The war in Ukraine has pretty much been in the news since the Russian invasion began in February 2022 and throughout the tragedy, many different personalities have come and gone. Politicians, diplomats and generals have emerged into the spotlight, played their part and often then disappeared, though notably the main protagonists are still here and fighting grimly for survival.
But amongst all that has happened there has been one person who, I’ll be honest, I just don’t get. I don’t understand his role, his influence or his intentions.
Probably best known for his position as boss of the infamous Wagner mercenary group, which has been conspicuous in its role in much of the fighting undertaken by Russian forces and their allies, Prigozhin effectively runs a private army in parallel to the Russian military.
He has also been extremely vocal in his condemnation of the Russian high command and their conduct of the war. As in he recently described them as “fucking bitches”, and out and out accused them of treason – as well as stating that one day they would pay for their “…evil deeds”. Pretty strong words considering that disrespecting the armed forces is a criminal offence in Russia, with a sentence of fifteen years hard labour.
Indeed, he has gone further in recent days, stating that the long-awaited Ukrainian offensive was being conducted competently – a marked contrast to the castigation he has been heaping for months on the Russian high command.
So Prigozhin’s brazen public statements, which at the least constitute defeatism, at worst out and out treason, would lead one to expect him to soon have a visit from security forces or even suddenly fall out of a window.
If you don’t know what I mean, go google “Russian Oligarchs windows”. Seriously, there is a whole Wikipedia page on powerful Russians dying in odd circumstances in the last couple of years.
But Prigozhin not only seems to not fear any consequences for his words, he continues to up the ante. And that raises interesting questions about the state and nature of Putin’s reign and what the power dynamics actually are within the Russian corridors of power.
Now I have to issue a spoiler alert here, the answer ultimately is pretty much “who knows”, because Putin has always run a sort of parallel government structure, with the official body of state running things but the actual power resting in individual actors who have built their personal empires and wealth as part of Putin’s…dare I say “crew”…in a power structure which, if we are polite could be described as more feudal in nature but if we want a more accurate modern analogy is closer to the classic mafia “family” of organised crime.
And if we look at the histories of both Prigozhin and Putin himself, well, there might be some justification for making that sort of linkage.
So, who is Prigozhin?
Yevgeny Prigozhin was born in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, in 1961. Though he apparently had hopes of perhaps pursuing a career as a professional athlete, the young Prigozhin fell into trouble at an early age, being arrested at eighteen for theft. Though he only received a suspended sentence he continued in his early criminal activity and two years later was once again arrested for committing robbery and fraud.
In 1981 he was sentenced to twelve years and would serve nine in a penal colony, being released in 1990. It is here that Prigozhin really began to make his mark, if that is the right term.
Obviously, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the social and economic turmoil that ensued, you would expect things to be tough for the newly released convict. But Prigozhin apparently thrived, rapidly amassing a fortune…from selling hot dogs.
Yes, Prigozhin claims that was the basis of the start of his fortune, selling hotdogs at a market in St.Petersberg. Now, maybe it’s possible that the people of St. Petersburg were aching for a taste of something new after the years of Soviet greyness, so much so that they just couldn’t get enough of this exotic new treat.
Thing is, Russia was in a complete mess at this point, basically haemorrhaging money as those with means and opportunity rushed to get their cash out, while food shortages were a very dangerous reality. And here is Prigozhin, making a fortune with hot dogs when the average citizen is in real danger of starvation!
But hey, maybe I’m just the suspicious type. What is known is that between 1991 and 1997 Prigozhin started to invest in a range of different fields, from grocery stores to casinos to restaurants. And it was here that he crossed paths with another up and comer in St. Petersburg who was, allegedly, dabbling in some very questionable fields.
One Vladimir Putin.
Now, there doesn’t seem to be any “official” date for when these two men first met, it generally considered sometime in the mid-to-late nineties when Putin started patronising Prigozhin’s high-end restaurants, which in turn has led to Prigozhin’s nickname of “Putin’s Chef”. But I would be surprised if they hadn’t crossed paths before.
Between 1991 and 1996 Putin worked as a deputy to the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. And Putin’s role was tied to the export of goods and resources from Russia in exchange for food stuffs – remember that whole “teetering on starvation” thing?
