The millionaire mercenary chief who long benefited from the powerful patronage of President Vladimir Putin has moved into the global spotlight with a dramatic rebellion against Russia’s military that challenged the authority of Putin himself.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is the 62-year-old owner of the Kremlin-allied Wagner Group, a private army of inmate recruits and other mercenaries that has fought some of the deadliest battles in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Friday, Prigozhin abruptly escalated months of scathing criticism of Russia’s conduct of the war, calling for an armed uprising to oust the defence minister, and then rolling toward Moscow with his soldiers-for-hire.
As Putin’s government declared a “counterterrorism” alert and scrambled to seal off Moscow with checkpoints, Prigozhin just as abruptly stood down the following day.
As part of the deal to defuse the crisis, he agreed to move to Belarus and was seen late on Saturday retreating with his forces from Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia where they had taken over the military headquarters.
It was unclear what was next for Prigozhin, a former prison inmate, hot-dog vendor and restaurant owner who has riveted world attention.
Prigozhin and Putin go way back, with both born in Leningrad, what is now St Petersburg.
During the final years of the Soviet Union, Prigozhin served time in prison – 10 years by his own admission – although he does not say what it was for.
Afterward, he owned a hot dog stand and then fancy restaurants that drew interest from Putin.
In his first term, the Russian leader took then-French President Jacques Chirac to dine at one of them.
“Vladimir Putin saw how I built a business out of a kiosk, he saw that I don’t mind serving to the esteemed guests because they were my guests,” Prigozhin recalled in an interview published in 2011.
His businesses expanded significantly to catering and providing school lunches.
In 2010, Putin helped open Prigozhin’s factory, which was built on generous loans by a state bank.
In Moscow alone, his company Concord won millions of dollars in contracts to provide meals at public schools.
He also organised catering for Kremlin events for several years – earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef” – and has provided catering and utility services to the Russian military.
In 2017, opposition figure and corruption fighter Alexei Navalny accused Prigozhin’s companies of breaking antitrust laws by bidding for Defense Ministry contracts.
Prigozhin also owns the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-allied mercenary force that has come to play a central role in Putin’s projection of Russian influence in trouble spots around the world.
The United States, European Union, United Nations and others say the mercenary force has involved itself in conflicts in countries across Africa in particular.
Wagner fighters allegedly provide security for national leaders or warlords in exchange for lucrative payments, often including a share of gold or other natural resources.
US officials say Russia may also be using Wagner’s work in Africa to support its war in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, Prigozhin’s mercenaries have become a major force in the war, fighting as counterparts to the Russian army in battles with Ukrainian forces.
That includes Wagner fighters taking Bakhmut, the city where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place.
By last month, Wagner Group and Russian forces appeared to have largely won Bakhmut, a victory with strategically slight importance for Russia despite the cost in lives.
Prigozhin has said that 20,000 of his men died in Bakhmut, about half of them inmates recruited from Russia’s prisons.
Western countries and United Nations experts have accused Wagner Group mercenaries of committing numerous human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
In December 2021, the European Union accused the group of “serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings,” and of carrying out “destabilising activities” in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
Some of the reported incidents stood out in their grisly brutality.
In November 2022, a video surfaced online that showed a former Wagner contractor getting beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he allegedly fled to the Ukrainian side and was recaptured.
Despite public outrage and a stream of demands for an investigation, the Kremlin turned a blind eye to it.
As his forces fought and died en masse in Ukraine, Prigozhin raged against Russia’s military brass.
In a video released by his team last month, Prigozhin stood next to rows bodies he said were those of Wagner fighters.
He accused Russia’s regular military of incompetence and of starving his troops of the weapons and ammunition they needed to fight.
“These are someone’s fathers and someone’s sons,” Prigozhin said then.
“The scum that doesn’t give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell.”
Prigozhin has castigated the top military brass, accusing top-ranking officers of incompetence.
His remarks were unprecedented for Russia’s tightly controlled political system, in which only Putin could air such criticism.
In January, Putin reaffirmed his trust in the chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, by putting him in direct charge of the Russian forces in Ukraine, a move that some observers also interpreted as an attempt to cut Prigozhin down to size.
Asked recently about a media comparison of him to Grigory Rasputin, a mystic who gained influence over Russia’s last czar by claiming to have the power to cure his son’s hemophilia, Prigozhin snapped: “I don’t stop blood, but I spill blood of the enemies of our Motherland.”
Prigozhin earlier gained more limited attention in the US, when he and a dozen other Russian nationals and three Russian companies were charged with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory.
They were indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.
The US Treasury Department has sanctioned Prigozhin and associates repeatedly in connection with both his election interference and his leadership of the Wagner Group.
After the 2018 indictment, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Prigozhin as saying, in a clearly sarcastic remark: “Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I treat them with great respect. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”