BY CHARLIE WILSON
How did a St Petersburg catering business owner, also known as Putin’s chef, become a mercenary warlord who marched an army halfway to Moscow?
Prigozhin’s rise to power was marked with violence from the start. From the age of 18 he spent a decade in prison for robbing and choking a woman unconscious. Prigozhin was later released into the post-Soviet Russian wild west of the 1990s. Surprisingly, after his release, he first started making money as a hotdog seller in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg.
Importantly, Prigozhin helped launch and run the chic St. Petersburg restaurant, New Island. It became a favourite hang out for the young, ambitious Vladimir Putin, who was a top aide to the mayor of St. Petersburg at the time. Later, when Putin became president, he hosted foreign dignitaries there, such as Japanese Prime Minister Mori and even celebrated his own birthday at New Island in 2003.
Prigozhin later said that “Putin saw I wasn’t above bringing the plates myself”, likely impressing the young president. According to the Guardian, a businessman who knew Prigozhin said he could “adapt to please any person if he needs something from them. That is definitely one of his talents”.
In Russia, it always pays to have friends in high places. With his company Concord Catering he won, through rigged bidding processes’, lucrative government catering contracts for the army, schools, and the Kremlin. He became immensely wealthy, moving his family to a St. Petersburg mansion with a basketball court and helicopter pad in 2012. He was now known as Putin’s chef.
In the summer of 2014 Prigozhin met with Russian defence officials. He claimed that “orders came from Papa”, a name he commonly used to demonstrate his closeness to Putin. These officials were told that the ministry of defence was to help him form an organisation of “volunteers” that could fight Russia’s wars. Crucially, this group was to have no official links to the Russian army.
This was where the Wagner private military corporation (PMC) was born. With Prigozhin at the helm as primary financier and organiser, the experienced GRU veteran Dmitrii Utkin ran the operational side. Wagner was to be made up of exclusively veterans, all with considerable experience and expertise in all things military.
It is important to note that the Wagner group is not a typical PMC because it does not compete for contracts on the international market. Ultimately, it was devised at the highest level of the Russian state. Therefore, as a trusted member of Putin’s inner circle, Prigozhin was selected to materialise the project to ensure Wagner remained compliant to the Kremlin’s objectives.
Wagner first saw action in occupied Eastern Ukraine, being labelled as ‘little green men’ due to a lack of insignia. Here, they provided plausible deniability for the Russian state, whilst also helping set up a pro-Kremlin order. It is likely the Wagner group played a central role in the killing of two local pro-Russian militia commanders and the arrest of a third. This enabled the Kremlin to retake control from local Ukrainian Cossacks, who wanted independence from both Kyiv and Moscow.
After this success, Wagner expanded its activities to Syria, supporting Assad’s pro-Russian regime. Here, 2000-2500 Wagnerites acted as elite infantry and took casualties in place of Russian state forces. For example, in the important 2017 Second Battle of Palmyra, Wagner fighters complained about a lack of recognition for the key role they played in the city’s recapture from ISIS.
This demonstrated Wagner’s loyalty and value to Putin, propping up the Assad regime, who could continue to support Russia at the UN and elsewhere. Alongside this, the intervention was kept out of the Russian public conscience because private contractor deaths are not officially recorded. Furthermore, Wagner was a more cost-effective method of intervention - the cost of Wagner operations was half the Russian military budget for Syrian operations that year.
Mr. Prigozhin and Wagner’s importance to the Russian state only deepened. In the following years Wagner appeared in the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, and Sudan. Wagner also evolved into a larger network of loosely affiliated organisations, companies and individuals - connected by Prigozhin, advancing Russian foreign policy ambitions.
In these countries Wagner provided more typical PMC services such as combat forces, military training and technical assistance. However, Wagner also provided political services such as suppressing democratic movements, meddling in local elections and advising how to undermine democratic constitutional protections. This ran in tandem with pro-Russian and anti-Western influence operations. These operations were aided by Prigozhin’s experience founding and running his infamous “Troll Factory”, also known as the Internet Research Agency, which meddled in the 2016 US election.
Wagner’s operations in these countries had another key dimension: resource extraction. Typically, in return for Wagner offering their services, cash poor governments would offer resources concessions in payment. For example a company linked to Prigozhin, Lobaye Invest, obtained a number of lucrative licenses to mine gold, diamonds and other resources in the CAR in 2018. This enabled Wagner to self fund its operations across Africa and has reportedly helped the extensively sanctioned Russian state fund its war in Ukraine.
The Wagner group and Prigozhin was able to claim its most high-profile accomplishment in the 2022 full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. In a war characterised by dismal Russian military underperformance, Prigozhin was the only person able to claim any level of success, with Wagner’s capture of Bakhmut in May 2023. This was enabled by Prigozhin’s recruitment of prisoners from the Russian penal system who were expendable and used in human wave attacks, with U.K. intelligence reporting that 20,000 convicts were sent to their deaths in just a few months.
However, the trajectory of Prigozhin’s meteoric success made him too confident, and like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun. His relentless self promotion, clashes with the heads of Russia’s armed forces, and eventual march to Moscow ultimately led to his smoking downfall on 23 August 2023.
Image: Flickr Yevgeny Prigozhin & Vladimir Putin