Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? Ex-convict dubbed ‘Putin’s chef’ leading Wagner Group rebellion in Russia

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? Ex-convict dubbed 'Putin's chef' leading Wagner Group rebellion in Russia

Yevgeny Prigozhin in the early 2000s earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” after his restaurants and catering companies became favorites of the Russian president and Kremlin leadership.

Two decades later, the outspoken businessman is leading an armed rebellion that foreign intelligence analysts are calling a serious threat to the survival of the Russian regime.

For his part, Mr. Prigozhin, head of the mercenary Wagner Group, says he is trying to save the nation, not destroy it.

“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Mr. Prigozhin said Saturday as his armed rebels marched toward Moscow and clashed with government forces loyal to President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Prigozhin has walked a unique path that took him from prison to President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, and now an enemy of the Russian government itself.

In the early 1980s, a young Mr. Prigozhin was sentenced to jail time for robbery and spent nearly a decade behind bars. He was released in 1990, just as the once-mighty Soviet Union was collapsing.

Mr. Prigozhin made his mark in the food industry, first as a hot dog vendor and later as the owner of a Russian grocery store chain. 

By the mid-90s, Mr. Prigozhin had a foothold in the restaurant and catering industry. In the early 2000s, he personally served meals to Mr. Putin and a host of distinguished foreign dignitaries, including former U.S. President George W. Bush.

His food became so popular in the Kremlin that he was dubbed “Putin’s chef,” a nickname that has followed Mr. Prigozhin for decades. He eventually won government contracts to supply food to the Russian military.

Mr. Prigozhin in 2014 founded the Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit that formerly partnered with the Russian military but has increasingly operated outside the traditional military structure. He used some of his profits to operate a so-called internet “troll factory” in Russia — a move that led to his indictment by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election. 

Today, the Wagner Group is estimated to have well over 50,000 fighters among its ranks, some of them convicts pulled from Russian prisons to fight for their country. The Biden administration has designated the group as a transnational criminal organization.

The Wagner Group has played a central role in Russia’s war in Ukraine, which began in February 2022. The organization is widely viewed as exceptionally ruthless, often willing to embrace brutal tactics that even most Russian soldiers would not use. In 2021, for example, the European Union accused the group of “serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings.” Among other alleged atrocities, Wagner fighters have been accused of bludgeoning victims to death with sledgehammers, mutilating them, and burning their bodies.

The Wagner Group has played a central role in Russian military activities long before the Ukraine conflict. Over the past decade, the outfit was a key cog in Russia’s involvement in Syria, home to a decade-long civil war. Russian government troops and Wagner fighters have helped prop up the government of dictator Bashar Assad.

Wagner fighters have also fought in Libya and elsewhere in Africa. 

While the group now poses a direct threat to Mr. Putin’s government, Western observers warn against casting Mr. Prigozhin and his Wagner fighters as heroes in this story.

“Never forget that Wagner is a terrorist group. There are no good guys in this fight,” former U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger said in a Twitter post Saturday morning.

— This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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