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Profile: The Wagner Group and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin

Profile: The Wagner Group and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin

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 Mr Prigozhin has now moved into his most dangerous role yet: preaching open rebellion against his country’s military leadership.

On Friday, Mr Prigozhin, the owner of the Kremlin-allied group, escalated months of scathing criticism over Russia’s conduct in the war by calling for an armed uprising to oust the defence minister.

The Wagner leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin go way back, with both born in Leningrad, now St Petersburg.

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

Vladimir Putin
Mr Putin denounced the move in Rostov-on-Don in an address to the nation (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Afterwards, he owned a hot dog stand and then restaurants that drew interest from Mr Putin.

In his first term, the Russian leader took then-French president Jacques Chirac to dine at one of these restaurants.

“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,” Mr Prigozhin recalled in an interview published in 2011.

His businesses expanded significantly to catering and providing school lunches. In 2010, Mr Putin helped open Mr Prigozhin’s factory, which was built thanks to generous loans by a state bank.

In Moscow alone, his company Concord won millions of dollars in contracts to provide meals for schools.

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Soldiers on the streets
Russian servicemen in Rostov-on-Don (Vasily Deryugin, Kommersant Publishing House via AP)

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 anti-corruption fighter Alexei Navalny accused Mr Prigozhin’s companies of breaking competition laws by bidding for some 387 million dollars (£304 million) in defence ministry contracts.

Mr Prigozhin’s Wagner Group has come to play a central role in Mr 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.

Prigozhin and Putin
Mr Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who helped open a factory which produces school meals in 2010 outside St Petersburg (Kremlin via AP)

US officials say Russia may also be using Wagner’s work in Africa to support its war in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Mr Prigozhin’s mercenaries have become a major force in the war, fighting as counterparts to the Russian army in battles with 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. The soldiers-for-hire included inmates recruited from Russia’s prisons.

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As his forces fought and died en masse in Ukraine, Mr Prigozhin raged against Russia’s military top brass.

Wagner HQ
The PMC Wagner Centre is based in St Petersburg (AP)

In a video released by his team last month, Mr Prigozhin stood next to rows 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 need to fight.

“These are someone’s fathers and someone’s sons,” Mr Prigozhin said at the time.

“The scum that doesn’t give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell.”

Earlier, Mr Prigozhin had 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 US special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.

The US treasury department has sanctioned Mr 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 Mr Prigozhin as saying: “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.”

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The Biden White House called him “a known bad actor”, and US state department spokesman Ned Price said Mr 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”.

As Mr 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 Mr Putin over his criticism of the President’s top generals.

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

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

“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.”

  • June 24, 2023