Yevgeny Prigozhin, the powerful founder of the Wagner Group who dares to criticize the Russian army
- BBC News World
From a hot dog stand to founding Russia’s most powerful private army, the Wagner Group.
Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin has become one of the most powerful men in Russia and one of the figures closest to President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian businessman, known as “Putin’s chef”, started selling sausagesbut very soon he managed to amass a great fortune, which allowed him to move from the world of catering to politics, the media and from there to the business of war.
The United States and other governments also accuse him of leading a “troll factory” In Internet, with which he has tried to influence the elections of different countries.
But if Prigozhin’s name has been making headlines of late, it’s because of the increasingly central role his mercenary group is playing in the war in Ukraine.
It is calculated that the wagner groupwhich has pursued Russian interests in countries such as Libya, Syria or the Central African Republic, has more than 20,000 mercenaries in the Ukraine war alone, 10% of all Russian troops on the front.
For years, Prigozhin denied his ties to the group or even its very existence, but as the role of this private army has grown more prominent in the Ukrainian conflict, the powerful businessman has stopped hiding.
Last September, in fact, Progozhin appeared in a video addressing a group of prisoners in a Russian jail, urging them to join the fight with Wagner in exchange for their sentences being pardoned.
More recently, dressed in military clothing, he was seen in one of the salt mines in the town of Soledar, claiming that it was Wagner’s men and not the Russian army who had managed to drive the Ukrainian troops out of the town.
It is not the first time that Prigozhin questions the role of the Russian military commanders in the war in Ukraine, a boldness that demonstrates the power he wields.
In recent months, his criticism has been constant and increasingly open, to the point that tensions between the Wagner Group and the Russian Defense Ministry have become an open secret.
But where does Prigozhin’s closeness to Putin come from?
Yevgeny Prigozhin, 61, joined the president’s elite circle in 2001, when Putin started dining at his fancy floating restaurant in Saint Petersburg, called New Island.
Though not part of the original group of Putin allies who created a country house club called Ozero, Prigozhin rose to prominence in the president’s hometown of St. Petersburg, reaching the president through the flavors of its cuisine.
In his youth, before becoming a hot dog vendor and then a successful caterer, he was jailed for nine years for theft and fraud.
Russia’s “shock therapy” capitalism in the 1990s created many business opportunities for ex-convicts and, upon release from prison, made a fortune.
Prigozhin set up a hot dog stand, and then a grocery store. From there he made the leap into restaurants, setting up a chain of establishments and the company he still runs, Concorde Catering, in 1996.
One of these venues is the New Island, which became the most luxurious in Saint Petersburg and Putin’s favourite, to which he brought international leaders and where Prigozhin always he made sure not to be far from the table of the powerful Russian president.
Over the next decade, the company signed lucrative contracts with the Russian authorities to provide care for the schools in Saint Petersburg and Moscow and, later, to feed a large part of the Russian army.
During all those years, and despite being a person very close to Putin, Prigozhin had kept a low profile, and his fortune, like that of most Russian oligarchs, has been the subject of controversy and secrets.
The documents associated with the sanctions imposed by the United States for his alleged meddling in the 2016 elections indicate that he has three private planes and a luxury yacht, supposedly used by him, his family and his associates, registered in tax havens such as the Islands Cayman and the Seychelles.
The oligarch also runs a pro-Kremlin media group called patriot, which was formed with the aim of “countering” the “anti-Russia” media that “don’t notice the good things that are happening in the country.” Since the start of the Ukrainian war, however, there are hardly any critical media left in Russia.
The portal brings together four Saint Petersburg-based news websites: RIA FAN news agency, Narodnye Novosti, Ekonomika Segodnya and Politika Segodnya.
Their combined audience is estimated to be larger than that of the state news agency Tass or RT television.
Internationally, however, his name became known after the US authorities accused him of trying to influence the 2016 elections through his Internet Research Agency (IRA), based in Saint Petersburg.
Both Washington, the European Union and the United Kingdom accuse Prigozhin of launching disinformation campaigns to manipulate public opinion in different countries with this company, which they describe as a “bot factory”. Prigozhin and family are, for this reason, subject to international sanctions, and the businessman is on the FBI’s most wanted list.
The US State Department even offered a $10 million reward for information about the involvement of Prigozhin, the IRA and other entities in those attempts to influence American voters in 2016.
Far from denying it, Prigozhin acknowledged last November that he interfered in the US elections and that he will continue to do so in the future, “with care, precision, surgery and in our own way, as we know how to do.”
But the influence campaigns associated with Prigozhin do not end on US soil.
An investigation carried out by Facebook and specialists from Stanford University (USA) links it to certain operations of manipulation of the orpublic pinion on social media in africain countries such as Madagascar, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Libya and Sudan.
In fact, a BBC investigation found that the russian group offered money to at least six candidates in the 2018 Madagascar presidential election.
Prigozhin dismissed Facebook’s accusations.
Another British government-funded investigation revealed how the Kremlin was using these “troll factories” to disseminate large-scale disinformation and “manipulate public opinion about the illegitimate war in Ukraine”, attempting to rally support for the conflict and for Putin.
“The operation has suspicious links to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the most infamous and far-reaching bot farm, the Internet Research Agency, both of which are UK-sanctioned,” the UK government said in a statement.
The Kremlin’s and Prigozhin’s operations in Africa are not limited, however, to social media.
The Wagner Group is present in different African countries such as Libya, where they support forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, or Mali, where their mercenaries fight against Islamist militias.
They have also been used in the Central African Republic (CAR) and in Sudan, where Russia has secured gold and diamond mining concessions.
In 2018, youThree Russian journalists were shot dead in an ambush when they were trying to investigate a suspected link between the mines and the group of mercenaries.
A CNN investigation uncovered a CAR government mining contract with Lobaye Invest, a Russian company run by Yevgeny Khodotov, another St. Petersburg businessman linked to Prigozhin’s network.
Although perhaps its most prominent role, before the war in Ukraine, has been that which the Wagner Group has played in Syria, where its men have fought alongside Bashar al Assad’s troops and have been in charge of protecting oil wells. oil since 2015.
The group was first seen in Ukraine in 2014, when it participated in the annexation of Crimea.
Then, the streets of the peninsula were filled with men in uniform, but without insignia or flags, who became known as the “little green men.”
Prigozhin’s mercenaries are believed to have been among them, Tracey German, Professor of Conflict and Security at King’s College London, told the BBC.
After that, a thousand Wagner soldiers supported the separatist forces in Donbass in their fight against the Ukrainian army, and they are also believed to be responsible for “false flag” attacks in the months leading up to the invasion. Ukraine, which Russia used as a pretext to start the war.
Over the months, the role of the Wagner Group has been gaining weight in the war, as well as the number of its troops.
According to British intelligence, the group Prigozhin leads began recruiting on a large scale after the Kremlin failed to mobilize enough men for the regular army.
Thousands of them come from Russian prisons, and this can be done “because of their closeness to Putin,” says Andrei Zakharov, of the BBC’s Russian service.
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