NIAS Europe Studies

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NIAS Europe Studies
The Wagner Revolt: A profile of Yevgeny Prigozhin

  Sneha Surendran

About the Author

Sneha Surendran is a Research Intern in NIAS Europe Studies.

Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, 62, walked away seemingly unharmed after he led a short-lived rebellion on Russia’s soil. Prigozhin’s name has occasionally cropped up in the international arena, but on 23 June he grabbed the world’s attention when he ordered the troops of his private military force, Wagner, to march to Moscow. Beyond his persona as the leader of the Wagner group, Prigozhin is a man who has worn multiple hats. 

It all began in St Petersburg
Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin is a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, the same as Vladimir Putin. His mother was a hospital nurse while his father, a mining engineer, died when Prigozhin was nine. His stepfather, a ski instructor, sparked an interest in cross-country skiing in the young boy. Prigozhin joined and graduated from the Leningrad Sports Boarding School in 1977. However, an injury put an end to his sports dreams. Prigozhin’s entry into the world of crime began early when at the age of 18, he was first sentenced to prison for theft. 

Although the jail term was suspended, in a couple of years he received a 13-year jail term for robbery and theft. Prigozhin spent the next nine years in prison. Following his release in 1990, he set up a stable hot dog stall business with his family. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Prigozhin began looking for opportunities in the entrepreneurial and business sectors. By 1995, he was able to establish himself in the food catering industry, opening restaurants and food catering companies under his major enterprise, Concord Catering. This was to become his first steps to the corridors of power.

As business flourished, Prigozhin began interacting with the elite class of Russia’s society. Concord Catering started to get good reviews from its customers, leading to even the military calling for its services. A businessman who knew Prigozhin at the time, remarked: “He can adapt to please any person if he needs something from them. That is definitely one of his talents.” 

And then came to Moscow as Putin’s Chef
While Prigozhin was raising his business empire, Vladimir Putin had been climbing the political ladder. Once Putin became President, Prigozhin’s catering business flourished with contracts from the Kremlin and the military. One of Putin’s favoured spots for dining was Prigozhin’s boat restaurant named ‘Novyi Ostrov’ or New Island in the Neva River that runs alongside St. Petersburg. Here, he hosted his foreign guests as well as had personal celebrations. Through these events, Prigozhin’s ties to Putin began strengthening. Prigozhin once remarked: “Vladimir Putin…saw that I had no problem serving plates to dignitaries in person.” This is corroborated by the many photographs available that depict Putin sharing a meal with dignitaries like the former US President George Bush, with Prigozhin in the background. 

“Prigozhin has had a tough relationship with the Russian military leaders. However, these connections soured during the time he spent leading Wagner in the Ukraine invasion….”
Grows further but in the shadows to build the Wagner empire across continents. Over time, Prigozhin’s companies began earning billions of dollars’ worth of catering contracts from schools and colleges in Moscow, facilitated by his political connections. In fact, since 2013, 90 percent of catering contracts from the Russia’s defence ministry have been in the hands of Prigozhin’s network. Eventually, Prigozhin came to be known as “Putin’s chef.” At the same time, Putin too would benefit politically from his relationship with the businessman as there was more to Prigozhin than just being “Putin’s chef.”

This began with the origins of Wagner, a private military company that first came on the international radar in 2014. Russia had invaded and annexed Crimea, while Russia’s backed separatists were creating unrest in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk cities. At the time, there were reports of uniformed soldiers dubbed as “little green men” in the regions of tension. Wearing masks, carrying weapons, and donning green uniforms but without the Russia’s insignia, it was speculated that some of these men belonged to the little-known Wagner group. Although the group is thought to be the brainchild of Dmitry Utkin, a veteran military officer and Nazi propagandist, evidence to verify the true extent of his connection to Wagner is scarce. The EU considers Utkin as the founder of Wagner, responsible for “coordinating and planning operations for the deployment.” Meanwhile, Prigozhin has been the face of Wagner before the world. Prigozhin has been the face of Wagner before the world.

While Prigozhin and the Wagner group operated in the shadows for a long time, they came into the spotlight to support Russia’s military in the Ukraine invasion. However, for a long time, Prigozhin staunchly refused any ties with the mercenary group. In fact, he even sued journalists who implied the opposite. Russia denied any connection to Wagner. In 2022, Wagner registered in Russia as a joint stock company named ‘PMC Wagner Centre.’ Finally, in September 2022, Prigozhin admitted to creating Wagner, saying that he previously denied it to protect the group, stating: “I cleaned the old weapons myself…found specialists who could help me with this…on 1 May 2014, a group of patriots was born…called the Wagner Battalion.” Prigozhin reportedly recruited Wagner troops from Russia’s prisons, promising them freedom if they lasted for six months. These recruits were often people with military experience or a history of violence. To bring them into Wagner’s fold, Prigozhin is said to have cited his own prison experiences with the criminals. 

Apart from the military sector, Prigozhin also operated in the cyber space on behalf of the state. In November 2022, Prigozhin admitted to meddling in the US’s 2016 Presidential elections. In a post made through the press service of Concord Catering, he stated: "We have interfered (in U.S. elections), we are interfering, and we will continue to interfere. Carefully, accurately, surgically, and in our own way, as we know how to do." Furthermore, in February 2023, he revealed his connections to the company Washington had accused of interfering in the 2016 US elections, Internet Research Agency. Washington had described it as a “troll farm” for spreading disinformation online. Prigozhin revealed: “I thought it up, I created it, I managed it for a long time." He said that the organization aimed to “protect the Russian information space from the West's boorish and aggressive anti-Russian propaganda.” 

But the trouble starts with the Russia’s military leaders, and ends in a revolt
Prigozhin has had a tough relationship with Russia’s military leaders. However, these connections soured during the time he spent leading Wagner in the Ukraine invasion, especially during the battle of Bakhmut. He repeatedly spoke out against the competence of the military leaders, alleging that they refused to supply his troops with ammunition, calling it a deliberate move to undermine Wagner. He went so far as to imply that the leaders were committing treason. In one of his online rants, he stated: “The shells are lying in warehouses, they are resting there…There are people who fight, and there are people who have learned once in their lives that there must be a reserve, and they save, save, save those reserves…Instead of spending a shell to kill the enemy, they kill our soldiers. And happy grandfather thinks this is okay.” When netizens connected the “grandfather” comment to Putin, Prigozhin was quick to deny it. During his participation in the Ukraine war, he extensively made use of social media to post updates regarding the victories of Wagner and criticism of the military. 

So, what next for Prigozhin?
The tension between Prigozhin and the military leaders finally culminated in the Wagner rebellion on 23 June. Prigozhin’s troops captured Rostov-on-Don, a military base and began marching towards Moscow. While Putin denounced the rebellion as treason, Prigozhin stated that the revolt was not against Putin, but rather the defence leadership whom he accused of firing a missile at his troops. The revolt ended when Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s President negotiated a truce according to which, all charges against Prigozhin were dropped by the state and he was allowed refuge in Belarus. The latest reports locate Prigozhin in Belarus, where he was recently shown welcoming Wagner troops. In a video message, he said that they would no longer be involved in the Ukraine invasion, rather focussing on Africa.  

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s narrative is complicated. He has owned restaurants, media companies and a private military force, and indulged in selling hot dogs and even writing a children’s storybook. He is wanted by multiple agencies for charges ranging from corruption, human rights violations, and war crimes. Furthermore, Russia is working to erase Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who undermined their authority, from the public memory while taking over his business enterprises.

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