Corrupt. Dark. Ruthless. Mercenary. These are some of the qualifiers that one finds when looking for reports or information about Yevgeny Prigozhinthe powerful “Vladimir Putin chef” who ran the trolls and Russian mercenaries and tried to carry out a coup against the Kremlin, which put the power of his former partner in check. A man who went from selling hot dogs in street stalls after serving nine years in prison for robbery, to become one of the most influential and most feared of the Russian regime.
This Wednesday, two months after the military uprising he led against the Russian Army, he died in a plane crash while traveling in a private plane from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. While waiting for official details, the news sparked a series of speculations and rumors about how the accident occurred. Different reports indicate that the craft may have been shot down by the Russian Air Force. A Wagner-linked Telegram channel, Gray Zone, reported that the plane was shot down by air defenses in the Tver region north of Moscow.
Christo Grozev, Bellingcat’s leading researcher, predicted days ago that Prigozhin would be assassinated by Putin or else spark a new uprising. “Putin went on television and called Prigozhin a traitor. Everyone knows what is done with ‘traitors’ and Putin has not done it. He wants to see him dead. In six months Prigozhin will be dead or there will be a second blow”.
Years ago, the Russian opposition lawyer Lyubov Sobol declared to The New York Times that the 61-year-old businessman “dirty jobs don’t scare him”. Indeed, Prigozhin was the founder of the Wagner paramilitary group, accused of human rights violations, war crimes and terrorist acts in various conflicts. But his ruthlessness was further exposed with his involvement in the invasion of Ukraine.
Born on June 1, 1961 in Saint Petersburg, Prigozhin studied at a sports high school and excelled in cross-country skiing, a discipline he practiced with his stepfather, Samuil Zharkoy. But despite his interest in sports, his problems with the law began at a very young age. In 1979 he was arrested for robbery. Two years later, he was prosecuted for recidivism, added to charges of illicit association, fraud and recruitment of minors to subject them to the exercise of prostitution. In times of the Soviet Union he knew the rigor of the sentences, and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He finally turned nine in a penal colony and when he came out, forgiven, the world had changed after the fall of the USSR.
Once released, he first set up several stalls selling hot dogs with his stepfather. She then offered his logistical insight to a schoolmate, Boris Spektor, who owned a popular supermarket chain. (Contrast). He accepted and gave him 15% of the company. But Prigozhin had a dream: to have a restaurant on the bank of a river. This is how in 1995 he shared this desire with Kirill ZilminovCEO of Contrast, who quickly became interested in the idea of putting together something of his own. In addition, the income in the supermarket chain was beginning to fall. Just a year later, in 1996, they opened “Old Customs”, which became one of the first elite restaurants in St. Petersburg.
The rapid growth of the venture allowed them to open other restaurants, and In 1997 they bought a boat, adapted it and took it to the Neva River, where they inaugurated “Isla Nueva”. The establishment became a regular for the rich, famous, and much of the Russian elite. In 2001 it was none other than Putin to entertain the French president Jacques Chirac. Prigozhin, one of the restaurant’s owners, personally went to bring the dishes to the presidents. Since then, he began a close relationship with Putin. Delighted with the food and the service, the Russian president commissioned him to host the Kremlin banquets at each reception for heads of state, which earned him the nickname of “Putin’s chef”.
That link allowed him to establish many contacts in the Kremlin, such as with Victor Zolotovdirector of the Russian National Guard, or Roman Tsepovsecurity businessman and confidant of the president.
His coffers, meanwhile, also began to grow considerably. To such an extent that he became among the 100 richest in the country. He bought a mansion in St. Petersburg, a summer house on the Black Sea, a 35-meter yacht and a private plane. He, too, was able to treat himself: buying a 1960s Lincoln Continental, his favorite car. In 2010 he founded a vacuum-packed pre-cooked food factory, unique in the country. However, journalists critical of the Kremlin denounced that that company functioned as a cartel. As was the case – and is the case today – with Putin’s business friends, Prigozhin’s company won all the contests it entered and the contracts brought him billions of rubles. Between 2013 and 2018, as denounced by the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which was founded by the political prisoner Alexei Navalny, Prigozhin benefited from government contracts worth about $3.1 billion.
