Kremlin ‘chef’ and mercenary supremo

From accepting a major catering contract for the Kremlin to personally recruiting convicts in a prison yard to fight in Ukraine, mysterious businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to have a unique role in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The 61-year-old St Petersburg native broke cover on Monday to issue a rare personal statement confirming what many had already assumed – that he was behind the highly controversial Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) mercenary group.

But this is far from the only controversy surrounding Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by the EU and Washington, accused of election interference in the United States and threatening jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

For years, Prigozhin had irritably shrugged off claims linking him to Wagner, whose fighters fought in eastern Ukraine, Africa, Syria in 2014 and now during Russia’s 2022 intervention in Ukraine.

On Monday he confirmed he founded Wagner in 2014 and said a “group of patriots was born” who worked in Africa, Syria and even Latin America to become “pillars of our motherland”.

– ‘Friendly team’ –

Earlier this month, video surfaced of a bald man who closely resembles Prigozhin in a prison yard offering prisoners contracts to fight in Ukraine on appalling terms.

“If you serve six months, you go home and you’re free. If you want to stay (with Wagner), you can. Nobody goes back to prison.

“If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we will consider it desertion and shoot you. Any questions guys?” said the man.

“The first sin is desertion. Nobody gives themselves up,” he said, adding that recruits should have grenades with them in case of capture. “When you die, your body will be taken to the location you entered on the form.”

It is not possible to verify if the man in the video is Prigozhin, but a statement on his behalf from his Concord holding company did not deny he was.

She quoted him as saying, “Of course, if I were a prisoner, I would dream of joining this friendly team to not only redeem my debt to the Motherland, but also to be able to repay it with interest.”

He added, “Those who don’t want PMCs (private military companies) to fight…then send your kids to the front lines.”

– “Putin’s boss” –

Prigozhin rose from humble circumstances to the closer circle around Putin, who also comes from the former imperial capital on the Baltic Sea.

He spent nine years in prison in the latter part of the USSR after being convicted of fraud and theft and emerging in 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed.

In the chaos of the 1990s, he started a moderately successful business selling hot dogs.

From there he went into the restaurant business and opened a luxury eatery in Saint Petersburg, where Putin was among the customers, and then switched from working in the Soviet KGB to local politics.

The Concord catering group he founded once worked for the Kremlin and earned Prigozhin the nickname “Putin’s Chef”.

But the sheer range of his acknowledged and purported interests has made this name somewhat of a misnomer.

– ‘Troll Factory’ –

Prigozhin avoids the limelight and there are hardly any pictures of the man, who rarely appears in public. When he’s caught on camera, it’s with a shaved head, a piercing gaze, and usually in a dark suit.

One of the most famous images shows him in the Kremlin in 2011, bending over a seated Putin while offering him a dish, while the Russian leader looks back with an appreciative look.

Reports in Russian media have described him as a billionaire with a vast fortune based on state contracts, although the true extent of his fortune is unknown.

He was sanctioned by Washington, which accused him of playing a role in meddling in the 2016 presidential election, particularly through his internet “troll factory.”

Prigozhin denied any involvement and in March demanded $50 billion in compensation from the United States.

– Feud with Navalny –

He has always denied any connections to Wagner, who is accused of abuse and interference not only in Ukraine but also in Syria, Libya and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

In July 2018, three journalists working for an investigative media outlet investigating Wagner’s operations in Central African Republic were killed in an ambush.

Western countries have accused Wagner of coming to the aid of the military junta in Mali, which contributed to France’s decision to end a nearly decade-long military operation there.

Prigozhin has been unusually vocal after the poisoning of Navalny, who fell ill on a flight in Siberia and was then transferred to Germany for treatment in 2020.

The two never made a secret of their enmity. Navalny’s anti-corruption group accused a company that worked with Concord of serving food in schools that is dangerous to children’s health.

Prigozhin sued Navalny for defamation, and a court ordered the group of activists to pay more than $1 million in damages.

Without mincing words, Prigozhin said: “I intend to strip this group of unscrupulous people of their clothes and shoes.”