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Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? The exiled Wagner Group mercenary chief who rebelled against Putin


Once a low-profile businessman who benefited from having President Vladimir Putin as a powerful patron, Yevgeny Prigozhin moved into the global spotlight with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

As the leader of a mercenary force who depicts himself as fighting many of the Russian military’s toughest battles in Ukraine, the 62-year-old Prigozhin has now moved into his most dangerous role yet: preaching open rebellion against his country’s military leadership.

Prigozhin, owner of the Kremlin-allied Wagner Group, has escalated what have been months of scathing criticism of Russia’s conduct of the war by calling on Friday for an armed uprising to oust the defense minister. Russian security services reacted immediately, opening a criminal investigation and demanding Prigozhin’s arrest.

Prigozhin has repeatedly condemned Russia’s regular army leaders

(AP)

In a sign of how seriously the Kremlin took Prigozhin’s threat, riot police and the National Guard scrambled to tighten security at key facilities in Moscow, including government agencies and transport infrastructure, Tass reported. Prigozhin, a onetime felon, hot-dog vendor and longtime associate of Putin, urged Russians to join his “march to justice”.

‘Putin’s chef’

Prigozhin and Putin go way back, with both born in Leningrad, now known as St Petersburg.

During the final years of the Soviet Union, Prigozhin served time in prison – 10 years by his own admission –although he does not say what it was for.

Afterwards, he owned a hot dog stand and then fancy restaurants that drew interest from Putin. In his first term, the Russian leader took then-French President Jacques Chirac to dine at one of them.

“Vladimir Putin saw how I built a business out of a kiosk, he saw that I don’t mind serving to the esteemed guests because they were my guests,” Prigozhin recalled in an interview published in 2011.

His businesses expanded significantly to catering and providing school lunches. In 2010, Putin helped open Prigozhin’s factory that was built on generous loans by a state bank. In Moscow alone, his company Concord won millions of pounds in contracts to provide meals at public schools. He also organised catering for Kremlin events for several years – earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef” – and has provided catering and utility services to the Russian military.

In 2017, opposition figure and corruption fighter Alexei Navalny accused Prigozhin’s companies of breaking antitrust laws by bidding for around £300m in defence ministry contracts.

Prigozhin shows Putin his school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg in 2010

(SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Military connection

Prigozhin also owns the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-allied mercenary force that has come to play a central role in Putin’s projection of Russian influence in trouble spots around the world.

The United States, European Union, United Nations and others say the mercenary force has involved itself in conflicts in countries across Africa in particular. Wagner fighters allegedly provide security for national leaders or warlords in exchange for lucrative payments, often including a share of gold or other natural resources. US officials say Russia may also be using Wagner’s work in Africa to support its war in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Prigozhin’s mercenaries have become a major force in the war, fighting as counterparts to the Russian army in battles aainst Ukrainian forces.

That includes Wagner fighters taking Bakhmut, the city where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place. By last month, Wagner Group and Russian forces appeared to have largely won Bakhmut, a victory with strategically slight importance for Russia despite the cost in lives. The US estimates that nearly half of the 20,000 Russian troops killed in Ukraine since December were Wagner fighters in Bakhmut. His soldiers-for-hire included inmates recruited from Russia’s prisons.

A poster of a Russian soldier with a slogan reading ‘Glory to the heroes of Russia’ stands opposite the PMC Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg

(AFP via Getty Images)

Raging against Russia’s generals

As his forces fought and died en masse in Ukraine, Prigozhin raged against Russia’s military top brass. In a video released by his team last month, Prigozhin stood next to rows of bodies he said were those of Wagner fighters. He accused Russia’s regular military of incompetence and of starving his troops of the weapons and ammunition they needed to fight.

“These are someone’s fathers and someone’s sons,” Prigozhin said then. “The scum that doesn’t give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell.”

A ‘bad actor’ in the US

Prigozhin earlier gained more limited attention in the US, when he and a dozen other Russian nationals and three Russian companies were charged with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory.

They were indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. The US treasury department has sanctioned Prigozhin and associates repeatedly in connection with both his alleged election interference and his leadership of the Wagner Group.

After the 2018 indictment, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Prigozhin as saying, in a clearly sarcastic remark: “Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I treat them with great respect. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

The Biden White House called him “a known bad actor,” and state department spokesperson Ned Price said Prigozhin’s “bold confession, if anything, appears to be just a manifestation of the impunity that crooks and cronies enjoy under President Putin and the Kremlin”.

Masks showing the faces of Putin, Prigozhin, and Chechnya’s regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, left, on display at a souvenir shop in St Petersburg

(Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Avoiding challenges to Putin

As Prigozhin grew more outspoken against the way Russia’s conventional military conducted fighting in Ukraine, he continued to play a seemingly indispensable role for the Russian offensive, and appeared to suffer no retaliation from Putin for his criticism of Putin’s generals.

Media reports at times suggested Prigozhin’s influence on Putin was growing and he was after a prominent political post. But analysts warned against overestimating his influence with Putin.

“He’s not one of Putin’s close figures or a confidant,” said Mark Galeotti of University College, London, who specialises in Russian security affairs, speaking on his podcast, In Moscow’s Shadows.

“Prigozhin does what the Kremlin wants and does very well for himself in the process. But that’s the thing – he is part of the staff rather than part of the family,” Galeotti said.


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