October 27, 2022 - 4:05pm

Robber and restauranteur Yevgeny Prigozhin’s unlikely rise to billionaire businessman and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confidante began at a hot-dog stand. Sentenced to imprisonment by a Leningrad court in 1979 for offences including fraud, theft, assault and involving a minor in criminal activity, upon his release in 1990 Prigozhin embraced the new freedoms of the post-Communist era and became a hot-dog vendor. 

Graduating to a chain of convenience stores, he then entered the high-end restaurant trade, most notably establishing the fashionable ‘New Island’ floating restaurant on the Neva River. The luxury eatery soon counted St Petersburg’s then-deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin, among its elite clientele. Upon his accession to the Russian Presidency in 2000, Putin continued to treat it as his preferred spot for entertaining visiting dignitaries, hosting Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush there. He even chose it as the site for his 2003 birthday celebrations.

Thanks to his burgeoning friendship with Putin, Prigozhin attracted the moniker of “Putin’s chef” and his company Concord Catering soon came into receipt of hefty government contracts to feed Russia’s schools, hospitals and army. 

That was not the end of Prigozhin’s service to the Kremlin. In 2013, he founded the ‘Internet Research Agency’, the St Petersburg ‘troll farm’ accused by the US Justice Department of having waged “information warfare” to influence the 2016 US Presidential election in Donald Trump’s favour. 

Just last month, a video posted online revealed Prigozhin visiting a Russian prison to compensate for dire personnel shortages in Ukraine by recruiting inmates to fight. Addressing assembled convicts, the entrepreneur announced that he represented the Wagner private military company and offered prisoners a pardon in return for six months on the front line, adding that deserters would face the firing squad. 

His firm subsequently released a statement conceding that the speaker did indeed look “terribly similar” to Prigozhin and shared a “well-delivered manner of speech”. In a post online, Prigozhin admitted he had not only founded the paramilitary Wagner Group but had even personally “cleaned the old weapons” and “sorted out the bulletproof vests”.

A shadowy private military group providing the Kremlin with mercenaries, the Wagner Group was established in 2014 to support pro-Russia separatists in the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. However, its units have since been found fighting in far-flung conflicts in Syria, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Sudan.

Wherever they have been sent, though, Wagner forces have gained a reputation for brutality. Last year, UN investigators detailed abuses committed by Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic, including “excessive force, discriminate killings, occupation of schools and looting.” 

Meanwhile, in the weeks before Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, Wagner forces reportedly engaged in ‘false flag operations’ in Eastern Ukraine, including car bombings and sabotage, offering Russia a pretext to intervene. Ukrainian prosecutors accuse Wagner mercenaries of committing war crimes in the village of Motyzhyn, while German intelligence has implicated the group in the killings of civilians in Bucha in April. 

From hosting his birthday party to furnishing him with fresh recruits, Prigozhin has thus far made a career out of pandering to Putin’s whims. However, beyond revealing his role in Wagner, there are additional signs of Prigozhin finding his own voice. This month, Wagner launched its own independent Telegram channel, giving Prigozhin a medium to express his views publicly. 

Indeed, he may well use it to amplify his criticisms of Russia’s Defence Ministry. In an escalation of his ongoing rivalry with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Prigozhin this month accused Russia’s military command of being out of touch with the realities of the Ukraine conflict, adding that “all these bastards should be sent barefoot to the front with automatic guns.”

Suggesting the man with Putin’s ear is finally making use of it, US intelligence officials claim that Prigozhin has also been privately venting to the Russian President about the Defence Ministry’s mishandling of the conflict. The aim is more funding for his Wagner mercenaries as they seek to capture the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk.

As Prigozhin jostles for power within the Kremlin and condemns the army’s failures on the battlefield, he is, according to the Institute for War, “setting up a military structure parallel to the Russian Armed Forces, which may come to pose a threat to Putin’s rule.” The once obscure Prigozhin is finally stepping out of the shadows.