Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin: Russia's mercenary supremo turned firebrand critic

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin

This video grab taken from a handout footage posted on May 25, 2023 shows Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin speaking in Bakhmut. 

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The simmering conflict between Moscow’s military leadership and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the bombastic chief of private mercenary group Wagner, has dramatically escalated into an open insurrection that plunges Russia into renewed uncertainty.

Russia's large-scale offensive in Ukraine has propelled businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin from the Kremlin's shadows to become a firebrand critic of Russia's military brass, who he called to be ousted on Friday.

Before President Vladimir Putin ordered troops to Ukraine last February, 62-year-old Prigozhin dispatched mercenaries from his private fighting force to conflicts in the Middle East and Africa but always denied involvement.

That changed when the long-time Kremlin ally finally admitted last year he had founded the Wagner group and began a mass recruitment drive at Russia's prisons for foot soldiers to fight in exchange for an amnesty. 

While gaining public acclaim in Russia as Wagner spearheaded the capture of several key Ukrainian towns including Bakhmut, Prigozhin has also blasted what he says is systemic mismanagement and lying in the Russian defence ministry.

"The evil that the military leadership of the country brings must be stopped," Prigozhin said on Friday, after claiming the defence ministry had launched strikes on Wagner bases.

Russia's FSB security service responded by opening a criminal probe into calls to stage "an armed mutiny," even though Prigozhin has assured Russians he was calling for "justice" and "not a coup". 

Bitter top brass rivalry

Prigozhin has been locked in a bitter months-long power struggle with the defence ministry as his ragtag forces spearheaded the costly battles for limited gains in eastern Ukraine.

He had earlier accused the Russian military of trying to "steal" victories from Wagner and slammed Moscow's "monstrous bureaucracy" for grinding progress on the ground.

And he directly blamed Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and other senior officials for his fighters' deaths, claiming Moscow had not provided sufficient ammunition.

Unlike Russia's generals, who have been criticised for shirking the battles, the stocky and bald Prigozhin regularly poses for pictures alongside mercenaries allegedly on the front lines. 

Earlier this year he posted on social media a picture from the cockpit of a SU-24 fighter jet and challenged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to an aerial duel. 

The former hotdog seller and native of Putin's hometown Saint Petersburg, who was jailed for nearly a decade during the Soviet era, for years dismissed allegations he was linked with Wagner.

But last September, he conceded that he had founded the fighting force and opened headquarters in Saint Petersburg.

Last year, a video surfaced of a bald man bearing a strong resemblance to Prigozhin in a prison courtyard, offering contracts to prisoners to fight in Ukraine with a chilling set of conditions.

Shooting deserters

"If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it's not for you, we will regard it as desertion and will shoot you," said the man.

"No one gives themselves up," he said, adding recruits should have grenades on them in case of capture.

"If I were a prisoner, I would dream of joining this friendly team in order to be able not only to redeem my debt to the Motherland, but also to repay it with interest," Prigozhin's company Concord cited him as saying.

When video footage circulated showing an alleged Wagner deserter being executed with a sledgehammer, Prigozhin praised the killing, calling the man featured in the video a "dog".

Prigozhin rose from a modest background in Russia's former imperial capital to become part of an inner circle close to Putin.

He spent nine years in prison in the final period of the USSR after being convicted of fraud and theft, and in the chaos of the 1990s, he began a moderately successful fast food company.

He fell into the restaurant sector and opened a luxury location in Saint Petersburg whose customers included Putin, then making the transition from working in the KGB to local politics.

The company he founded at one point worked for the Kremlin, earning Prigozhin the soubriquet of "Putin's chef".

The 'troll factory'

Prigozhin has been described as a billionaire with a vast fortune built on state contracts, although the extent of his wealth is unknown.

One of the best-known images shows him at the Kremlin in 2011, bending down over a seated Putin and offering him a dish while the Russian leader looks back with an approving glance.

He was sanctioned by Washington which accused him of playing a role in meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, in particular through his internet "troll factory".

Prigozhin at the time denied any involvement and in 2020 asked for $50 billion in compensation from the United States.

In July 2018, three journalists researching Wagner's operations in the Central African Republic for an investigative media outlet were killed in an ambush.

Western countries have accused the private fighting group of coming to the aid of the military junta in Mali, in a move that contributed to France's decision to end an almost decade-long military operation there.