How did a former hot-dog seller turned billionaire restaurateur end up running an army of mercenaries on behalf of Putin? Meet Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man behind the shadowy Wagner Group that conducts black ops across the globe – from assassinations to election-rigging and cyberwarfare. Larisa Brown investigates the former penniless convict who ended up becoming one of Russia's most powerful men.
Last summer I was at the Russian ambassador's residence on "Billionaires' Row" in Kensington, resisting the temptation to devour a plate of gold-wrapped Ferrero Rocher chocolates while anxiously awaiting the arrival of Vladimir Putin's top diplomat in London. I had previously met Andrei Kelin's predecessor, Alexander Yakovenko, 66, on a number of occasions in the aftermath of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury and had become accustomed to his masterclasses in the art of obfuscation.
After exchanging niceties and sipping black tea, I asked Kelin, a career diplomat, if Russian mercenaries were operating in Libya and Syria. I had already guessed what his answer would be.
"First of all, every big country has its own mercenaries, let it be the US, France or the UK. Mercenaries are being hired for certain operations all over the world. I do not know about mercenaries in Libya," Kelin, 63, answered with steely eyes.
I wasn't particularly surprised by his noncommittal response given President Putin himself had denied any suggestion that Russian nationals operating in Libya to prop up a renegade general were backed by the state.
A few days before our interview, 33 suspected Russian mercenaries had been arrested in Belarus accused of plotting "terrorism" ahead of the country's presidential election. The suspects were alleged to be part of Wagner, the same shadowy military group working in Libya to overthrow a UN-backed government.
Several miles away in Whitehall, a team of military intelligence officers were sitting in the UK's Ministry of Defence main building closely following the activities of the Wagner Group. They had been monitoring it since it was spotted on battlefields in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, fighting alongside pro-Moscow separatists in 2014.
Since then the Wagner Group, described as "Putin's invisible army" by experts, has grown to around 5,000 strong and is present in as many as 12 different countries around the world, including Sudan, Syria, the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar and Mozambique.
Its membership includes citizens of Belarus, Moldova, Serbia and Ukraine, although it is mainly staffed by Russians, including former Spetsnaz soldiers (Russian special forces), GRU (Russian military intelligence) officers, infantry soldiers and even former criminals.
Showing me a list of examples, a diplomat who has studied the group tells me every member has their own identification number that begins with "M", presumably to hide their real identity should anything go drastically wrong.
A briefing paper on Wagner from a Ukrainian military source says that in exchange for both the right to mine minerals such as diamonds, gold, uranium and natural gas and to supply Russian weapons to African countries, the mercenaries offer to guard high-ranking officials, train the military, do "dirty work" to suppress anti-government riots and help to organise election campaigns, bringing in their "agents of influence" to change minds.
One such example is the group's venture into Mozambique in October 2019 as part of a big push towards Africa.
It is alleged Russia sent 200 mercenaries from the private military group along with weapons – including Mi-24 combat helicopters – under the pretext of combating armed Islamist groups in the gas-rich north of the country. The deployment was said to be in exchange for ensuring the access of Russian companies to mine natural resources.
They were quickly defeated by insurgents and Wagner, having pursued its own interests, pulled out the following year, it is claimed. At the same time, Russian officials appeared to conduct an information campaign to try to conceal the group's activities.
Wagner's behaviour in Mozambique has fuelled concerns that such projects, prosecuted by a group renowned for its "brutality, callousness, unreliability and failure to meet its commitments", could have serious consequences for impoverished states in Africa, the briefing note warns.
Although it is widely accepted in military circles that Wagner contractors fight and die on multiple fronts by following the orders of Russian politicians, generals and oligarchs, officially the Kremlin has nothing to do with them.
As one senior British military intelligence source puts it to me, this means they can act "recklessly" without any repercussions for Moscow.
Armed with a map in a windowless room where no electronic equipment is allowed for fear of eavesdropping, the source points to where Wagner forces are now stationed across the world. The source, dressed in combat fatigues, explains, "They are carrying out deniable actions, which increases the risk to others. Russia can basically do what it likes without being held to account.
"Russia acts below the threshold of violence, and it can operate with the Wagner Group and the rules no longer apply." He fears the group – equipped with Russian fighter jets, transport planes and even Pantsir air-defence missile systems – is expanding and growing in influence in vulnerable states desperate for help and support. The briefing is timely.
This month a landmark legal case was launched in Moscow against Wagner. The aim is to hold it to account for its alleged role in the brutal torture of a Syrian detainee in spring 2017 at an oilfield in Homs province.
