‘Putin’s Chef’ Steps Out of the Shadows

Yevgeny Prigozhin wants to ride the Wagner Group to greater glory.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin shows then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory.
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin shows then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory.
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin shows then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 20, 2010. Alexey Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP

After years of vehement denials, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, acknowledged last week that he founded the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit that has been deployed around the world, including to Ukraine.

The admission is a sharp departure for Prigozhin, who has sued journalists for linking him to the group, which has been accused of committing gross human rights abuses in Africa, Syria, and Ukraine. The businessman’s efforts to burnish his credentials as a commander comes as Putin is under increasing pressure, with the Russian armed forces plagued by low morale and high casualties, prompting speculation as to future ambitions. Russia’s latest military debacle took place on the Kherson front in southern Ukraine between Sunday and Monday, threatening a mass Ukrainian encirclement of tens of thousands of ill-equipped troops.

“Wagnerites tell me they’d vote for him over Putin any time, and it seems to me he smells blood,” Christo Grozev, lead Russia investigator with the open-source investigative group Bellingcat, wrote on Twitter.

After years of vehement denials, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, acknowledged last week that he founded the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit that has been deployed around the world, including to Ukraine.

The admission is a sharp departure for Prigozhin, who has sued journalists for linking him to the group, which has been accused of committing gross human rights abuses in Africa, Syria, and Ukraine. The businessman’s efforts to burnish his credentials as a commander comes as Putin is under increasing pressure, with the Russian armed forces plagued by low morale and high casualties, prompting speculation as to future ambitions. Russia’s latest military debacle took place on the Kherson front in southern Ukraine between Sunday and Monday, threatening a mass Ukrainian encirclement of tens of thousands of ill-equipped troops.

“Wagnerites tell me theyd vote for him over Putin any time, and it seems to me he smells blood,” Christo Grozev, lead Russia investigator with the open-source investigative group Bellingcat, wrote on Twitter.

In a post on the Russian social networking site VK, Prigozhin claimed he founded the group in 2014 in the early days of the war in eastern Ukraine. “I myself cleaned the old weapons, looked into bulletproof vests,” he wrote. “From that moment … a group of patriots was born.”

A convict-turned-catering magnate, Prigozhin, who hails from Putin’s native St. Petersburg, has long served as a kind of fixer for the Russian president, earning him the nickname “Putin’s Chef.” He has proven willing to do the Kremlin’s dirty work, funding creative and often nefarious schemes to advance the Kremlin’s geopolitical goals while publicly enabling Russian officials to deny any knowledge of his activities.

His role in establishing the social media “troll factory,” which sought to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and in bankrolling the Wagner Group has been well documented by investigative journalists and in Western sanctions designations. But Prigozhin has shied away from the limelight—until now.

Prigozhin’s decision to step out from the shadows has sparked speculation that he may be looking to position himself for a more formal position in public life, capitalizing on the chaos and uncertainty brought by the war. Over the weekend, as Ukrainian forces retook the strategic hub of Lyman in Donetsk region, Prigozhin took the unusual step of siding with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in criticizing the Russian military’s execution of the war in remarks that were then amplified by Russian state TV.

In September, a video, verified by the New York Times, was posted to social media showing Prigozhin pacing around the yard of a prison, outlining his terms of recruitment to the inmates gathered around him, promising that their sentences would be wiped if they served six months and that those who didn’t make it home would receive a hero’s burial. In the past, the group has relied on the Telegram messaging app to spread the word about recruitment. But over the summer, cryptic billboard advertisements for the “W” orchestra began popping up in towns and cities across Russia as part of the group’s recruitment drive while the mercenaries have been openly praised in segments on Russia’s tightly controlled state TV.

“The most important thing about the Wagner Group in the context of the current invasion is how much they have come out of the shadows,” said Andras Toth-Czifra, a senior analyst with the threat analysis firm Flashpoint Intelligence, which tracks Russian paramilitary groups in Ukraine. Prigozhin’s use of state prisons to recruit fighters has shattered any remaining plausible deniability about links between the mercenary group and the Russian government, he noted.

Online, a dark and nationalist subculture proliferated around the Wagner Group on social media in recent years, complete with its own memes. Images of sledgehammers are a recurring theme—an apparent reference to a Syrian man who was bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer, allegedly by Wagner fighters. It is a brand that Prigozhin has been happy to indulge—reportedly financing three feature-length action films that offer a heroic and sanitized interpretation of the group’s activities in Africa, while a fourth film, The Best in Hell, about Wagner fighters in Ukraine, co-produced by Prigozhin himself, is set to be released online this month.

For his part, Prigozhin has increasingly sought to position himself as a swaggering commander, as a series of leaked videos show him jumping down from a military helicopter on a visit to a Wagner training center. In September, he attended the funeral of a Wagner commander killed in Ukraine. As the coffin lay flanked by flowers in the grand Triumphal hall at the museum on the Battle of Stalingrad in the Russian city of Volgograd, Prigozhin was filmed greeting mourners in his now-signature beige combat jacket. The grandeur seemed intended to underscore the less dignified way the Kremlin has handled its war dead, many of whom have been left on the battlefield and even booby trapped.

There is some evidence to suggest that Prigozhin’s propaganda offensive is paying off, especially now that Russia is rounding up hundreds of thousands of men for conscription. “Some people think it’s better to join them rather than be mobilized in some average military unit because at least you will be given some proper equipment,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and specialist on the country’s security services. “The PR machine of Wagner was very successful in projecting the image that Prigozhin at least looks after his people.”

This appears to be far from the truth. There is still a lot that is unknown about the group and its operations. But details pieced together from accounts from deserters and the British Ministry of Defense suggest that recruits are thrown into battle with very little training, severely undercutting their effectiveness. One inmate in a penal colony in Bryansk, Russia, visited as part of Prigozhin’s recruitment efforts, told the Russian news outlet the Insider that the businessman warned that as many as 80 percent of those who were recruited would not return home from the battlefield.

Despite making himself an indispensable tool of the Russian president, Prigozhin has few fans within the country’s military and intelligence services. “Nobody likes him because he’s not a systemic part of the security services, the military. Everybody knows he has a criminal background,” said Irina Borogan, Russian investigative journalist and specialist on its security services.

Although he may be regarded with suspicion among the rank and file, his future rests in the hands of the Russian president, who reportedly awarded him the country’s highest honor, the Hero of the Russian Federation, in secret over the summer.

“It depends on Putin,” she said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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