A Year Ago, Russian Mercenary Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin Challenged the Kremlin with a Mutiny

People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)
People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)
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A Year Ago, Russian Mercenary Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin Challenged the Kremlin with a Mutiny

People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)
People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)

On a lazy summer weekend a year ago, Russia was jolted by the stunning news of an armed uprising. The swaggering chief of a Kremlin-sponsored mercenary army seized a military headquarters in the south and began marching toward Moscow to oust the Defense Ministry’s leaders, accusing them of starving his force of ammunition in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin and his soldiers-for-hire called off their "march of justice" only hours later, but the rebellion dealt a blow to President Vladimir Putin, the most serious challenge to his rule in nearly a quarter-century in power.

Prigozhin’s motives are still hotly debated, and the suspicious crash of the private jet that killed him and his top lieutenants exactly two months after the rebellion remains mired in mystery.

A look at the mutiny and its impact:

Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin? Prigozhin, an ex-convict, owned a fancy restaurant in St. Petersburg where Putin took foreign leaders. That earned Prigozhin the nicknamed of "Putin’s chef." Those ties won him lucrative government contracts, including catering for Kremlin events and providing meals and services to the military.

He founded the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, in 2014, using it to advance Russia's political interests and clout by deploying mercenaries to Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. Wagner fighters provided security for African leaders or warlords, often in exchange for a share of gold mines or other natural resources.

Prigozhin gained attention in the US, where he and a dozen other Russians were indicted by the Justice Department for creating the Internet Research Agency — a "troll farm" that focused on interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. The case was later dropped.

What was Wagner's role in Ukraine? After Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Wagner emerged as one of the most capable of Moscow’s fighting forces. It played a key role in capturing the eastern stronghold of Bakhmut in May 2023.

Prigozhin was allowed by the Kremlin to swell Wagner's ranks with convicts, who were offered amnesty after serving six months on the front line. He said 50,000 were recruited, and 10,000 of them died in the ferocious battle for Bakhmut.

The war added to Wagner's reputation for brutality. In a video that surfaced in November 2022, a former Wagner mercenary who allegedly defected to the Ukrainian side but later was captured by Russia, was shown being beaten to death with a sledgehammer, the mercenary group's symbol.

What led to the uprising? For months in 2023, Prigozhin complained bitterly about the military brass denying his forces the needed ammunition in Ukraine. In open political infighting, he blasted then-Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov in profane rants on social media, blaming them for military setbacks and accusing them of corruption.

The Defense Ministry's order for Wagner to sign contracts with the regular military appeared to be the final trigger for Prigozhin's extraordinary rebellion on June 23-24.

His mercenaries swiftly took over Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, reportedly hoping to capture Shoigu and Gerasimov. But they weren't there.

Prigozhin ordered his forces to roll toward Moscow, saying it wasn't a military coup but a "march of justice" to unseat his foes. The mercenaries downed several military aircraft en route, killing over a dozen pilots. Security forces in Moscow went on alert and checkpoints were set up on the southern outskirts.

At the height of the crisis, Putin went on TV and called the rebellion by his onetime protege a "betrayal" and "treason." He vowed to punish those behind it.

But Prigozhin abruptly aborted the march hours later in an amnesty deal brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The mercenary forces were offered a choice of moving to Belarus, retiring from service or signing contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.

Prigozhin later said he launched the uprising after he "lost his temper" in the infighting with his foes. Some commentators said he apparently hoped to persuade Putin to take his side against the military brass — a grave miscalculation.

What was Prigozhin's fate? On Aug. 23, two months to the day after the rebellion, a business jet carrying Prigozhin, 62, and his top associates crashed while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing all seven passengers and a crew of three.

State investigators have yet to say what caused the crash.

A preliminary US intelligence assessment concluded there was an intentional explosion on board. Western officials pointed to a long list of Putin foes who have been assassinated.

The Kremlin has denied involvement and rejected Western allegations that Putin was behind it as an "absolute lie."