Mohammed Taha Ismail al-Abdullah was killed by a group of six suspected Russian mercenaries after he was believed to have deserted President Bashar al-Assad's army and then been captured. Video footage published by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta showed the men, speaking in Russian, cutting off his head and arms before hanging up his body and setting it alight. It may not be a coincidence that Wagner mercenaries had recently driven Islamic State fighters from the area. The victim's brother is now calling on the authorities in Moscow to investigate the incident and the possible role played by the group.
So how exactly is this murky fighting force linked to the Russian state? The answer lies with an opaque network of companies and Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, 59, a former hot-dog seller and penniless convict who went on to become a billionaire and "global Kremlin action man" after he rubbed shoulders with the Russian president.
Born in 1961 in what was then Leningrad, Prigozhin, whose father died young and mother worked in a hospital, spent his teenage years training to be a champion cross-country skier.
That dream came to an abrupt end in 1979, when just after turning 18, a Leningrad court gave him a suspended sentence for stealing. Two years later, he was back before a judge at the Zhdanovsky district court and was convicted for offences including robbery, fraud and involving minors in prostitution. He spent nine years in a Soviet prison.
When he got out, he started a hot-dog business. This led to him running a chain of convenience stores before eventually starting several restaurants in St Petersburg, according to an extensive biography compiled by Meduza, an online investigative publication.
He told a magazine called Elite Society that his patrons "wanted to see something new in their lives and were tired of just eating cutlets with vodka".
It wasn't long before he started carrying out the catering for Kremlin banquets and earned the nickname "Putin's chef" after personally serving the president himself. One of his elaborate ventures included buying a rusty ship docked on the Vyatka river, which Prigozhin, along with his friend Kirill Ziminov, converted into a restaurant called New Island. In the summer of 2001, Putin had dinner there with French president Jacques Chirac. The Russian president celebrated his birthday there two years later, in 2003. Putin "saw how I built my business starting from a kiosk. He saw how I was not above serving a plate," Prigozhin told Gorod 812, a St Petersburg magazine.
After that, the money started really flowing in. His restaurant and catering enterprise, Concord Catering, which had started off feeding children in schools, secured a lucrative contract to feed the Russian armed forces.
Over a five-year period, Prigozhin received government contracts worth US$3.1 billion ($4.3 billion) according to jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.
His fortune was estimated at 7.14 billion roubles ($132 million) by the Russian-language daily business newspaper Delovoy Peterburg in 2016.
Grzegorz Kuczynski, director of the Eurasia programme at the Warsaw Institute and an expert in Wagner's activities, says Prigozhin financed Wagner from the outset and it was bodyguards from his Concord company that were put in charge of the mercenary operation.
The diplomat, who has carried out extensive research into Wagner, elaborates on the comments by Kuczynski, explaining how the group is not a self-funded military company, but gets its funding from the Russian government via what is called "super-contracts". Prigozhin owns a string of companies, including Concord Catering, that are given government contracts for financial sums far higher than what is necessary for the stated projects.
"The difference between the cost and how much is paid then becomes a slush fund, which is now on the books of Prigozhin's companies, and that money is used to fund the Wagner operations," the source says.
Prigozhin, who has been pictured on several occasions either serving Putin or standing alongside him, acts as a conduit who arranges for the money to be paid to Wagner operatives, the diplomat adds.
A senior British military source (who doesn't want to be identified) confirms that the UK believes Prigozhin is the financial backer of the group as the conduit between the Kremlin and Wagner.
The Ukrainians believe that members of Wagner are trained at the base of the 243rd combined arms training range in the Krasnodar region – the area where the GRU's 10th Special Operations Brigade is stationed. The Ukrainian military source even said there was strong evidence that Wagner was "fully subordinate" to the GRU, including for tasking, logistical support and procuring weapons.
After starting off in Ukraine and moving to Syria and Libya – where the Ukrainians believe Wagner was tasked with testing new Russian weapons systems – the group is now increasing efforts to grow its influence on the African continent. So what does Prigozhin get out of the Wagner Group?
Kuczynski says Prigozhin benefits from Wagner in two ways: the "Wagnerists" pursue the interests of the Kremlin's policy and in return Prigozhin receives contracts from the state, but they also protect the interests of Prigozhin's companies in places such as Syria, CAR and Sudan.
In CAR and Sudan the mercenaries play a double role, supporting the local authorities while also securing the business of Prigozhin companies dealing with the exploitation of gold and diamond deposits.
