Yevgeny Prigozhin, the savage attack dog of Vladimir Putin, has finally turned on his master. And then regretted it.No one can say the warning signs w
No one can say the warning signs were not there. As his Wagner mercenaries have been dying in their thousands in the meat grinders of Ukraine, Prigozhin has for the past few months begun raging against the Chief of Staff of the Russian armed forces, Valery Gerasimov, and the Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, for their lack of support. According to him: it was a calculated betrayal. Many thought he crossed a line by referring to Putin himself as a ‘d***head’ in a video rant posted online last month.
But ordering his men to leave Ukraine and launch a coup in Russia was truly an astonishing escalation. Even after his reversing his march on Moscow, Prigozhin risks almost certain death, so what do we know about him? What can explain his seemingly insane actions? Like Putin, Prigozhin comes from St Petersburg. He grew up a street thug and was convicted of a string of robberies – in one choking a lone woman in the street till she fell unconscious, before he and his three accomplices stole her gold earrings and her shoes.
Imprisoned in the hellish Soviet prison system in 1981, he served around nine years, gaining a priceless attribute: the will to survive at any cost. The Soviet Union was in its death throes when the 29-year-old Prigozhin was released. As a new Russia embraced hyper-capitalism, the streetwise Prigozhin was well-equipped to exploit the opportunities it offered. His first venture was an unlikely one: selling hotdogs at a stand.
A budding entrepreneur, he soon acquired a stake in a supermarket chain. Then, in 1995, Prigozhin and his business partners opened a restaurant to which St Petersburg’s elite soon flocked, including former KGB agent and politician-on-the-make Vladimir Putin.
BITTER RESENTMENT: Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin ranting against Russian army leaders in a video post
Prigozhin was able to thoroughly ingratiate himself with Russia’s elite, and his high-end catering saw him given the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’. He was also frequently his waiter – ‘Putin saw that I wasn’t above bringing the plates myself,’ he once said – and after his master became president, Prigozhin had within his grasp the thing he wanted even more than cash: to rid himself of the stain of the streets.
When his firms began to cater Putin’s state visits, Prigozhin seized the opportunity to mix with the global elite. Heads of state, including former French President Jacques Chirac, were entertained on his floating restaurant New Island. In 2002, he even hosted US President George W Bush there.
But he really hit the big time when he was awarded a contract to supply meals to the Russian military, worth $1.2billion for one year. He is thought to have used part of this booty to fund the Internet Research Agency, a misinformation unit to spread the lies of the Russian state. It was Russia’s first incursion into Ukraine in 2014 that provided Prigozhin with his chance to diversify into the mercenary business with the mercenary army the Wagner Group.
With the Kremlin keen to have plausible deniability when it came to the presence of armed men on Ukrainian territory, Prigozhin’s private army was the perfect cover. The soldiers were soon busy murdering for money in countries such as Syria, Sudan, and Mali, but it is in Ukraine that they gained most infamy.
They were used in the annexation of Crimea and in the fighting that followed in the east of Ukraine. After Putin’s full-scale invasion began in February last year, the president was forced to give Wagner a central role. But the group was by then running short of men. Things got so bad that Prigozhin went back to the institution that formed him: prison.
DAVID PATRIKARAKOS: Prigozhin was able to thoroughly ingratiate himself with Russia’s elite, and his high-end catering saw him given the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’
DAVID PATRIKARAKOS: Wagner fighters have been promised immunity from prosecution. Their leader has been promised safe passage to Belarus where he will remain
DAVID PATRIKARAKOS: Like Putin, Prigozhin comes from St Petersburg. He grew up a street thug and was convicted of a string of robberies
In a famous video from September, Prigozhin can be seen telling prisoners, including murderers and rapists, to sign up to fight in Ukraine. If they serve six months, they will be pardoned but, he warned, most won’t survive that long. The Battle of Bakhmut has defined Wagner’s war.
Prigozhin claims that the Russian army had been failing since August to take the city, and that his mercenaries had to do it instead, suffering appalling losses against entrenched Ukrainian positions. And, according to a US intelligence leak, Prigozhin said that if Ukraine’s commanders withdrew troops from Bakhmut he would give them information about Russian army positions. Though he has vigorously denied the claim, to observers it was proof of his questionable loyalties.
Prigozhin’s resentment grew out of control as he felt his achievements continued to go unrecognised. He promised to remove his mercenaries from Bakhmut by the beginning of this month – before the Ukrainian offensive attempted to retake it. But he was forbidden from doing so. It seems the opportunistic entrepreneur finally snapped – triggered, it seems, by the alleged targeting of Wagner forces by the Russian army.
And, after chaos was momentarily unleashed within the borders of Russia, an agreement was reached with Putin yesterday thanks to the mediation of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.
Wagner fighters have been promised immunity from prosecution. Their leader has been promised safe passage to Belarus where he will remain. Convict, hot dog seller, propagandist and mercenary, the man who could turn his hand to anything has turned it to treason, and failed. Now he will find a new role as exile, although how long he will last in that is anyone’s guess.