Prigozhin was buried in his hometown of St. Petersburg in a private ceremony.

What has happened to Wagner? Several thousand Wagner mercenaries moved to a camp in Belarus after the mutiny. Soon after Prigozhin's death, most left that country to sign contracts with the Russian military to redeploy to Africa or return to fighting in Ukraine. Only a handful stayed in Belarus to train its military.

Russian authorities formed a Wagner successor, Africa Corps, using it to expand military cooperation with countries there. Moscow has emerged as the security partner of choice for a number of African governments, displacing traditional allies like France and the United States.

Elements of Wagner and other private security companies continue to operate in Ukraine under the control of the Defense Ministry and the Russian National Guard.

"Despite the spectacular demise of Prigozhin himself and the problems that Wagner got itself into as a result of that, the model — the idea of a private company profiting from this war — is one that is attractive to a lot of people in Russia," said Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

How has Putin responded since the uprising? Prigozhin’s demise sent a chilling message to Russia's elites, helping Putin contain the damage to his authority inflicted by the rebellion.

A crackdown continued on his political foes, with many either fleeing the country or ending up in prison. His biggest opponent, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic penal colony in February.

In a stage-managed election in March, Putin won another six-year term. In a subsequent Cabinet shakeup, Putin dismissed Prigozhin’s archfoe, Shoigu, as defense minister, replacing him with Andrei Belousov, an economics expert. Shoigu, who had personal ties with Putin, was given the high-profile post of secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

"If Shoigu’s new job had been too junior, it would have been humiliating, and could have triggered such criticism of the outgoing minister as to highlight the army’s weaknesses: something to be avoided in wartime," Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said in a commentary.

At the same time, Shoigu's entourage faced purges. A longtime associate and deputy, Timur Ivanov, and several other senior military officers were arrested on corruption charges, and other senior Defense Ministry officials lost their jobs.

Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff and another Prigozhin foe, has kept his job so far.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who reportedly had close ties with Prigozhin, was stripped of his post as deputy commander of forces in Ukraine and given a ceremonial position. Surovikin, credited with creating the multilayered defensive lines and fortifications that blunted Ukraine’s offensive a year ago, wasn’t dismissed altogether, and some observers suggest he could eventually be given a new military post.



Bedwetting, Nightmares and Shaking. War in Gaza Takes a Mental Health Toll, Especially on Children

A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
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Bedwetting, Nightmares and Shaking. War in Gaza Takes a Mental Health Toll, Especially on Children

