How Putin Helped Rise Of Prigozhin Now Challenging Russian President

Prigozhin, who has been known as Putin’s chef for the lucrative catering contracts he got from his government, formed the private military company Wager to fight Russia’s wars and provide Russians with plausible deniability

How Putin Helped Rise Of Prigozhin Now Challenging Russian President
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) assisting Vladimir Putin during a dinner in November 2011

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In the 1990s, Yevgeny Prigozhin picked up the pieces after a nine-year jail term for robberies. He opened a hotdog stand in the northwestern Russian city of St Petersburg before working his way up. Prigozhin befriended people higher up in Russia’s second-largest city including future president Vladimir Putin, which proved critical to his meteoric rise.

Born in Leningrad (St Petersburg) in 1961, Prigozhin lost his father when he was young and got involved in petty crime after finishing school. In March 1980, 18-year-old Prigozhin and his three friends grabbed the neck of a woman walking alone close to midnight and squeezed it until she lost consciousness. They removed her gold earrings and fled but were soon caught.

A court later found it was one of many robberies Prigozhin and his gang had carried out and sentenced them to 13 years in prison. Prigozhin opened the hotdog stand after his release in 1990. He never looked back. Prigozhin first took a stake in a supermarket chain before opening a wine shop, and later a restaurant named the Old Customs House.

The who’s who of St Petersburg including its then-deputy mayor, Putin, would dine at the restaurant. In his early days as the Russian president, Putin preferred to meet foreign dignitaries in his hometown and often took them to the Old Customs House.

Thus started Prigozhin’s relationship with Putin. It would grow and help Prigozhin get contracts to cater for government events and provide supplies. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and military intervention in eastern Ukraine proved a turning point for Prigozhin.

Prigozhin formed a private military company for plausible deniability for Russia reportedly taking its name Wagner from its leader Dmitry Utkin’s nom de guerre. Utkin, a retired Russian military officer, is said to have chosen the name to honor Hitler’s favourite composer Wagner.

The Guardian reported when Prigozhin sought land for Wagner to train volunteers to fight Russia’s wars, many defence ministry officials did not like his manner. The officials were forced to relent when he made it clear that this was no ordinary request. ‘The orders come from Papa,’ The Guardian quoted Prigozhin telling the officials, using a nickname to emphasise his proximity to Putin.

Prigozhin would attend high-level meetings for defence contracts despite having no official position. The New York Times reported he was part of an unpublicized meeting between Putin and Madagascan president Hery Rajaonarimampianina in April 2018 before consultants linked to Prigozhin soon descended on Madagascar.

Two months after the meeting, Putin laughed off the claims that Prigozhin was involved in manoeuvres on Russia’s behalf. Putin maintained that Prigozhin ran a restaurant business. He compared Prigozhin to George Soros, accusing the American financier and philanthropist of interfering in affairs globally.

Putin said the US will say that it has nothing to do with him, rather it is Soros’s private affair. Putin said with them, it was Prigozhin’s private affair, effectively admitting Wagner chief worked for him.

Putin, who has been accused of killing besides imprisoning critics, was seen to be treating Prigozhin with kid gloves despite the Wagner chief getting increasingly rebellious. He vowed to launch decisive action for what he called a treasonous armed rebellion only after Prigozhin started his aborted insurrection.

Two months later, Prigozhin, 62, was killed after a private plane carrying him crashed with no survivors north of Moscow in August 2023. Russia claimed to have started a probe into the crash. But nothing was expected to come out of it amid widespread belief that Putin had Prigozhin bumped off to avenge the mutiny.

TURN OF EVENTS

Prigozhin’s importance grew when Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The ranks of Wagner’s fighters swelled with prisoner recruits as they joined the fray. Battle-hardened fighters of Wagner in Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic were sent to Ukraine to bolster Russian troops.

UN investigators and human rights groups have accused Wagner troops of targeting civilians, mass executions, and looting property there. Prigozhin, who acknowledged having founded Wagner only last fall, remained defiant. He lauded Wagner as ‘probably the most experienced army in the world today’ when his fighters captured the Ukrainian town of Soledar.

Prigozhin, who has become infamous as the cruelest commander leading Russia’s invasion, appeared to endorse a video showing a Wagner defector’s murder with a sledgehammer. He remained indispensable. Russia has used Wagner’s opacity to downplay its casualties in Ukraine and to distance itself from atrocities its fighters have committed.

In 2022, the American Department of Defense said some of the Wagner fighters appeared to have been recruited from Syria and Libya. It said that Russia appeared to be turning to them to bolster its troops in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. The group had prior experience of fighting in the region.

Prigozhin increased the presence of Wagner in Ukraine after Russia’s attempts to seize the Ukrainian capital Kyiv failed in the early days of its invasion. The private military company was until then mostly active in Syria and Africa. It operated there on Russia’s behalf and to protect Prigozhin’s business interests.

Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime came as another shot in the arm for Prigozhin as he won contracts for food and supplies. Wagner troops were later sent to Syria where they were accused of war crimes including beheading.

Wagner has exerted Russian proxy influence by fighting also in Sudan, Mali, and Mozambique on behalf of authoritarian leaders. It has seized oil and gas fields and often acted like Western military contractors.

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent, accused Prigozhin of corruptly winning defence contracts. Russian journalists too faced intimidation for investigating Prigozhin. Three of them, who travelled to the Central African Republic in 2018 to investigate Wagner’s activities, were killed in a coordinated ambush involving a security instructor linked to Wagner.

Prigozhin’s involvement in Russia’s interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election also underscored his proximity to Putin. An American federal grand jury indicted Prigozhin and 12 other Russians in February 2018 for this interference via the troll factory Internet Research Agency. The troll factory supported Donald Trump’s presidential campaign through information warfare against the United States (US) and by spreading falsehoods.

In the run-up to his aborted insurrection, Prigozhin increasingly bared his teeth. He used social media to turn what The New York Times called tough talk and brutality into his personal brand. He blamed Russia’s military leadership for ignoring the struggles of soldiers and failing in providing his forces with the ammunition they needed in Ukraine.

Prigozhin, who has been known as ‘Putin’s chef’ for the catering contracts from the Russian government, sought to suggest his fighters were more capable of making gains than the regular Russian army. He praised Wagner’s ultra-strict discipline.

Prigozhin called on Russia’s universities to fund scholarships for his convict conscripts surviving the six-month stint at the front as well as liberty and financial rewards. Prigozhin, who spent his 20s in prison, attacked supposed traitors in the elite holidaying abroad and dreaming of Russia losing the war.

He accused many in Putin’s administration of wanting to fall on their knees before the US as he presented himself as the defender of the masses, the lower classes. Neither money nor power is believed to be the sole motivating factor for Prigozhin. He sees himself battling corrupt elites on behalf of the common man.

Prigozhin criticised top security officials as deskbound bureaucrats and spewed profanities as he became what The New York Times called a ‘symbol of wartime Russia: ruthless, shameless and lawless.’

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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