Since 2010, it has supplied food to the Emergency Management Agency; since 2011, to Moscow schools; since 2012, to the armed forces. Since 2014, she has been in charge of cleaning services for military establishments; since 2015 also of the houses and communal services associated with them. Since 2016, she has been in charge of all repairs at facilities under the Ministry of Defense.
In total, the lawyer Liubov Sobol, from FBK, estimated about thirty businesses with the Russian state. To which should be added the undertakings that are not formalized in contracts.
But in the mid-2010s, Prigozhin’s plans began to take on a geopolitical dimension. Thus was born what he called the “Internet Research Agency”, whose true mission was to employ trolls low cost to spread disinformation and propaganda. The agency came to light for its attempts to interfere in US politics. Something that “Putin’s chef” himself acknowledged last year: “We have interfered (in the US election), we are interfering and we will continue to interfere. Carefully, with precision, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do it”.
Last July, the US State Department offered a reward of up to $10 million for information on Prigozhin related to his “participation in US election interference.” The Russian businessman was also subject to sanctions by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Since then, Prigozhin was no longer just a man who had enriched himself under the Putin regime, or simply the chef for the former KGB agent. He had become one of his instruments and, in a very short time, his Army was no longer only made up of trolls.
In 2014, as part of Russia’s initial attack on Ukraine with the illegal annexation of Crimea, Prigozhin founded the Wagner Group, which bills itself as a “private military company” but is actually a paramilitary organization backed by the Russian armed forces. Its fighters took part in the illegal occupation of Crimea and in much bloodier battles in the east of the country.
From its founding to this day, Wagner’s mercenaries are known for their ruthless violations of human rights in conflict zones around the world. “In their brutal defense of the Assad regime in Syria, Prigozhin’s mercenaries cemented his reputation as a Putin’s shadowy enforcerscarrying out missions that the Russian military would not carry out openly, or could not carry out at all, ”says the OCCRP in its report.
The group also applies the same cruelty to their own. Many of its fighters are convicts who, in exchange for winning their freedom, are sent to the battlefields. Most do not have proper preparation, so they end up being little more than cannon fodder. Those who refuse, however, can end very badly. An ex-combatant who managed to flee from the ranks of the Wagner Group recently told Russian activists that the paramilitary organization executed at least ten men for refusing to go fight in Ukraine.
The group, linked to Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, works primarily to serve the interests of the Kremlin. But at the same time he develops other missions, more mercenary, such as provide security to dictatorial regimes in the Central African Republic and Sudan, as well as in the Venezuela of Nicolás Maduro, among other countries. “Wherever Wagner’s fighters go, human rights violations are sure to follow. From Syria to Cameroon, from Somalia to Mali, they have been accused of rape, robbery, murder and torture,” adds the forceful OCCRP report.
The same rapes, robberies, murders and tortures that the mercenaries of the Wagner Group have perpetrated since last February 24 to support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Although mercenary companies are technically illegal under the Russian Constitution, the truth is that they have become a key component of Moscow’s “hybrid warfare” strategy and offer the Russian head of state a means by which to “executing its political goals and advancing Russian national security interests around the world,” according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Wagner Group mercenaries have been accused of carrying out attacks on residential neighbourhoods, as well as executing civilians near kyiv. In fact, during the first days of the invasion, The government of Volodimir Zelensky denounced that Putin sent his mercenaries to “assassinate” the Ukrainian president and his family.
Prigozhin He had himself filmed during the end of the year making a visit to the war front in Ukraine, where his paid militiamen are fighting, paid by the head of the Kremlin. In one of the most impressive segments you can see it while counting a large number of corpses of their soldiers, wrapped in black bags, while being stacked. Prigozhin walks through the corridors of a dilapidated building, where the bodies of his subordinates have been scattered on the floor.
This material evidences the coldness with which Prigozhin is handled. With the corpses inside the black bags, according to the adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, Anton Gerashchenkothe head of the mercenaries says to the bodies: “The contract is finished. So long guys, happy new year!”
In recent months he was very critical of the actions of the Russian military in Ukraine. With the rebellion that he led on June 23, he put in check the power of a Putin weakened by his war in Ukraine. However, he stopped the military incursion and agreed to negotiate with the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of the Kremlin chief. In recent days he reappeared in a video that suggested he was in Africa, where Wagner fighters arrived in Mali this week to take part in fighting between the army and local rebels.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, died in a plane crash
The forecast of an expert in the intrigues of the Kremlin: Prigozhin will be assassinated or provoke a new uprising