A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Nabila Hamada gave birth to twin boys in Gaza early in the war, in a hospital reeking of decaying bodies and full of displaced people. When Israeli forces threatened the hospital, she and her husband fled with only one of the babies, as medical staff said the other was too weak to leave. Soon after, Israeli forces raided the hospital, Gaza’s largest, and she never saw the boy again.
The trauma of losing one twin left the 40-year-old Hamada so scared of losing the other that she became frozen and ill-equipped to deal with the daily burden of survival, The Associated Press said.
“I’m unable to take care of my other, older children or give them the love they need,” she said.
She is among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians struggling with mental health after nine months of war. The trauma has been relentless. They have endured the killing of family and friends in Israeli bombardments. They have been wounded or disfigured. They have huddled in homes or tents as fighting raged and fled again and again, with no safe place to recover.
Anxiety, fear, depression, sleep deprivation, anger and aggression are prevalent, experts and practitioners told The Associated Press. Children are most vulnerable, especially because many parents can barely hold themselves together.
There are few resources to help Palestinians process what they are going through. Mental health practitioners say the turmoil and overwhelming number of traumatized people limit their ability to deliver true support. So they’re offering a form of “psychological first aid” to mitigate the worst symptoms.
“There are about 1.2 million children who are in need of mental health and psychosocial support. This basically means nearly all Gaza’s children,” said Ulrike Julia Wendt, emergency child protection coordinator with the International Rescue Committee. Wendt has been visiting Gaza since the war began.
She said simple programming, such as playtime and art classes, can make a difference: “The goal is to show them that not only bad things are happening.”
Repeated displacement compounds trauma: an estimated 1.9 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes. Most live in squalid tent camps and struggle to find food and water.
Many survivors of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in southern Israel that precipitated the war in Gaza also bear the scars of trauma, and are seeking ways to heal. Hamas killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took around 250 hostage.
Sheltering near the southern city of Khan Younis, Jehad El Hams said he lost his right eye and fingers on his right hand when he picked up what he thought was a can of food. It was an unexploded ordnance that detonated. His children were almost hit.
Since then, he experiences sleeplessness and disorientation. “I cry every time I take a look at myself and see what I’ve become,” he said.
He reached out to one of the few mental health initiatives in Gaza, run by the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA.
Fouad Hammad, an UNRWA mental health supervisor, said they typically encounter 10 to 15 adults a day at shelters in Khan Younis with eating and sleeping disorders, extreme rage and other issues.
Mahmoud Rayhan saw his family shattered. An Israeli strike killed his young son and daughter. His wife's leg was amputated. Now he isolates himself inside his tent and sleeps most of the day. He talks to almost no one.
He said he doesn’t know how to express what’s happening to him. He trembles. He sweats. “I’ve been crying and feel nothing but heaviness in my heart.”
A relative, Abdul-Rahman Rayhan, lost his father, two siblings and four cousins in a strike. Now when he hears a bombardment, he shakes and gets dizzy, his heart racing. “I feel like I’m in a nightmare, waiting for God to wake me up,” the 20-year-old said.
For children, the mental toll of war can have long-term effects on development, Wendt said. Children in Gaza are having nightmares and wetting their beds because of stress, noise, crowding and constant change, she said.
Nashwa Nabil in Deir al-Balah said her three children have lost all sense of security. Her eldest is 13 and her youngest is 10.
“They could no longer control their pee, they chew on their clothes, they scream and have become verbally and physically aggressive,” she said. “When my son Moataz hears a plane or tank, he hides in the tent.”
In the central town of Deir al-Balah, a psychosocial team with the Al Majed Association works with dozens of children, teaching them how to respond to the realities of war and giving them space to play.
“In the case of a strike, they place themselves in the fetal position and seek safety away from buildings or windows. We introduce scenarios, but anything in Gaza is possible,” said project manager Georgette Al Khateeb.
Even for those who escape Gaza, the mental toll remains high.
Mohamed Khalil, his wife and their three children were displaced seven times before they reached Egypt. His wife and children arrived in January and he joined them in March. Their 8-year-old daughter would hide in the bathroom during shelling and shooting, saying, “We are going to die.”
Their 6-year-old son could sleep only after his mother told him that dying as a martyr is an opportunity to meet God and ask for the fruits and vegetables they didn’t have in hunger-ravaged Gaza.
Khalil recalled their terror as they escaped on foot down a designated “safe corridor” with Israeli guns firing nearby.
Even after arriving in Egypt, the children are introverted and fearful, Khalil said.
They have enrolled in a new initiative in Cairo, Psychological and Academic Services for Palestinians, which offers art and play therapy sessions and math, language and physical education classes.
“We saw a need for these children who have seen more horror than any of us will ever see,” said its founder, psychologist Rima Balshe.
On a recent field trip, she recalled, 5-year-old twins from Gaza who were playing and suddenly froze when they heard helicopters.
“Is this an Israeli warplane?” they asked. She explained it was an Egyptian aircraft.
“So Egyptians like us?” they asked. “Yes,” she reassured them. They had left Gaza, but Gaza had not left them.
There is hope that children traumatized by the war can heal, but they have a long way to go, Balshe said.
“I wouldn’t say ‘recovering’ but I certainly see evidence of beginning to heal. They may not ever fully recover from the trauma they endured, but we are now working on dealing with loss and grief,” she said. “It’s a long process.”