Russian prisons for recruiting had been cut off. Later, the Ministry of Defense would start conscripting prisoners on the spot, adopting Prigozhin’s tactic.
The tension between Wagner and the Russian military, which has long been alluded to by Russian military bloggers, erupted openly. At the end of February, Mr. Prigozhin publicly accused Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov of treason, alleging that they deliberately withheld ammunition and supplies from Wagner in order to destroy him.
In late February, Putin tried to settle the dispute by summoning Prigozhin and Shoigu to a meeting, according to leaked intelligence documents.
But the rivalry would only intensify. With him no longer able to recruit prisoners, Wagner was forced to rely increasingly on his limited supply of skilled veteran fighters to continue fighting the battle at Bakhmut, according to Ukrainian and Western officials.
Cut off from the center of power in Moscow, Prigozhin increasingly turned to his bully pulpit: social media. His messages also became much more political when he began to appeal directly to the Russian people. He began to express criticisms that, in a country with a law against discrediting the armed forces, few dared to do.
What had once been a sharp-tongued taunt of Russian high command, over time turned into regular eruptions of bile.
“Stinking beasts, what are you doing? Pig! she said in a recording at the end of May. “Get your asses out of your offices, which you were given to protect this country.”
He then criticized Russian defense leaders for “sitting on their big asses smeared with expensive creams” and said the Russian people had every right to ask them questions. She posted gruesome images of Wagner soldiers killed in action. He gave ultimatums about the withdrawal of his troops from Bakhmut. He even took what was widely seen as a jab at Putin, without naming him, with a reference to a “grandfather” who might be “a complete idiot.”
Kremlinologists were baffled as to why Putin did not push Wagner’s boss aside, or step in and control him; some analysts suggested that he favored the competing factions that operated under him, with neither gaining much power. Others wondered if the Russian leader had become too isolated to solve the problem or was simply not in control enough.
Mr. Prigozhin’s forces captured Bakhmut in late May and left the battlefield soon after, accusing the Russian army of mining the road they used to leave and briefly detaining a Russian lieutenant colonel on his way out. That left Prigozhin vulnerable again. Wagner was no longer needed to finish off a battle that had been exaggerated by the Russian media.
In June, his isolation became palpable.
Prigozhin signaled a break with the Defense Ministry over his military catering contracts, which have helped boost his wealth and influence for more than a decade. In a publicized letter to Mr. Shoigu dated June 6, Mr. Prigozhin said that the food he had supplied to Russian military bases and institutions since 2006 had totaled 147 billion rubles (1.74 thousand million dollars), a figure that is impossible to verify. Now, he complained, “high-level people” were trying to force him to accept companies associated with them as his suppliers. He also said a new system of “loyal suppliers” threatened his cost structure and could deal a blow to his business reputation.
His despair seemed to be growing.
On June 10, one of Mr. Shoigu’s deputies announced that all formations fighting outside the formal ranks of the Russian army would have to sign a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry by July 1.
Prigozhin initially refused, but Putin later endorsed Shoigu’s plan. In the days that followed, Prigozhin posted several audio and video messages showing what appeared to be attempts to reach an agreement on his terms.
In a video, released on June 16, he shows himself handing over a “contract” to the Defense Ministry in Moscow, but a receptionist behind a caged booth quickly slams the window in his face.
In the days before he led the uprising on Saturday, Prigozhin began to express feelings of resignation, saying that none of the problems besetting the Russian army would be solved. He also spoke about the nation’s uprising, saying that Mr. Shoigu should be executed and suggesting that relatives of those killed in the war would take revenge on incompetent officials.
“Their mothers, their wives, their children will come and eat them alive when the time comes,” he said in a video interview on June 6, suggesting there could be a “popular revolt.”
He added: “I can tell you, honestly, I think we only have two or three months before the executions.”