Yevgeny Prigozhin, the late leader of the Wagner Group, used satellites owned by a Chinese technology firm and their imagery to assist in his aborted mutiny in June, news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported on Thursday.
A document obtained by AFP shows a $30 million contract between the company Beijing Yunze Technology Co Ltd and Nika-Frut, a company then part of Prigozhin’s commercial empire, was signed on November 15, 2022, months into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The agreement saw Nika-Frut being sold two high resolution observation satellites belonging to the Chinese space giant Chang Guang Satellite Technology (CGST), which enabled the Wagner Group to obtain satellite images on demand.
Prigozhin used some of these images to assist in his failed uprising and “march of justice” toward Moscow against the Kremlin’s top brass on June 23-24, a European security source told AFP.
The late leader of the Wagner Group was killed in a private jet crash in August and the Kremlin has said the mercenary group that was once crucial to Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine has been absorbed by the Russian Defense Ministry.
According to AFP’s source, at the end of May—weeks before the mutiny—Prigozhin ordered images of Russian territory along the route between the Ukrainian border and Moscow.
Newsweek couldn’t independently verify the source’s claims and has reached out to Russia’s Foreign Ministry for comment via email.
Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny saw the late Wagner Group boss take control of two military hubs in southern Russia and advance within 120 miles of Moscow as part of a “march of justice” against the country’s military leadership.
The Wagner chief said on June 24 that his forces faced no resistance as they advanced from southern Russia to the capital. The head of the Russian National Guard, Viktor Zolotov, said at the time that Moscow concentrated all forces on the defense of the city “otherwise they would have passed through us like a knife through butter.”
Beijing and Moscow have maintained diplomatic, political and economic ties throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Weeks before the war began, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping famously announced a “friendship with no limits.” Beijing maintains that it holds a neutral position on the conflict.
Prigozhin was killed in late August, exactly two months after his uprising. The cause of the crash wasn’t immediately clear, although some reports suggest the jet was downed by Russian air defenses.
On Thursday, at an annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Putin offered a strange explanation for Prigozhin’s death, suggesting that passengers on the private jet may have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs that could have resulted in the negligent handling of grenades.
The Kremlin previously said speculation that Prigozhin had been killed on Putin’s orders was an “absolute lie.”
Following Prigozhin’s death, Putin admitted to having fully funded the Wagner Group and its operations after saying for years that mercenaries are illegal under Russian law.
“I want to point out and I want everyone to know about it: The maintenance of the entire Wagner Group was fully provided for by the state,” Putin said on June 27. “From the Ministry of Defense, from the state budget, we fully financed this group.”
News of the November 2022 contract raises questions about whether the satellite imagery allegedly used by Prigozhin to assist his mutiny was unknowingly funded by Putin himself.
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