The challenge is enormous. Years ago, before the full-scale war launched by Russia on Ukraine, he was known as Putin’s chef. This is because Yevgeny Prigozhin, a petty criminal from St. Petersburg, who had served sentences for theft, amassed his vast fortune through his catering business and, above all, through his ties with Vladimir Putin, whom he met in the city on the Neva and who gave him juicy public contracts. Prigozhin, turned warlord with the Wagner mercenary company, key in the invasion of Ukraine and many other conflicts as the unofficial armed wing of the Kremlin, had always served Putin loyally.
This Saturday he crossed the line. It was after a long and crucial night for Russia in which Prigozhin launched a rebellion against the leadership of the Defense Ministry and against its head, Sergey Shoigu, with whom he has had a rivalry for years, aggravated by the battles in Ukraine, and whom he accused on Friday of attacking his rear camps.
The mercenary chief has dared to contradict the Russian president after Vladimir Putin accused him in a furious speech of giving a “stab in the back to the country” with his rebellion and promising “brutal” consequences. “The president is deeply mistaken,” Prigozhin has cried out in an audio message on one of his Telegram channels. “Wagner’s fighters are true patriots.” And now that Putin has spoken, the rebellion, the mutiny, already has connotations of a military coup.
It is a point of no return for Prigozhin, who until now claimed to show loyalty to no one but Putin. Wagner’s boss has shown his most ruthless face in Ukraine, where he has enlarged his legend of vindictiveness and accused the Defense leadership of sending regular soldiers to the “meat grinder” while they sit comfortably in Moscow with money that should have gone to military campaigns. At the same time, he has always tried to prevent anyone from forgetting his modest beginnings in order to connect with those he has recruited.
Born in 1961, when St. Petersburg was still called Leningrad, he started his business with a hot dog stand in the city on the Neva in the early 1990s and took advantage of the turbulent disintegration of the Soviet Union to move into high-level gastronomy for the new Russian elite. Among this elite was Putin, already involved in politics, who was starting to climb the ladder in the St. Petersburg Administration after having spent time in the KGB (the secret services).
Putin became a patron of Prigozhin and his business. As president of Russia, he often dined at Prigozhin’s luxurious restaurant, Stáraya Tamozhnia, a floating establishment on the Neva River. He even took the then US President George W. Bush and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori there. But it was at a Putin birthday party in 2003, where Prigozhin provided the catering, that the (ironic) nickname of “Putin’s chef” was born. Since then, he has remained close to the Kremlin, though always alienated from the elites, who have seen him as an outsider, a hick, someone from the lower class who is simply useful to the regime (until he ceases to be so). And so it had been - with certain bumps in Ukraine - until now.
The ‘troll’ factory
Prigozhin became a millionaire thanks to catering, a business in which he was accused of poor quality and intoxication in a Russia where the powerful are almost never condemned for their crimes but where those who denounce are routinely penalized. He was also the driving force behind the so-called “troll factory”, accused of interfering in Western election campaigns, including the 2016 US election, which ended up with the victory of Republican Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, he gradually expanded the Wagner mercenary company, whose parent company was a covert unit of the Russian army, which, in 2014, with the Donbas war and the invasion of Crimea, began its metamorphosis into a private military company. Since then, it has deployed its mercenaries in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali and again in Ukraine.
It has been in Ukraine, during the full-scale war, that Wagner - which never officially existed on paper and of which Prigozhin denied being a part, as Russia banned mercenaries - ceased to operate in complete obscurity. It transformed from that hidden paramilitary arm of the Kremlin into a tool not only highly visible, but also key in several of the few conquests of Russia’s forces, such as those in Donbas.
The Defense Ministry leadership has always been concerned about Prigozhin’s power, but Putin has let him grow, benefiting from the internal conflicts that were previously handled in private and that began to be waged in public. In recent months, Wagner’s boss has raised the tone against Minister Shoigu approaching the point of no return this Friday and Saturday, when his mercenaries have seized official buildings in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, vowing to march on Moscow if their demands for Shoigu’s dismissal are not met.
Wagner said that its men were on their way to the capital and the support to the Kremlin from the National Guard and the security forces will be decisive in the coming hours. Prigozhin, however, does not have the support of the elites and the intentions of others like him will depend on his fate, and Prigozhin said that while his men are just 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow, he decided to turn them back to avoid “shedding Russian blood.”
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