Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man behind the Wagner Group?
Vladimir Putin’s fixer has finally admitted that he recruits mercenaries
THIS WEEK Yevgeny Prigozhin stepped out of the shadows. The close ally of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, admitted for the first time that he is the founder of Wagner, a group of mercenaries that do Russia’s dirty work. “I cleaned the old weapons myself, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself,” said Mr Prigozhin, referring to the early days of the Wagner Group. He called his private soldiers “heroes”. His admission came after a video, circulated on September 13th, appeared to show him recruiting convicts to boost Russia’s manpower in Ukraine. He promised them freedom in exchange for six months of combat (if they survive that long). Who is Mr Prigozhin, and why does his growing prominence matter?
Little is known about Mr Prigozhin’s childhood. He spent most of his 20s in prison, serving nine years for robbery, fraud and involving teenagers in crime. After his release, he set up a hot-dog stand in St Petersburg in the 1990s. He soon expanded into chic eateries—his New Island floating restaurant was a favourite of Mr Putin, a former deputy mayor of the city. His good relations with Russia’s elite brought in lucrative catering contracts for schools, hospitals and the army. But it was his operations outside the kitchen that cemented his nickname, “Putin’s Chef”. These included the Internet Research Agency, which a grand jury in America termed a “troll farm” used to meddle in the 2016 presidential elections. In 2014 he founded Wagner, the first and largest state-linked business of private military contractors operating in Ukraine, where they bolstered the ranks of Russia’s unmarked soldiers who annexed Crimea and stayed to support pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
The shady network of mercenaries—reportedly named after Hitler’s favourite composer and co-founded by Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian soldier with multiple Nazi tattoos—has operated almost wherever Russia has an interest, including in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali. Journalists have reported allegations of torture, rape and extrajudicial killings in its wake. Deploying mercenaries instead of its own troops has allowed Russia plausible deniability. Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine the group is believed to have played a key role in the capture of several eastern cities. It made up for initial shortages of soldiers and allowed Russia to play down casualties. Mark Galeotti, of Mayak Intelligence, a consultancy that focuses on Russia, estimates that at its peak it provided 10,000 men. As Russia brings in new conscripts of dubious quality and morale, Wagner troops may be used to provide resolve and experience.
For many years Mr Prigozhin has vehemently denied any involvement. He has even sued journalists for suggesting he had links to the group. But he is believed to have profited handsomely from the bloody operations by seizing control of oil fields in Syria and diamond mines in CAR. Now he’s putting his name to it. One reason may be that Russia’s tattered relationship with the West means that there is no longer a point in maintaining the open secret. He may also be reminding the Kremlin of his value. But, says Mr Galeotti, Mr Prigozhin is unlikely to step much further into the limelight. “He can break the rules when the Kremlin needs him to,” he says. He argues that Mr Prigozhin is strongest when operating on the fringes of politics; greater scrutiny could make the thuggish operator a liability to the Kremlin.
As Mr Putin faces painful reversals in Ukraine, the members of his syndicate are asserting themselves. Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to Alexei Navalny, a jailed opposition leader, calls Mr Prigozhin “the most dangerous criminal in Putin’s entourage”. The oligarch’s growing prominence illustrates the debasement of the state in Russian politics. Private armies erode its monopoly on firepower. The battlefield blunders also sharpen the debate between advocates of greater mobilisation and those in favour of retaining some semblance of democratic politics and a market economy. Mr Prigozhin’s rising voice bolsters the hawks. ■
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