Mercenary leader who called for uprising against Russian generals has long-standing ties to Putin
The millionaire mercenary leader who has long enjoyed the powerful patronage of President Vladimir Putin has moved into the global spotlight with a dramatic rebellion against the Russian military that has challenged the authority of Putin himself.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is the 62-year-old owner of the Kremlin-allied Wagner Group, a private army of detained recruits and other mercenaries that fought some of the deadliest battles in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Friday, Prigozhin sharply escalated months of scathing criticism of Russia’s conduct of the war, calling for an armed uprising to oust the defense minister and then rolling towards Moscow with his hired soldiers.
As Putin’s government sounded an “anti-terror” alert and rushed to cordon off Moscow with checkpoints, Prigozhin just as abruptly pulled out the next day. As part of the deal to de-escalate the crisis, he agreed to surrender to Belarus and was seen late Saturday withdrawing with his forces from Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia where they had taken control of military headquarters.
It was unclear what was next for Prigozhin, a former prison inmate, hot dog vendor and restaurant owner who captured the world’s attention.
Prigozhin and Putin go back a long way, both born in Leningrad, present-day Saint Petersburg.
During the last years of the Soviet Union, Prigozhin served a prison term – 10 years by his own admission – although he does not say what it was for.
Subsequently, he owned a hot dog stand, then fancy restaurants that piqued Putin’s interest. During his first term, the Russian leader took then French President Jacques Chirac to dinner at one.
“Vladimir Putin saw how I built a business from a kiosk, he saw that I didn’t mind serving esteemed guests because they were my guests,” Prigozhin recalled in an interview published in 2011.
His businesses have expanded significantly into catering and the provision of school meals. In 2010 Putin helped open the Prigozhin factory, which was built with generous loans from a state bank. In Moscow alone, his company Concord has won multi-million dollar contracts to supply meals to public schools. He also organized catering for Kremlin events for several years – earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef” – and provided catering and utility services to the Russian military.
In 2017, opposition figure and corruption fighter Alexei Navalny accused Prigozhin’s firms of violating antitrust laws by bidding for some $387 million in Defense Ministry contracts.
Prigozhin also owns the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-allied mercenary force that now plays 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 become involved in conflicts in particular African countries. Wagner’s fighters would provide security for national leaders or warlords in return for lucrative payments, often including a share of gold or other natural resources. US officials say Russia could also use Wagner’s work in Africa to support its war in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, Prigozhin mercenaries became a major force in the war, fighting as counterparts of the Russian army in battles with Ukrainian forces.
This includes Wagner’s fighters taking Bakhmut, the city where the bloodiest and longest battles took place. Last month, the Wagner Group and Russian forces appeared to have largely won Bakhmut, a victory of minor strategic importance for Russia despite the cost in lives. Prigozhin said 20,000 of his men died at Bakhmut, about half of whom were inmates recruited from Russian prisons.
What is the band’s reputation?
Western countries and United Nations experts have accused the Wagner Group mercenaries of committing numerous human rights violations across Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
In December 2021, the European Union accused the group of “serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings”, and of carrying out “destabilizing activities” in the Central African Republic, Libya , Syria and Ukraine.
Some of the reported incidents stood out for their gruesome brutality.
In November 2022, a video surfaced online showing a former Wagner contractor being beaten to death with a hammer after allegedly fleeing to the Ukrainian side and being recaptured. Despite public outrage and a flood of demands for an investigation, the Kremlin turned a blind eye.
Rage against the Russian generals
As his forces fought and died en masse in the Ukraine, Prigozhin raged against the Russian military staff. 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 the Russian regular army of incompetence and of starving its troops of the arms and ammunition they needed to fight.
“They are someone’s fathers and someone’s sons,” Prigozhin said then. “The scum who don’t give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell.”
Criticize the brass
Prigozhin lambasted senior army officers, accusing senior officers of incompetence. His remarks were unprecedented for Russia’s tightly controlled political system, in which only Putin could issue such criticism.
In January, Putin reaffirmed his confidence in the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian army, General Valery Gerasimov, by placing him in direct command of Russian forces in Ukraine, a decision that some observers have also interpreted as an attempt to reduce Prigozhin to size.
Asked recently about a media comparison comparing him to Grigori Rasputin, a mystic who gained influence over the last Tsar of Russia by claiming to have the power to cure his son’s hemophilia, Prigozhin replied curtly: “I don’t not stop the blood, but I spill the blood of the enemies of our fatherland.
A “bad actor” in the United States
Earlier, Prigozhin attracted more limited attention in the United States, when he and a dozen other Russian nationals and three Russian companies were accused of carrying out a secret social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord before the Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016.
They were charged as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. The US Treasury Department has sanctioned Prigozhin and his associates on several occasions for his interference in the elections 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 to be on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.
Biden’s White House in that episode called him a “known bad actor,” and State Department spokesman Ned Price said that “Prigozhin’s bold confessions, if any, only seem to be a manifestation of the impunity enjoyed by crooks and cronies under President Putin and the Kremlin.”
Avoid challenges to Putin
As Prigozhin became more outspoken against the Russian conventional military’s way of fighting in Ukraine, he continued to play a seemingly indispensable role for the Russian offensive and appeared to face no reprisals from Putin for his actions. criticism of Putin’s generals.
The media sometimes suggested that Prigozhin’s influence over Putin was growing and that he was seeking a high political position. But analysts have warned against overestimating his influence with Putin.
“He is not one of Putin’s relatives or a confidant,” said Mark Galeotti of University College London, who specializes in Russian security affairs, speaking on his “In Moscow’s Shadows” podcast.
“Prigozhin does what the Kremlin wants and does very well. But that’s the problem – he’s part of the staff rather than the family,” Galeotti said.