Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the private military contractor Wagner Group, has recently made headlines for his involvement in a highly contentious situation in Russia. Prigozhin marched his mercenary forces into the city of Rostov-on-Don and called for an armed rebellion to depose Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu. This move follows Prigozhin’s accusations that Shoigu ordered a rocket strike on Wagner’s war camp in Ukraine, resulting in the death of 2,000 soldiers. This article aims to shed light on the background of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the controversial figure behind the Wagner Group, and the escalating tensions surrounding his actions.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s journey to becoming the owner of Wagner Group is marked by a tumultuous past. He started his career as a petty criminal and served a 12-year prison sentence for robbery and assault. After his release, Prigozhin opened a restaurant in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, where he forged a relationship with Vladimir Putin, who was then the city’s Deputy Mayor and future Russian President.
Leveraging his connection with Putin, Prigozhin secured lucrative government catering contracts, including serving meals in the Kremlin, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef.” He expanded his business ventures into media and gained notoriety for his alleged involvement in interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election through his infamous internet “troll factory.”
The Wagner Group A Paramilitary Force
The Wagner Group, founded and financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a private military contractor that gained prominence during the separatist conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. By employing privately contracted fighters, Wagner allowed Russia to deny direct involvement while pursuing its strategic objectives.
Wagner quickly gained a reputation for its brutal tactics and human rights abuses in conflicts worldwide. It operated in Syria, fighting alongside the Russian-backed government forces of President Bashar Assad, as well as participating in other conflicts in Africa. Prigozhin allegedly used Wagner’s deployments to secure mining contracts, generating funds for the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Wagner Group’s Role in the Ukraine Conflict
According to New York Post, Wagner Group assumed a significant role in the war in Ukraine after Russian forces faced heavy losses and setbacks against Ukrainian forces, supported by Western allies. Prigozhin personally recruited Wagner fighters by offering to pardon their crimes if they served on the Ukrainian front lines for a specific period. In a boastful interview, he claimed to have recruited 50,000 fighters, with approximately 10,000 losing their lives during the grueling and bloody capture of the city of Bakhmut—a significant advance for Russia in the conflict.
According to U.S. officials, Wagner Group had an estimated 50,000 personnel involved in the Ukrainian conflict, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts. It is believed that the group spends approximately $100 million per month on its activities in Ukraine. In December, the United States accused North Korea of supplying weapons to Wagner Group in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, although both Wagner and North Korea denied these allegations.
The Alleged Armed Rebellion and Escalating Tensions
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s recent call for an armed rebellion in Russia, targeting Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, has intensified an already strained situation. Accusing Shoigu of ordering the rocket strike on Wagner’s camp, Prigozhin threatened to “destroy” anyone who attempted to stop his forces. However,
the Defense Ministry denied carrying out the attack, and Russian generals have accused Prigozhin of orchestrating a coup.
The escalation of tensions between Prigozhin and Shoigu stems from Prigozhin’s persistent criticism of the Ministry of Defense’s leadership. He has openly accused them of incompetence and withholding necessary arms and ammunition for Wagner’s troops fighting on behalf of Russia in Ukraine.