Yevgeny Prgozhin, a once low-profile businessman, who had President Vladimir Putin as his powerful patron, shot into the spotlight when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Prigozhin, 62, who is the leader of a mercenary group that portrays itself as waging some of the most difficult battles for the Russian military in Ukraine has taken on his most dangerous role: he now preaches open rebellion against the military leadership of his country.
Prigozhin has intensified months of scathing critique of Russia's war conduct by calling for an armed revolt to oust its defense minister. Russian security services reacted instantly, opening a criminal probe and urging Prigozhin to be arrested.
Tass reported that in a sign how seriously the Kremlin takes Prigozhin’s threat, riot officers and the National Guard have scrambled for tighter security at key Moscow facilities, including government agencies, transport infrastructure and transportation infrastructure. Prigozhin urged Russians, a former felon and hot-dog vendor who has been a long-time Putin associate, to join him in his'march towards justice'.
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Prigozhin & Putin are old friends, both being born in Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg).
Prigozhin, who admits to having spent 10 years in prison during the last years of the Soviet Union but does not specify the reason for his imprisonment, served time behind bars.
He owned a hotdog stand, and later fancy restaurants which attracted Putin's interest. In his first term as Russian president, he invited then-French leader Jacques Chirac to eat at one of these restaurants.
Prigozhin recalled this in an interview in 2011.
His business expanded to include catering and school lunches. In 2010, Putin opened Prigozhin’s factory, which was built with generous loans from a state-owned bank. His company Concord has won contracts worth millions of dollars to supply meals in public schools. He has also provided catering services for Kremlin functions for many years, earning him the nickname "Putin’s Chef".
Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader and anti-corruption fighter, accused Prigozhin’s companies in 2017 of violating antitrust laws when they bid for $387 million worth of Defense Ministry contracts.
Prigozhin owns also the Wagner Group, a Kremlin mercenary group that has played a key role in Putin's projections of Russian influence around the globe.
United States, European Union and United Nations among others claim that the mercenary forces have been involved in conflicts across Africa. Wagner fighters are alleged to provide security for warlords or national leaders in exchange for lucrative payment, including gold and other natural resources. U.S. officials claim that Russia could also be using Wagner’s work in Africa as a support for its war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s mercenaries are a major force of the war in Ukraine. They fight as the Russian Army’s counterparts in battles against Ukrainian forces.
This includes Wagner fighters capturing Bakhmut, where the longest and bloodiest battles took place. Last month, the Wagner Group and Russian Forces appeared to have won Bakhmut. This victory was of little strategic importance for Russia, despite its cost in human lives. According to the U.S., nearly half of the 20.000 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine between December and January were Wagner fighters. Inmates from Russian prisons were among his soldiers-for hire.
RAGE AGAINST RUSSIA’S GENERALS
Prigozhin raged at the Russian military brass as his troops fought and perished in Ukraine. In a video that his team released last month, Prigozhin stood beside rows of bodies he claimed were Wagner fighters. He accused the Russian regular military of being incompetent and starving his troops' ammunition and weapons.
Prigozhin then said, 'These are the fathers of someone and their sons.' The scum who doesn't provide us with ammunition will be eaten alive in hell.
A "BAD ACTOR" in the US
Prigozhin had previously received less attention in the U.S. when he, a dozen Russian nationals, and three Russian firms were accused in the U.S. of operating a secret social media campaign aimed to foment discord before Donald Trump's election victory in 2016.
Indictments were issued as part of the investigation by Robert Mueller, special counsel for Russia's election interference. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Prigozhin, and his associates, repeatedly for both their alleged election meddling and his leadership in the Wagner Group.
Prigozhin was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying in a sarcastic manner, "Americans are impressionable people. They see what they want. I always treat them with respect. I'm not upset at all that I am on this list. Let them see the devil if they wish.
In that incident, the Biden White House called him a 'known bad actor', and State Department spokesman Ned Price stated that Prigozhin’s 'bold admission' was 'just a manifestation of impunity enjoyed by crooks under President Putin and his Kremlin'.
Prigozhin, who became more vocal about the Russian conventional military's conduct of the fighting in Ukraine as he grew, continued to play a role that was seemingly essential for the Russian offensive. He also appeared to have suffered no retaliation by Putin for his criticisms of Putin's Generals.
The media reported that Prigozhin was gaining influence over Putin and was pursuing a prominent position in politics. Analysts warned against overestimating Prigozhin's influence on Putin.
Mark Galeotti, a specialist in Russian security issues at University College London, said on his podcast "In Moscow's Shadows" that he was not a close figure or confidant of Putin.
'Prigozhin is a very good worker. He does exactly what the Kremlin asks and does well for himself. Galeotti stated that he was part of the staff and not part of his family.