Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the private military contractor Wagner Group, has made headlines by leading his mercenary forces into Rostov-on-Don, Russia, which many interpret as a declaration of civil war against the Russian state. Prigozhin has vowed to take all necessary steps to topple Russia’s military leadership, prompting the Kremlin to accuse him of “armed rebellion.”
Born in 1961 in Russia, Yevgeny Prigozhin is a prominent and controversial figure in the world of mercenaries. He has a long-standing connection with Russian President Vladimir Putin, dating back to their shared hometown of St. Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad) in the 1990s. Prigozhin’s rise to prominence in Russia coincided with the Ukraine war.
Prigozhin’s early life involved brushes with the law. At the age of 18, he received his first criminal conviction for theft, resulting in a suspended two-and-a-half-year sentence. Two years later, he was sentenced to 13 years in jail for robbery and theft, serving nine years behind bars. Upon his release, Prigozhin ventured into the food industry, starting with hot dog stalls and eventually opening upscale restaurants in St. Petersburg. Through his connections in the city, he managed to secure lucrative government contracts for his catering business, earning him the moniker “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin expanded his business ventures to include media and gained notoriety for his involvement in an infamous internet “troll factory” that led to his indictment in the United States for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
In January of the present year, Prigozhin publicly acknowledged founding, leading, and financing the shadowy private mercenary company Wagner, which has worked alongside the Russian army during the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Wagner mercenaries have faced numerous accusations of human rights abuses across Africa, including in countries like the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mali.
Although Prigozhin’s exact wealth remains unknown, he is often described as a billionaire who has amassed his fortune through state contracts. Notably, he was sanctioned by the United States, accused of playing a role in meddling in the 2016 US presidential election through his internet troll activities. In 2018, three journalists investigating Wagner’s operations in the Central African Republic were killed in an ambush.
While Wagner gained public acclaim in Russia for its role in capturing key Ukrainian towns, including Bakhmut, Prigozhin has openly criticized what he perceives as systemic mismanagement and dishonesty within the Russian defense ministry. He has been engaged in a protracted power struggle with the defense ministry, as his forces have spearheaded costly battles in eastern Ukraine with limited gains.
Prigozhin has directed his ire toward Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other senior officials, blaming them directly for the deaths of Wagner fighters and alleging inadequate ammunition supply from Moscow. Surprisingly, Prigozhin has not targeted Putin in his criticism, instead claiming that the Russian president had been deceived by Shoigu despite the high casualties and over 350,000 casualties suffered in the war.
In contrast to Russia’s generals, who have faced criticism for avoiding direct involvement in battles, Prigozhin frequently poses for pictures alongside mercenaries purportedly on the front lines. Wagner’s confrontation with the Russian military leadership adds further complications to the already-confused and mismanaged war effort. This development could potentially impact the level of public support for the war effort and, in turn, affect the strength of Putin’s regime. Following news of Prigozhin’s statements, Russian news agencies reported that police forces were working to secure government buildings in Moscow.
The situation has attracted close attention from American officials, with the National Security Council closely monitoring the developments. Ukraine is currently conducting a counter-offensive against Russian forces, and a successful Ukrainian offensive could potentially boost domestic support in the United States for aiding Ukraine financially.
Prior to the recent standoff with Russian officials, Prigozhin visited Russian prisons to recruit Wagner fighters, offering to pardon their crimes in exchange for serving a half-month tour on the Ukrainian front lines. In an interview in May, he claimed to have recruited 50,000 fighters, with approximately 10,000 of them losing their lives during the grueling and bloody capture of the city of Bakhmut, which remains Russia’s only major advance since the start of the war. The United States estimates that Wagner had around 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts. It is also speculated that the Wagner Group spends approximately $100 million per month on its operations in Ukraine.
With the Russian presidential elections scheduled for 2024, there has been speculation that Prigozhin could potentially be Putin’s successor if the longtime leader chooses not to run for reelection.