Like the war in Ukraine raging on and Western allies pledge further support for the next phase of the struggle, one man has been noted as a major influence on the Russian side of the invasion.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is the defacto leader of The Wagner groupa private militias that have helped shape the war in Ukraine like few private entities have before. The Wagner group has been at the helm in the fight for Bakhmut, the bloodiest and longest of the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has leaned heavily on their strengths.
But who are Prigozhin and the Wagner Group, and why are they so prominent in the conflict?
From “Putin’s chef” to warlord
What is known about 61-year-old Prigozhin suggests some aspects of a similar upbringing to Putin. Both come from St. Petersburg from relatively modest backgrounds and by all accounts have learned to fend for themselves.
Prigozhin, for example, began selling hot dogs in the city around the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s after a sordid past that included prison terms for theft, armed robbery and burglary, according to University of Toronto professor Aurel Braun, who specializes in Russian history.
He started opening restaurants and eventually started a catering business. Putin is believed to have been a visitor to his restaurant in St. Petersburg. After becoming president in 2000, he began taking foreign dignitaries there, Braun also noted.
Before long, Prigozhin had won major government catering contracts worth millions and grew closer to Putin, earning the nickname “Putin’s Chef”.
“He became an oligarch thanks to his close relationship with Putin,” Braun said. “You are looking at a very dirty, unscrupulous, extremely nasty, corrupt, vile individual.”
However, it wasn’t until 2014 that Prigozhin began offering private military services, a move that would continue to position him to carry out the Kremlin’s will, while giving them plausible deniability of involvement, Braun said.
Putin began using the Wagner Group to assist in the illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as in various Russian activities – both official and unofficial – in war-torn areas around the world, including in Africa and Syria.
“You can get away with more,” Braun said of the unique advantages of using private militias. “They can engage in terrorist activities and then the Kremlin can deny any connection.”
Over the years, the Wagner Group’s notoriety grew and they became known for their brutality, with allegations of rape, robbing civilians and torturing accused deserters.
Braun says the group now resembles an international criminal organization more than a private militia. In early 2023, the US Treasury Department sanctioned the group as a transnational criminal organization, and Canada’s The House of Commons passed a non-binding motion calling on the government to label the group a terrorist entity.
Linking the group’s allegations of brutality to the Kremlin and Putin has proven challenging at times, however, and many have expressed concern that Putin could be effectively skirting international law by using them.
Many of these accusations are now coming from Ukraine.
On the front line in Ukraine
Fast forward to the present, and the Wagner group has emerged from the shadows and increasingly in the international spotlight as a major force working on behalf of Russia in Ukraine.
Braun said the group employs between 20,000 and 50,000 fighters in the war, and Prigozhin has been unusually outspoken for a prominent Russian in criticizing parts of the military effort.
He has criticized Russia’s defense minister and accused Russian soldiers of abandoning their flanks in Bakhmutwhile claiming that Russia have not provided sufficient military support or ammunition.
Braun suspects that the open criticism is in line with Putin’s leadership style.
“(Putin) likes to pit one group against another,” Braun said. “He likes to have warring tribes and he’s the one who holds them together.”
Bakmhut has proved a significant challenge for both Russia and Ukraine, with both sides digging in and often hazy accounts of who might make progress on a day-to-day basis.
However, how long Putin’s patience will last with Prigozhin remains to be seen, especially as the group has suffered huge losses in Ukraine. But the Wagner group has proven useful for Putin to get fighters through the recruitment of prisoners.
Putin has so far called up about 300,000 Russians to fight in Ukraine, but Braun says there are estimates that over a million Russian men have fled rather than fight.
Putin has relied on the Wagner Group’s recruitment of prisoners, who usually cannot be guarded but must be persuaded to volunteerwhich gives rise to concern at the UN.
“We are concerned by allegations that recruited prisoners are regularly threatened and abused by their superiors,” UN experts said earlier this year.
– We have information that several recruits have been executed for trying to escape and in other cases have been seriously injured in public as a warning to other recruits. Such tactics constitute violations of human rights and may amount to war crimes.”
According to reports, Wagner threatens and intimidates prisoners into agreeing to work for them, offering them freedom if they fight for about six months, as well as a salary higher than the military average.
Hiring prisoners has allowed Wagner to fill Russia’s front lines, but even that strategy may not be sustainable given the massive casualties in Ukraine.
“People in prisons are starting to understand now that they’re being used as cannon fodder,” Braun said.
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