This weekend in a rapidly escalating series of events, a group of Russian mercenaries forcibly overtook the southeastern city of Rostov-on-Don and came close to conflict in Moscow, before retreating thanks to a Belarusian-brokered deal.
The mercenaries belonged to the infamous Wagner Group, founded and led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, and have been some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s greatest tools in the war to take Ukraine over the past 16 months since the invasion. Prigozhin’s criticisms against Russian military leadership—which he argues led to massive supply shortages and high death rates in his troops—surged recently, leading up to the “march for justice” he led Saturday.
Putin characterized the rebellion as a “stab in the back” and Russian authorities said Prigozhin would be charged with “organizing an armed rebellion.”
Wagner troops have laid claim to numerous victories for Russia in Ukraine this year, as well as a role in the Crimean invasion in 2014. The organization also draws on its network of mercenaries to support the Russian government’s interests around the world. Prigozhin and Wagner’s notoriety resurfaced this week, not only in Russia, but around internationally, as the world watched closely to see how the armed rebellion would play out.
Prigozhin—sometimes referred to as “Putin’s chef” for his culinary enterprises—is an oligarch who has risen to notoriety over the last decade as one of the most powerful voices in the Kremlin. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, analysts say that Prigozhin’s visibility has grown and his influence has deepened—with some suggesting that Prigozhin may have his sights set on even greater political ambitions.
Here’s what you need to know about Prigozhin and the work of the Wagner Group.
Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?
Born in 1961 in Leningrad, which is now St. Petersburg, Prigozhin attended a sports school and trained as a cross-country skiier, but was sentenced to prison for multiple offenses, including theft, as a teenager. In 1981, the Leningrad Criminal Court sentenced him to prison for various crimes, including robbing a woman at knifepoint and burglarizing several apartments, Meduza reported.
Prigozhin served time in the Russian prison system until he was released in 1990, ahead of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Soon afterward he opened a hotdog stand, which gradually led to a culinary empire, including a restaurant where a young President Vladimir Putin brought foreign dignitaries in the early 2000s, says Denis Korotkov, a former journalist for Novaya Gazeta and current investigator for the Dossier Center. This relationship allegedly led Putin to hire Prigozhin for various jobs, including lucrative catering contracts for Moscow schools, and eventually, the military.
“Prigozhin, as we understand it, was able to use this position and connection to the president to establish government connections in the highest circles,” says Korotkov. He estimates that Prigozhin operates “several hundred corporations,” although they are not formally connected to him and work to conceal their activities, some by periodically dissolving and reforming as new organizations.
Recently, however, Prigozhin has become best known as the head of the notorious mercenary organization the Wagner Group. Although his association with the group was not confirmed for years, in a September 2022 statement on Russian social network VKontakte he acknowledged that he founded the group in May of 2014.
The U.S. has accused Prigozhin of involvement in efforts to spread misinformation in the U.S. and in various countries in Africa and the Middle East, and the Mueller report asserted a group he funded, the Internet Research Agency, had interfered in the 2016 American presidential election by spreading misinformation online. In 2019, the U.S. Treasury leveled sanctions at Prigozhin, calling him the “financier behind the Internet Research Agency and its attempts to subvert American democratic processes.”
Through his power with the Wager Group, Prigozhin has played a significant role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, particularly in the recruitment of soldiers for the frontlines. A majority of the group’s troops in the war are Russian convicts, including some personally recruited by Prigozhin, who were promised that they would be pardoned for their service, but are threatened with execution if they run away, have sex, or use drugs or alcohol, according to the New York Times.
What is the Wagner Group?
The Wagner Group is sometimes referred to as a private company, although its independence is disputed. Some political analysts have argued that it is better regarded as a proxy for the Russian government. In Korotkov’s view, however, Prigozhin is a “very independent actor.”
“The only person he considers his ‘commander-in-chief’… [is] Vladimir Putin,” says Korotkov.
The group first emerged in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and entered eastern Ukraine. While Putin denied that regular Russian troops were involved in the conflict, the Wagner Group was one of several organizations that provided mercenaries who coordinated with the Russian military and supported separatist groups in Ukraine. The Wagner Group became the most prominent of these organizations, and has since recruited and provided mercenaries for several covert military actions abroad, including in Syria, the Central African Republic, and Mali, according to the U.S. State Department.
Throughout these military actions, the group has been accused of violent human rights abuses, including the massacre of dozens of civilians in the Central African Republic last January; the placing of landmines and booby traps in Libya between 2019 and 2020; and the murder of three Russian journalists investigating the organization in the CAR in 2018.
The Wagner Group has also allegedly spread misinformation and promoted Russian influence abroad. The company has been involved in efforts to exert influence in at least 13 countries in Africa, according to a 2019 report by the Guardian, and has been accused of using social media to manipulate politics within various countries to garner support for Russia.
Although the Wagner Group has been secretive for much of its history, it has grown in visibility since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, with Prigozhin publicly acknowledging his role in the organization. In November, RT, a Russian state-controlled news organization, went so far as to publish a documentary about the Wagner Group. Increasingly, Prigozhin has also proven to be more willing to flex his political power, even criticizing the Russian Department of Defense’s handling of the conflict directly to Putin, the Washington Post reported.
Korotkov believes Prigozhin’s increased visibility has made him more vulnerable to criticism. “He needs to constantly demonstrate his effectiveness militarily, achieve success over and over again—or at least the appearance of success,” he says. “Any defeat could lead to the loss of Putin’s goodwill. And given his conflict with the majority of dignitaries, who only tolerate him at the president’s behest, this would be a catastrophe for Prigozhin.”
How is the Wagner Group involved in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
The Wagner Group’s influence has surged during the current war in Ukraine. John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council in the U.S., said on Jan. 20 that the organization has become “a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries,” and estimated that the organization currently has deployed about 50,000 mercenary troops in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, including 40,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons.
Olga Romanova, the leader of the NGO Russia Behind Bars, which has been tracking the use of convicts in the invasion, said in an interview last week that the group estimates about 50,000 prisoners recruited to the front—and of those, only 10,000 remain as the rest have been killed, deserted, or were captured. The Wagner Group has also faced accusations of recruiting mercenaries from other countries to fight in the war, including Serbia, Central African Republic, and Kyrgyzstan.
On Jan. 27, the Ukrainian government accused the Wagner group of forcibly transporting 3,500 Ukrainian convicts in occupied territories and compelling them to join their troops. The Ukrainian government said the majority refused and are held in “unbearable conditions.” The Wagner Group has also worked to supply Russian troops with weapons; according to Kirby, North Korea delivered rockets and missiles into Russia for use by the Wagner group.
The group has been linked to civilian brutality and death during the invasion. In April, Der Spiegel reported that German intelligence uncovered evidence that the group’s mercenaries were involved in atrocities in Bucha, where the United Nations confirmed the murder of dozens of civilians, including children. Ukrainian prosecutors have also accused Wagner troops of killing civilians near Kyiv, the Guardian has reported. The Wagner Group has even faced criticism over the treatment of its own troops in Ukraine, who the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense said are poorly trained and are treated as expendable.
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