As said, Russia was just gushing money out in the 1990s, most of it on illegal activity. To try to stem that issue, the Russian government enacted a law that allowed it to seize funds that had been sent abroad illegally – a sum that ran into tens of billions of dollars. But if the money was legally sent, well, that was fine. To send the money legally, what was required was an authorisation license. Issuing those was Putin’s job.
Boy, did he issue those licences. He was so generous with issuing licences, signing literally thousands, that he was investigated by the City Council, who accused him of ripping the whole system off with massive commissions and protecting parties that simply didn’t deliver on their promised end products, which was normally food imports into Russia.
Oh, also an investigation by the German authorities into a St. Petersburg real estate company that Putin was involved in led to accusations that it was a front for laundering money for the Cali cartel.
Anyway, the list goes on and on, you get the picture, but I would be surprised if they didn’t cross paths quite early while involved in their…business ventures. Because the ‘90s was a very lucrative time for both Prigozhin and Putin and they would get more so as Putin began his climb to political power.
Prigozhin founded the Concord Group in 1995, which handled a whole range of different business interests, ranging from catering to real estate, and was to soon be handling some hugely lucrative contracts. Initially this was providing meals to school children in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but eventually escalated to supplying meals to the entire Russian army, a contract that was worth $1.2 billion per annum and for which Russian law had to very suddenly be changed.
But the huge sums he was making allowed Prigozhin to start two new businesses that were to prove extremely useful to Putin and, more particularly, his foreign policy.
The first was the Internet Research Agency, which was formed probably in 2013. Despite the name this entity had little to do with researching on the internet, but rather was an agency for pushing pro-Russian propaganda and creating influence campaigns online, often using trolling and hate campaigns as a tactic. To do this it created untold numbers of fake social media accounts which were used to drive a particular narrative in line with Russian policy, and as such was a very important part of Russian statecraft, being accused of meddling in several foreign countries domestic politics including the US election of 2016.
This in turn led to the FBI issuing an arrest warrant for Prigozhin and a ten-million-dollar reward for information on him and the IRA. Oh, and you don’t just have to take my word on these accusations, nor the FBI’s. In typical Prigozhin fashion he admitted to doing exactly that in 2022.
There was another rather unusual business interest that Prigozhin set up, again probably in 2013 or ’14, that is even more controversial.
This paramilitary group, composed of veterans of Russia’s numerous post-Cold War conflicts and interventions, was founded to act as a private military organisation that could provide armed assistance to Russian interests internationally while allowing a degree of separation and deniability to Putin’s government. First appearing in Ukraine in 2014, Wagner soon became involved in fighting in Syria, Venezuela, Libya and a whole host of other African countries.
The organisation’s military muscle served a two-fold role. Firstly, it shored up whichever faction best suited Russian national goals and reaffirmed Putin’s influence. As a great example of this is the fact that the Assad regime in Syria would almost certainly have collapsed had it not been for major interventions by both Wagner and actual Russian military forces in the Syrian Civil War.
But Wagner also served the subsidiary role of seizing control of valuable financial assets for funding their operations and further enriching their boss. Gold mines in Sudan, diamonds in the Central African Republics, oil in Syria; Wagner has taken control of these resources, along with many others, providing the company – and by extension Prigozhin – with a hugely wealthy international portfolio.
And while this is speculation on my part, I strongly suspect that one of the beneficiaries of this is Putin himself. This would likely be impossible to prove considering the sheer opaqueness of the Russian president’s finances – indeed, his entire life – but it would certainly provide a reason for Prigozhin’s ability to say things others can’t and seem to get away from it.
I also suspect that another reason for Prigozhin’s confidence is that he acts as a security counterweight to the Russian military. This system was standard during the Soviet era, with the Ministry of the Interior and the KGB both retaining substantial armed forces to act as a counter to the Ministry of Defence should the military get ideas of launching a coup. It seems entirely possible that Putin uses Wagner and Prigozhin in a similar manner, with the added bonus of it providing a lucrative sideline as well.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine saw Wagner and Prigozhin take place front and centre in the war effort, especially after the failure of the initial invasion and the fact that the Russian army was not properly prepared for the conflict. Wagner’s commitment to the conflict rapidly escalated from an estimated 300 personnel to tens of thousands, famously many of them recruited from prisons on the offer that they would be given pardons if they completed a set term of service fighting for Wagner.
