Wagner-in-Chief: Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s rebelling bulldog of war?
It was Putin who begat Prigozhin who helped begat Donald Trump and a whole lot more chaos across the globe. More than a rebel, the Wagner head is a modern-day Frankenstein's monster.
In Russia, where everything and nothing is connected, Yevgeny Prigozhin is the membrane between it all: the man who turned Fortress Russia into Expanding Russia.
It was also Prigozhin, founder of Glavset LTD, or the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in 2013, who helped deliver 45th US President Donald Trump safely to the White House in 2016.
In November 2022, Prigozhin posted on social media, his preferred means of communication, that yes, indeed, he had fiddled the US election and threatened “to continue to do so”.
Right now he may be making headlines for his standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a threatened march on Moscow by mercenaries who are the moer in.
The bulldog of war has been around as long as Putin has. It was Putin who begat Prigozhin, but political paternity would never be openly claimed, ever. Not even now.
Back in 2013, Prigozhin set up the IRA where, by 2015, around 600 staff worked 12-hour shifts in St Petersburg offices, including 80 dedicated trolls focused on disrupting the US political system.
Putin’s response to this in 2018 was laced with coolth: “How low everything that happens in the information and political sphere in the countries of the United West has fallen is a restaurant owner from Russia can influence elections in some European country or the US. Is it not funny?” Putin rightly asked.
Funny alright, but not hahaha.
Before cooking and killing came gambling
The University of Oslo’s Lisa Lindseth Samuelsen’s 2022 Master’s Thesis, Russia’s new Oligarchs: Networks, Services, and Regime Stability, sets out the rise of oligarchs like Prigozhin and Konstantin Malofeev.
Malofeev is closely connected to Ukraine separatists and is regarded as one of the direct perpetrators of the war in Ukraine. He owns a TV channel streaming Kremlin propaganda and has been sanctioned by the US for funding the Russian-backed separatists.
Prigozhin, better known as “Putin’s chef”, was born in Leningrad in 1961. Samuelsen notes that while the narrative is that Prigozhin started off as a “hot dog” seller on the streets of Leningrad, this is more myth than truth, part of the 21st-century malaise.
From the archive: Wagner’s Yevgeny Prigozhin – the man who would be king on two continents
Before his venture into catering and scoring Bosasa-like contracts, it was gambling where Prigozhin sought to cash in on Russia’s new State corporatist venture which soon turned into a mafia state with “grandfather” Putin at its apex.
This he did in the 1990s as the director of ZAO Spektr, a gambling outfit owned by Igor Gorbenko and Boris Spektor.
Round about then Putin had worked as the chairman of the Supervisory board for Casinos and Gambling under the St Petersburg mayor’s office. In 1993 his job was to issue licences for the right to engage in the “gambling business”.
Prigozhin’s criminal history is public knowledge. That he served time in the 1980s and now has an “expired criminal record” also, old news.
But he is a man whose prints are all over conflict zones. In 2014 during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a new news outfit, the Kharkiv News Agency, popped up at the same time, linked to Prigozhin’s IRA, of course.
Prigozhin has connections to several Russian politicians, but his networks extend to politicians elsewhere.
On 7 November 2018, the Wagner head took part in a meeting with Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and with Libyan rebel general, Khalifa Haftar.
The Wagner group appeared in that country in April 2019 to join forces with Haftar.
In August 2o21, a BBC documentary uncovered evidence of war crimes and brutal civilian killings. Piles of bodies all over.
From Syria to Yemen, Nigeria to South Sudan, from northern Mozambique to Libya and the Central African Republic, Prigozhin’s “private” army is there. From concession mining arrangements to cranking out political election propaganda in Madagascar, Wagner’s the way.
The mercenary group has long been viewed as a “shadow ministry” doing glove puppet “foreign policy” work for the Kremlin in Africa.
“Privateers” is the word; those mandated by the state, but not formally. Putin’s proxy political technologists, in other words.
The Russian president does not play a long game, say those who study him. Putin is reactive. But the question now must be how long a game has Prigozhin been playing, and where is it headed?
Samuelsen notes that Prigozhin had begun to build his networks in the early 1990s with Malofeev cashing in in the 2000s.
It was at the start of Putin’s third term that both Prigozhin and Malofeev “expanded their service repertoire and settled their standing and relevance as patriotic entrepreneurs”.
The men formed the spine for important sub-networks within Putin’s pyramid, where he perched – no one is sure how precariously at present – at the top.
Back in the 1990s, Putin warned the oligarchs to stay out of politics, but men like Prigozhin have instead grown their activities and networks in the meantime.
Samuelson also noted that networks around Putin constantly renewed themselves to remain useful to the Kremlin. However, she warns, this is dependent “on the expectation the networks have of who will be the chief patron of the single-pyramid system”.
“If their expectations of political leadership and the structure of the pyramid-system drives them to shift their loyalty to another possible chief-patron, the services are likely to follow the needs of the potential new chief-patron.”
How useful is Wagner to Putin at this point? Events unfurling as we write will soon reveal the threads in the web of Putin’s deep state. DM