It is not surprising that Russian authorities have declared Yevgeny Prigozhin dead. Given the attempted mutiny he led with the Wagner mercenary group against Moscow, the assumption was that he may not be long for this world. When it comes to the iron-grip President Vladimir Putin has on his nation – if you come for the king, as the adage goes, you best not miss.
But as the speculation swirls about the end of Prigozhin and the embarrassment that Putin could not let stand, it can be easy to brush past the terrible things Progozhin's mercenaries are believed to have done. Let's get this straight, Prigozhin deserved the end that all signs point to him having met.
It is Putin's invasion of Ukraine that pushed Prigozhin truly into the public consciousness, with the group having been at the vanguard of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war around the eastern city of Bakhmut.
It was this battle, for a place that has gained symbolic value for both Kyiv and Moscow, that made the military elite in the Russian capital sit up and take notice. It will have made Progozhin enemies, even if the brutality Wagner dished out will have made some wary of lashing out against him too publicly.
It is clear that atrocities have been committed by the troops he led. My colleague Kim Sengupta interviewed a former Wagner fighter last month, someone who had been on that battlefield. While the fighter refused to speak freely about this, he did say: “Some very bad things happened there,” Sergey says. “I have seen bad things. It was not just one side – the Ukrainians shot prisoners. But there were acts against [Ukrainian] civilians that shouldn’t have happened, it’s been a dirty war…” Others have spoken about shooting prisoners of war and "tossing grenades" into ditches of Ukrainian soldiers taken.
It is not just on the frontline either. Ukraine has accused Russian forces of terrible atrocities against the civilians of Bucha and other towns and villages outside the capital Kyiv, occupied by Russian troops in the opening weeks of the invasion before being liberated by Ukraine. Both Kim and another colleague Bel Trew have witnessed the bodies left in the wake of Russia pulling out of the area. Kyiv is adamant those atrocities will be tried as war crimes. It is part of a mounting body of evidence of Russian war crimes – and Wagner will have to face that particular music, too.
The mercenary group has been involved in Ukraine since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and the tales of their brutality are long and oft-repeated. Prigozhin's forces have also been involved in Syria's civil war and have a presence in a number of African states. The trail of blood has followed them wherever they have been.
A UN report released in May detailed an incident in Mali, in the wake of an extensive fact-finding mission conducted by UN staff over several months. It accuses foreign mercenaries – believed to be from Wagner – Wagner of being involved in the slaughter hundreds of people in the village of Moura in March 2022. Only a small fraction were said to be soldiers, with many more being civilians. The allegations would mark the worst single atrocity associated with Wagner outside of Ukraine.
Violence is Wagner's language. The fact that Prigozhin led his march on Moscow shows that it is all he really understand too. So a violent end would be appropriate. Terror follows both he and his mercenaries – and we should not forget that.