For years, Russian entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin supported President Vladimir Putin’s foreign military interventions from the shadows with his Wagner paramilitary group.
Now the man known as “Putin’s Chef” for his Kremlin-linked catering business is using the fame of his fighters on the battlefield to increase his influence in the military and in the Kremlin. Analysts say Wagner’s expanded role reveals the woes of Russia’s war effort.
In recent weeks, Mr Prigozhin has launched a publicity campaign, openly acknowledging his role as Wagner’s founder, launching the group’s glamorous new headquarters in St Petersburg and touting plans for paramilitary training camps for volunteers living along Russia’s borders with Ukraine.
Mr Prigozhin is a staunch aide to Mr Putin, who has increasingly relied on his fellow 61-year-old St Petersburg native as the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine has slowed. At the same time, Mr. Prigozhin openly challenged the strength of the Russian army, condemning the military incompetence in its retreat.
Mr Prigogine “appears to be gaining increasing influence in the Kremlin, with his private military company increasingly being relied upon to provide essential security tasks normally expected of the Russian state,” said Ian Stubbs, senior military adviser to the delegation of the United Kingdom in the Organization. for security and cooperation in Europe. This expanded role for an organization accused of war crimes and now recruiting convicted criminals, he said, “is itself a telling indicator of the poor state of Putin’s war machine.”
Over the past decade, Mr. Prigogine has emerged as a central figure in Mr. Putin’s efforts to extend Russia’s influence and undermine the West while maintaining a measure of denial about the Kremlin, Western officials say. He deployed Wagner to further Russia’s goals in Ukraine, Syria and Africa. He rose to prominence in the US after a federal grand jury indicted him on charges of conspiring to defraud the US by interfering in the 2016 presidential election with an army of online trolls.
Since the start of this year’s invasion, when Mr. Putin rejected the pretense that Russia was not active in Ukraine, Mr. Prigozhin has embraced a more public role, with statements laced with bombast and sarcasm.
Ahead of this month’s midterm elections, he thumbed his nose at earlier U.S. accusations, suggesting he was meddling again without offering evidence.
In Ukraine, Mr. Prigozhin has coordinated loosely with military units on the ground, mostly establishing his own supply lines for his fighters, who number several thousand, analysts said. But as the Russian army has lost ground in recent months to Ukrainian advances, Mr Prigozhin has moved to prove Wagner’s worth and highlight the army’s failings.
Wagner has coordinated loosely with the Defense Department since the beginning of the invasion, although he has acted increasingly independently, analysts say. The group waged a sustained assault on the Ukrainian-held town of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region for most of September and October. Although the city had no strategic importance, analysts said Wagner’s efforts there were to highlight his activities while official military formations were losing ground around Kharkiv, Kupyansk and Izyum.
At the same time, Mr. Prigozhin has shown favor with some commanders while criticizing others in an attempt to influence Defense Ministry decisions. He was one of the leading voices in an online campaign against Colonel General Alexander Lapin of the Ministry of Defense, blaming him for Russia’s losses on the battlefield. Mr Lapin was eventually removed from his role as commander of Russia’s Central Military District following the criticism, although it was unclear whether he was suspended or fired.
“The pursuit of these vendettas creates internal conflicts at a time when the Russian state needs to be unified and effective,” said Mark Galeotti, chief executive of London-based consultancy Mayak Intelligence.
In contrast, the Russian businessman praised the appointment of General Sergei Surovikin as the commander of all Russian troops in Ukraine, calling him the most competent commander of the Russian army.
When Mr Surovikin announced earlier this week that Russian troops would withdraw from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, Mr Prigozhin distanced himself from the retreat, saying it was not Wagner who was backing down but praised the commander.
“The decision taken by Surovikin is difficult, but he acted like a man, not afraid of responsibility,” Mr. Prigozhin wrote on the profile of his catering company’s press service on the Russian social network VK.
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While Mr. Prigozhin relied on the Kremlin for money to set up and run Wagner, his current actions are aimed at working to “build an independent power base and shape the conduct of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the Institute for the Study of War said.
“Putin’s dependence on Prigozhin’s forces around Bakhmut … allows Prigozhin privileges such as expressing his criticism of the Kremlin or the Russian armed forces without significant ramifications,” the ISW assessment said.
Mr Prigozhin has denied any political ambitions, but in recent weeks we have seen him expand the scope of his operations into the Russian regions bordering Ukraine. The group’s training camps will serve to prepare local residents in case the war in Ukraine comes to Russian soil, he said. He said local businessmen should regularly rotate a quarter of their workers through training to ensure the regions most vulnerable to the spread of the conflict remain alert.
“Locals know their region like no one else and are able to fight enemy intelligence teams and take the first strike if necessary,” he said, adding that he would fund the training centers himself. “I don’t need anything from the federal or regional budget; I don’t need anything.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow appreciated Mr. Prigozhin’s contribution to the country but would not comment on his work with Wagner, the state-run TASS news agency reported.
Mr Prigogine, meanwhile, seems to be relishing his status as a sort of Bond villain.
With Moscow in desperate need of troops that summer, he began recruiting in prisons. He said he visited several penal colonies, and in September a video emerged of a man who resembled him standing in front of inmates at a Siberian prison recruiting for Wagner.
In mid-October, a video by the Prigogine-affiliated Federal News Agency showed men, bandaged and missing limbs, receiving awards from Wagner as well as amnesty documents for their service.
In a separate video, Mr Prigogine, himself a former prisoner, spoke to the four.
“We’ll put you in prosthetics and then what?” he asks. “Back to the front to fight,” he says, laughing.
Write to Thomas Grove at [email protected]
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