Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man behind the Wagner Group?
TA WEEK Yevgeny Prigozhin stepped out of the shadows. A close friend of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, admitted for the first time that he was the founder of Wagner, a group of mercenaries who do Russia’s dirty work. “I cleaned the old weapons myself, I fixed the bulletproof vests myself,” Mr Prigozhin said, referring to the early days of the Wagner Group. He called his private soldiers “heroes”. he entered after a video, circulated on September 13, appeared to show him recruiting criminals to encourage Russian troops in Ukraine. He promised them freedom in exchange for six months of fighting (if they survive (so long).Who is Mr. Prigozhin, and why does his publicity become important?
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 restaurants – his floating restaurant in New Island was a favorite of Mr Putin, who was the city’s deputy mayor. His good relations with the Russian elite included lucrative supply contracts for schools, hospitals and the army. But it was his work outside the kitchen that cemented his nickname, “Putin’s Chef”. Among them was the Internet Research Group, which an American grand jury called a “troll farm” that used to be involved in the 2016 presidential elections. In 2014 he founded Wagner, the first and the largest state-linked business of private military contractors operating in Ukraine, where they supported the levels of unmarked Russian troops deployed in Crimea and stayed to support to pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
The shadowy network of mercenaries – named after Hitler’s favorite composer and co-founded by Dmitry Utkin, a Russian ex-soldier with multiple Nazi tattoos – has operated almost anywhere it is interested Russia, including in Syria, Libya, Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali. Journalists have reported allegations of torture, rape and extrajudicial killings in his wake. Using mercenaries instead of its own troops has allowed Russia to give plausible deniability. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, it is believed that the group has played a key role in the capture of several towns in the east. It made up for the lack of troops at first and allowed Russia to stop taking casualties. Mark Galeotti, of Mayak Intelligence, a Russia-focused consultancy, estimates he provided 10,000 men at peak. As Russia introduces new orders of dubious quality and courage, Wagner’s troops can be used to provide solutions and experience.
For several years Mr. Prigozhin has vehemently denied his involvement. He has even sued journalists for claiming he had links to the group. But he is believed to have profited greatly from the bloody operations by taking control of oil fields in Syria and diamond mines in CAR. Now he signs it. One reason may be that the relationship between Russia and the West means that there is no longer a reason to maintain the open secret. Perhaps it also reminds him of his value to the Kremlin. But, says Mr Galeotti, Mr Prigozhin is unlikely to join much later. “He can break the rules when the Kremlin needs him to,” he says. He argues that Mr Prigozhin is strongest when he is working on the fringes of politics; more investigation could make the thuggish operator accountable to the Kremlin.
As Mr. Putin faces a painful revolution in Ukraine, his syndicate members are asserting themselves. Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, calls Mr Prigozhin “the most dangerous criminal in Putin’s entourage”. The growing prominence of the oligarch reflects the decline of the state in Russian politics. Private armies erode their monopoly on firepower. The blunders of the nursery also sharpen the debate between advocates for more mobility and those who want to maintain some commitment to democratic politics and a market economy. The rising voice of Mr. Prigozhin strengthens the hawks. ■
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