THE RUSSIA CONNECTIONCan Wagner Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin Challenge Putin?

By Maria Katamadze

Published 23 June 2023

The owner of the Wagner private military contractor and leader of a massive internet troll farm has called for an armed rebellion to oust Russia’s defense minister. But is he a threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military company Wagner Group, has become one of the prominent figures in Russia’s war against Ukraine. His harsh and unprecedented criticism of Russia’s military command has caused him to be seen as a potential threat to President Vladimir Putin. But is he as influential as he appears to be? 

The Wagner Group is notorious for its cruelty and brutal tactics on the battlefield. It has also demonstrated its ruthlessness off the battlefield in videos of alleged executions of its fighters who defected to Ukraine.

Wagner has adopted the sledgehammer as its symbol after reportedly using it to execute a defector from its ranks last year.

Ostentatious cruelty is part of what Prigozhin offers. Whatever it is — a staged piece, trolling or immersive performance — it does not stop being part of an advertising campaign that promotes a cult of violence,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta.

From Prison, to Hot Dogs, to ‘Putin’s Chef’
Born in 1961, in what was then Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg, Prigozhin reportedly spent his 20s in a Soviet prison where he served nine years for robbery and fraud.

Release from prison and the fall of the Soviet Union allowed Prigozhin to embark on an entrepreneurial path. He started with hot dog carts in his hometown, and later moved to bigger projects, such as a luxurious restaurant in St. Petersburg, which became a hub for Russian elites, including then-deputy mayor Vladimir Putin. 

Having benefited from close ties with political elites, Prigozhin’s business expanded further after Putin became president. His catering company Concord, founded in the 1990s, was awarded exclusive and lucrative government contracts for state dinners, including Putin’s inauguration ceremony and a visit by US President George W. Bush to St. Petersburg. The contracts earned Prigozhin the nickname “Putin’s chef.”

However, Prigozhin did not limit his ambitions to the catering industry.

Election Meddling and Military ‘Gray Services’ for Russia
On February 14, 2023 Prigozhin admitted he was behind the Internet Research Agency, better known as a network of troll factories. According to the FBI, the agency launched a widespread disinformation campaign to influence the results of the 2016 US presidential election. The allegations had previously been fiercely denied by Prigozhin and his lawyers, who have taken legal action against journalists writing about his connection to Russian troll farms.