Kuczynski says the greatest threat from Wagner is that unlike other mercenary companies, "The Wagnerists are ready to carry out any order at the behest of the Kremlin." The Russian authorities can use them for "wet work" in various parts of the world, officially refusing to admit having ties with them.
To put Prigozhin's significance into perspective, Bill Browder, once the largest foreign investor in Russia through his Hermitage Fund and now a human rights campaigner, says that a lot of the malignant foreign policy that Putin has been running, either through mercenaries or disinformation operations, has been "executed by this one man".
"He is basically running black operations for Putin all over the world in different areas. He is performing a function that is highly valued by Putin," Browder claims, speaking by phone.
Given his prominence, it may not come as a surprise that Prigozhin, husband to Lyubov Prigozhina and father to Pavel and Polina, boasts luxury properties including a St Petersburg estate with its own helipad costing an estimated US$105 million, a US$6 million yacht called St Vitamin with 6 bedrooms and a terrace, and 3 private jets, which he uses to fly around the world.
The oligarch's glamorous daughter, Polina, believed to be in her thirties, held her wedding ceremony in Konstantinovsky Palace, known as "Putin's palace" because it is an official residence of the president in St Petersburg, and was originally built by the Romanov royal family. "The most difficult thing was to get millions of natural flowers," he said in an article at the time as she explained how they cascaded from the palace's ceilings.
According to Navalny's organisation, Prigozhin also owns a ten-acre clifftop estate with a swimming pool at Gelendzhik on the Black Sea not far from Putin's alleged opulent £1 billion palace, which Navalny claimed was "Putin's biggest secret" earlier this year.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has imposed an asset freeze and travel ban on Prigozhin, saying he was "responsible for significant foreign mercenary activity in Libya and multiple breaches of the UN arms embargo". Prigozhin denies Wagner even exists.
He is also accused of financing the notorious St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), a troll factory that supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
In 2018, Boris L Vishnevsky, then an opposition member of the city council in St Petersburg, said the Kremlin endorsed projects like the troll farm without directly organising them.
"This is done by somebody who receives large-scale government contracts. The fact that he gets these contracts is a hidden way to pay for his services," he told The New York Times.
Following a lengthy investigation, Prigozhin was added to the FBI's "ten most wanted fugitives list" in February this year with a reward of up to US$250,000 for information leading to his arrest in connection with alleged Russian meddling in the election. The FBI said he was wanted for his "alleged involvement in a conspiracy to defraud the United States".
Prigozhin allegedly oversaw operations including the creation of hundreds of fictitious online personas and the use of stolen identities. The FBI has said the actions were taken to reach significant numbers of US citizens for the purpose of interfering with the country's political system, including the 2016 presidential election.
In the days following the posting of the reward by the FBI, another unscrupulous character entered the picture. Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin leader of Chechnya, taunted the FBI, saying he wanted to claim the US$250,000 reward for bringing the Russian tycoon to justice.
"It would be silly to miss out on such a generous reward, so I officially announce: Yevgeny Prigozhin is with me as my guest in Grozny," the former rebel wrote in a social media post.
Kadyrov, who controls militias accused of human rights abuses and running secret prisons, even posted a picture of the men beneath portraits of Putin and Kadyrov's father.
The 44-year-old, described by one Russian contact as a "very evil man", said he was ready to receive the money on one condition: that it be delivered to him in cash because his foreign bank accounts "with millions of dollars" had been frozen as a result of western sanctions.
"Better to pack the reward in $20 bills in suitcases and pass them on through someone in Grozny. Everybody knows me here," he added mockingly.
Last month Prigozhin also wrote to the FBI demanding he be removed from its wanted list, calling it a violation of human rights principles. In a statement on social media network Vkontakte, Concord said Prigozhin had written to FBI director Christopher Wray on March 23.
It can only be assumed there was a hint of irony in the statement, which cited Prigozhin as saying, "Fraudsters are fraudulently trying to accuse me, a squeaky clean person, of fraud."
Prigozhin has also rattled cages in Britain since the FBI put his name on its most wanted list, offering a US$500,000 bounty for the capture of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian businessman and former oligarch turned activist now residing in London.
Britain's security agencies believe Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, is one of several targets on Putin's hitlist after he famously argued with Putin at a televised meeting at the Kremlin in 2003, when he implied that government officials were accepting millions in bribes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not long after his outburst he was arrested for tax evasion, embezzlement and fraud and was later jailed for eight years. With his influence reduced and business empire turned over, he was eventually pardoned by Putin and flew to Germany on the day of his release. He ended up in London where he now lives with his wife, Inna, and three grown-up children.
