Russian state TV on Wednesday launched a fierce attack on Yevgeny Prigozhin, the exiled mercenary leader of an aborted armed mutiny last month, and said an investigation into what had happened was still being vigorously pursued.
Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, took control of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on June 24, seized the command center there where Russia coordinates its war in Ukraine, and sent a column of fighters towards Moscow before standing down after striking a deal with the Kremlin.
His mutiny posed the biggest threat to President Vladimir Putin since the Russian leader came to power more than two decades ago and has forced the Kremlin to move into a damage-limitation exercise in which it has stressed the loyalty of the armed forces and the unity of society in the face of treachery.
Under the agreement which ended the mutiny, Prigozhin, whose aim had been to topple the defense minister and chief of the General Staff for what he cast as their incompetent prosecution of the war, was meant to relocate to neighboring Belarus. In exchange, criminal charges against him were meant to be dropped.
But in a program called “60 Minutes” broadcast on Wednesday evening on the state Rossiya-1 TV channel, what was billed as exclusive footage shot during law enforcement raids of Prigozhin’s office in St Petersburg and one of his estates there was shown.
The program’s host, lawmaker Yevgeny Popov, called Prigozhin “a traitor” and the footage was presented by a specially invited guest – journalist Eduard Petrov – as proof of Prigozhin’s criminal past and hypocrisy in calling out corruption in the armed forces.
The footage showed boxes full of high-denomination rubles in his office and bundles of dollars in his luxurious residence along with what was called his personal helicopter, an arms cache, a collection of wigs, a fully equipped medical treatment room, and a collection of souvenir sledge hammers, the tool Wagner allegedly used to bludgeon traitors to death in videos that surfaced online.
“Nobody planned to close this case. The investigation is ongoing,” said Petrov, who said investigators had concluded that a video used by Prigozhin as a pretext to start the mutiny which showed an alleged Russian strike on a mercenary camp was a fake.
Images of armed Russian law enforcement agents entering Prigozhin’s office were shown.
“I consider that the creation of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s image as a people’s hero was all done by media fed by Yevgeny Prigozhin,” said Petrov, referring to media outlets financed by Prigozhin. “After it failed, they quickly closed and fled.”
He said cash worth 600 million rubles ($6.58 million) had found in Prigozhin’s properties.
Prigozhin has said Wagner only dealt with cash, which it used to pay expenses. Putin has said the state financed Wagner.
The program showed what it said were multiple passports which Prigozhin had used and which carried different names.
“A normal person can’t have so many passports,” said Petrov. “Why did this person have such strange powers like the serious leader of some kind of criminal group,” he asked.
“We need to get to the bottom of who was on whose side [in the mutiny]. We need to punish and prosecute them.”