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 the leadership of the country’s military.
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 Friday for an armed uprising to oust the defense minister. Russian security services reacted immediately, opening a criminal investigation and urging Prigozhin’s arrest.
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.”
Prigozhin and Putin go way back, with both born in Leningrad, what is 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.
Afterward, 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 dollars in contracts to provide meals at public schools. He also organized 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 some $387 million in Defense Ministry contracts.
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. U.S. 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 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 U.S. 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.
WHAT IS THE GROUP’S REPUTATION?
Western countries and United Nations experts have accused Wagner Group mercenaries of committing numerous human rights abuses throughout 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 in their grisly brutality.
In November 2022, a video surfaced online that showed a former Wagner contractor getting beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he allegedly fled to the Ukrainian side and was recaptured. Despite public outrage and a stream of demands for an investigation, the Kremlin turned a blind eye to it.
RAGING AGAINST RUSSIA’S GENERALS
As his forces fought and died en masse in Ukraine, Prigozhin raged against Russia’s military brass. In a video released by his team last month, 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 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.”
CRITICIZING THE BRASS
Prigozhin has castigated the top military brass, accusing top-ranking officers of incompetence. His remarks were unprecedented for Russia’s tightly controlled political system, in which only Putin could air such criticism.
Earlier this month, Putin reaffirmed his trust in the Russian military’s General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, by putting him in direct charge of the Russian forces in Ukraine, a move that some observers also interpreted as an attempt to cut Prigozhin down to size. Prigozhin somewhat toned down his harangues against the military leadership after that, but remained defiant.
Asked recently about a media comparison of him with Grigory Rasputin, a mystic who gained fatal influence over Russia’s last czar by claiming to have the power to cure his son’s hemophilia, Prigozhin snapped: “I don’t stop blood, but I spill blood of the enemies of our Motherland.”
A ‘BAD ACTOR’ IN THE US
Prigozhin earlier gained more limited attention in the U.S., when he and a dozen other Russian nationals and three Russian companies were charged in the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 in that episode called him “a known bad actor,” and State Department spokesman 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.”
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 specializes 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.
Ellen Knickmeyer, The Associated Press