Fears he could be the next target were heightened after the attempted killing of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury in 2018. Putin has not forgotten him. Last year he described Khodorkovsky, the former head of oil giant Yukos, as a "fraudster" whose security staff were involved in contract killings, claims Khodorkovsky has always denied.
From his home in London, Khodorkovsky has been a vocal critic of Prigozhin, with his Russian blog on Telegram and an English version on Facebook producing slick videos accusing him of running internet troll armies in Russia and a whole host of other "criminal achievements".
Sources close to Khodorkovsky said the pair had been in "constant battle" ever since the murder of three Russian journalists, Alexander Rastorguyev, veteran war correspondent Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko, in the Central African Republic.
The journalists had been sent to the CAR, one of Africa's poorest and most unstable countries even though it is rich in resources such as diamonds and uranium, by the Investigation Control Centre, an online news organisation funded by Khodorkovsky, to carry out an investigation into Wagner's operations there.
According to Russia's Investigative Committee, the Russian nationals were killed by locals wearing turbans and speaking Arabic during an armed robbery near the village of Sibut, about 295km north of the CAR's capital, Bangui. The driver of the car they were travelling in was the only person to survive the attack. The official document containing the results of the investigation stated that, "The journalists were stopped by an armed gang of unidentified persons, who then cowardly killed them and stole some of their belongings."
But the Dossier Center, an investigative journalism nonprofit organisation also founded by Khodorkovsky, claimed the evidence did not support a robbery.
The centre said the attack on the journalists appeared to be professionally planned. Attempts to say the murder began as an armed robbery stemmed from a concerted cover-up on the part of individuals controlled by Prigozhin himself, the centre claims.
The centre said the three journalists had been put under surveillance and the murder was premeditated. No action was taken by CAR law enforcers to investigate the crime and they had apparently ignored or concealed the evidence they had received. Witness statements obtained by the CAR investigators contained facts that mysteriously failed to make it into the official investigation. For example, one witness gave testimony on August 18, 2018 – 19 days after the murders – stating he saw a grey Mitsubishi without a numberplate at the scene of the crime shortly before the murder took place. In their report, CAR investigators concluded that "the unregistered car could not be found".
From the day the murders took place, a disinformation campaign was allegedly mounted to impede the independent investigation. Media controlled by Prigozhin played an active role in trying to dispel any suspicions around people connected with Prigozhin, according to the Dossier Center. The murder and subsequent investigation were picked apart methodically by Khodorkovsky's team, which revealed numerous discrepancies between the officially declared explanations and the actual circumstances of the crime. The findings were published in a lengthy dossier almost a year to the day after the murders. It concluded that the official explanation for the journalists' deaths was "indefensible and that military instructors employed by Yevgeny Prigozhin's company were probably involved in the incident".
When the FBI posted the details of its reward for information about Prigozhin a few weeks ago, Khodorkovsky jumped on the announcement. "It's a pity that this is not yet for participating in the murder of journalists, but it is a good start," he said in Russian on his blog post.
It was the final straw for Prigozhin, who decided to exact his revenge by putting a bounty on Khodorkovsky's head. In a statement published via his Concord company he offered US$500,000 for his rival's capture, adding that he would only pay if a Russian citizen caught him, because he did not want to pay money to the foreigners who had hit him with sanctions.
Sources in London close to Khodorkovsky, 57, brushed off fears the hefty sum could embolden criminals to attack him, telling me, "People threaten him all the time. He is a public figure. His life is constantly under threat."
Despite the threats, Khodorkovsky has chosen not to have bodyguards, believing that if Putin or his henchmen wanted him dead then no amount of security would prevent that.
Khodorkovsky couldn't resist the temptation to hit back for what he described as a "criminal contract". "Putin's chef's criminal record is well known," he says in a video post translated into English from his Russian blog. He paraphrases a relatively unknown extract from Prigozhin's court hearing in 1981, which reveals the prosecution case against him.
At around midnight on March 20, 1980, Prigozhin and a friend noticed a girl in the street who was wearing a beautiful coat. They asked the koroleva (which translates to queen in English), who was unknown at the time, for a cigarette. As she opened her bag Prigozhin grabbed her from behind and choked her until she fainted. When she woke up, her boots and gold earrings were gone.
"You can take a guy out of a St Petersburg back alley. But you can't take the back alley out of him," Khodorkovsky adds.
Written by: Larisa Brown
© The Times of London