On September 14, 2022, a few days after Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Kharkiv by a Ukrainian counter-offensive, a video of a man talking to inmates at a Russian prison emerged on the Internet. “I am a representative of a private military company. You have probably heard of it. It’s called PMC Wagner,” said the tall man with a shaved head to a group of prisoners and guards who were standing around him in a semicircle. The video, shot with a low-quality mobile camera, was published by the team of Alexei Navalny, a jailed opposition leader. The man in the video was Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian tycoon with close ties with the Kremlin. His mission: recruit prisoners for Wagner to fight in Ukraine.
In the past, Mr. Prigozhin had always denied any links with the group. Not any longer. In the video, he said that if the inmates, aged between 22 and 50, agreed to join Wagner, he would give them freedom after six months of service or a hero’s burial if they died in combat. “Do you have anyone who can take you out of prison?,” he asked the prisoners. “There are two others who can — Allah and God — but they only take you out in a wooden box. I can take you out of here alive.”
Russian law doesn’t allow prisoners to be released in exchange for military service. The Federal Penitentiary Service, the federal authority of prisons and detention facilities in Russia, is a powerful agency of the Ministry of Justice. But the doors of government bureaucracy hardly shut before Mr. Prigozhin. Since the video went viral, Wagner’s involvement in Russia’s war in Ukraine only intensified. In January when the Russians took Soledar, a salt mine city in the outskirts of Bakhmut in Donetsk, their first major victory in months, it was Wagner that announced the breakthrough first. In Bakhmut, which has seen deadly fighting for seven months, Wagner is leading the offensive. Mr. Prigozhin now has powerful allies such as Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya. If he had kept a low profile in the past, now he’s stepped out of the shadows.
Born in 1961 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the former Tsarist capital, Mr. Prigozhin grew up in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. At a young age, he was arrested for robbery. According to court papers released by Russian media outlet Meduza, Mr. Prigozhin and his accomplices attacked a woman in March 1980 in St. Petersburg, took her gold earrings and left her lying on the street unconscious. There were other reported similar incidents. He was convicted and jailed in 1981 in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. When he was released in 1990, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, was already on its deathbed.
Mr. Prigozhin started a new life, like the post-Soviet Russia, selling hotdogs in St. Petersburg. The subsequent years would see Mr. Prigozhin steadily expanding his business to supermarkets and restaurants. By the mid 1990s, he opened Old Customs House (Staraya Tamozhnya), on Vasilevsky Island of St. Petersburg. It would soon become one of the finest and most sought-after dining locations in the city. Influential people, including celebrities, billionaires and politicians, used to visit the restaurant. One of them was Anatoly Sobchak, the Mayor of St. Petersburg. Sometimes, Sobchak’s young deputy would accompany him to the diner — a former KGB operative, who just started building a political career, called Vladimir V. Putin.
The relationship between Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin, probably established in one of those meetings, would flourish in the following years. By late 1990s, Mr. Putin would become President Boris Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, and then his successor. With Mr. Putin in the Kremlin, Mr. Prigozhin would go on winning lucrative government catering contracts. His business started booming, so did his influence. As a measure of his growing clout, he was occasionally seen with President Putin and global leaders. He accompanied Mr. Putin when he visited the U.K. in 2003 and appeared in a photograph with Mr. Putin and Prince Charles (now the King of the U.K.). When Mr. Putin hosted George W. Bush in 2006 as part of the G8 Summit, Mr. Prigozhin can be seen serving the U.S. leader. In a 2015 photograph released by the Kremlin, Mr. Prigozhin can be seen serving food to Mr. Putin, then Brazil President Dilma Rouseff and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This closeness to Mr. Putin and his ever-expanding catering business earned him the nickname, “Putin’s chef”.
Mr. Prigozhin’s transformation from an influential Kremlin contractor to a vital player in Russia’s security complex began in 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea and started supporting separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Wagner was founded in the same year, by Dmitry Utkin, a former Lieutenant Colonel in Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. Mr. Prigozhin emerged as the main financier of the group. According to one account, he approached the Defence Ministry in 2014, seeking land to train “volunteers”. Ministry officials were not happy with his demand. Then he told them, “The orders came from Papa,” referring to Mr. Putin.
He got what he wanted and Wagner would train thousands of private soldiers, who would be deployed to Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Initially, the Kremlin denied that it had sent troops to Ukraine — it was technically right as Wagner was not officially part of the Russian defence forces. But there were “little green men” across Ukraine’s Donbas. Within a few years, Wagner became an all-powerful mercenary entity. When Russia adopted a more aggressive foreign policy, expanding its strategic footprint in West Asia and Africa, Wagner came handy for the Kremlin — it can send troops to these regions with plausible deniability. In 2015, Mr. Putin sent troops to Syria to back the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war. Wagner soldiers fought alongside Syrian troops and Hezbollah and other Shia paramilitaries against the regime’s rivals. They were also sent to Mali, Libya, Mozambique and the Central African Republic. When Wagner became an integral part of the Kremlin’s foreign security outreach, Mr. Prigozhin’s stock rose in Moscow’s fortified elite power circles.
Mr. Putin’s critics see Mr. Prigozhin as one of their formidable rivals. According to Leonid Volkov, a close aide of Navalny, Mr. Prigozhin is “the most dangerous criminal in Putin’s entourage”. A Belling Cat investigation in August 2020 claimed that Mr. Prigozhin’s business ventures — government contracts, Wagner and troll farms — are closely linked to the Kremlin. Robert Muller, the Special Counsel who probed alleged Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, indicted Russia-based Internet Research Agency, which was linked to Mr. Prigozhin, for running an online campaign to discredit Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. He is also wanted by the FBI for “conspiracy to defraud the United States”. In 2021, the FBI declared a reward of up to “$250,000 for information leading to the arrest” of Mr. Prigozhin.
Yet, many see that the war has turned him into one of the most important players in Russia. Mikhail Zygar, an independent Russian journalist, recently wrote that Mr. Prigozhin has already surpassed several traditional power centres in Moscow. When Russian troops performed poorly in the war, Mr. Prigozhin, along with Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, publicly slammed the defence establishment. Mr. Putin changed the commander of his “special military operation” twice, but Mr. Prigozhin remains untouched.
He found recruits in prisons, his mercenaries are fighting in the “meat grinders” of the frontline, and he is issuing regular updates on the war, like a commander, through Telegram channels. From being a hotdog seller in St. Petersburg, Mr. Prigozhin has come a long way. But his rapid rise has also earned him powerful rivals. Some see Mr. Putin’s recent decision to appoint Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov as the Ukraine commander as an attempt to re-assert the primacy of the Ministry of Defence in an internal power struggle. But in this hour of war, Mr. Putin also needs Wagner. And Mr. Prigozhin knows that as long as he has the backing of the man in Kremlin, lateral power centres can’t touch him.