The company effectively became a parallel military fighting in Ukraine and this brings us back to Prigozhin’s bellicosity to the Russian military and, in particular, the Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu.
Prigozhin has repeatedly condemned Shoigu of at best incompetence, at worst treason, including making a public statement at the end of May 2023 that he was asking the prosecutors office to begin investigations into the Russian high command with a view to pressing charges.
And to be plain, Shoigu is not just some government appointee, but firmly a part of the parallel government that Putin uses to run the country, including having his own extensive business and political interests that played a key part in Putin’s rise to power.
This all led to speculation about the nature of both Prigozhin’s power within the Russian government and what exactly his role under Putin was. Some have speculated that Prigozhin has become strong enough that he sees himself as a potential replacement for Putin. This was something that foreign observers had speculated Shoigu might become, viewing him as a likely potential successor to Putin.
But the Ukraine quagmire, which is quite frankly laid at Shoigu’s door, may mean that Prigozhin sees his chance for the big chair, which would certainly explain his public vitriol towards Shoigu.
However, there is another opinion that Prigozhin is effectively acting as Putin’s voice in rendering criticism towards Shoigu, meaning criticism by proxy without him publicly condemning the powerful chief of the military. Others have expressed the opinion that the recent criticism of the Russian high command is actually a ploy of Putin’s – again using Prigozhin as a proxy – to prepare the Russian people for a defeat in the current war and, more importantly, laying the groundwork for those who are going to be left to carry the can.
But the last few days seem to give some further insight into the power plays that are occurring at highest levels of the Russian government, or at least in the afore-mentioned “mafia crew” that runs the country. Finally reacting to basically non-stop attacks (and the occasional death threat) from Prigozhin the Russian Ministry of Defence – so basically Shoigu – issued a proclamation on the 10th of June that all “volunteer formations” needed to sign contracts, effectively becoming an official part of the Russian military.
Prigozhin reacted as about you’d expect, with a furious public condemnation and a point-blank refusal to have any of his forces sign the contracts, adding that: “Shoigu cannot properly manage military formation.”
But in a twist, which is classic Putin, the Russian President intervened personally on June 13th. Speaking at a meeting of bloggers and influencers who have been cheerleading the Russian invasion, Putin said that he supported the initiative and that all volunteer detachments should sign contracts as quickly as possible. This would seem to signal that he was backing Shoigu over Prigozhin, effectively leaving his “chef” dangling in the breeze.
But that would be far too simple for as Machiavellian a character as Putin, and he followed up by saying that:
“At the start of the special military operation, we quickly realised that the ‘carpet generals’ […] are not effective, to put it mildly.
“People started to come out of the shadows who we hadn’t heard or seen before, and they turned out to be very effective and made themselves useful.”
My speculation is that this is Putin sending a message to Shoigu that, yes, this time he supports him, but he retains other options if need be. And this, I suspect, is Putin’s intention with keeping Prigozhin on board; indeed his relationship with all of his subordinates. If each of them is too busy squabbling with one another, engaging in bitter rivalries, then none of them have the time, nor mutual support, to make a play for supreme power themselves.
Whether he manages to keep up this juggling act, well, we will just have to wait and see. Because the day after Putin’s announcement on the contracts, Prigozhin expressed, for the first time that I am aware of, disagreement with his boss.
And in a world of undeniably brutal men, who think nothing of resorting to violence to resolve their personal issues, that makes for a dangerous situation.
So, while the world is fixating on the battleground, especially the Ukrainian offensive and the deployment of western military vehicles, it probably will pay to keep a very close eye on the situation in Moscow as the pressure continues to build on Putin and his crew.
Reynolds, Nathaniel. “Power, Profit, and Denial: Understanding Prigozhin’s Role.” Putin’s Not-So-Secret Mercenaries: Patronage, Geopolitics, and the Wagner Group, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2019, pp. 4–8. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep20986.5