Evgeny Prigozhin, the terrifying and inscrutable muscle behind Russia’s most notorious mercenary group, has been the hidden hand behind some of the worst carnage in Ukraine—and an increasingly vocal threat to Putin, himself.
For nearly a decade, Evgeny Prigozhin would only admit to being a very successful caterer. He sued anyone who suggested that he was the man behind Wagner, a private military company whose mercenaries were popping up all over the world—in Syria, Libya, Ukraine. And because he was suing in Russian courts and not just a caterer but a longtime ally of Vladimir Putin, universally dubbed as “Putin’s chef,” he pretty much always won.
But if 2022 brought disaster to Prigozhin’s favorite customer, it was otherwise a transformative year for Prigozhin, himself. It was the year that he finally stopped hiding and began to brag, both about his ownership of the Wagner P.M.C. and about his role in influencing the 2016 American presidential election. He had much to celebrate. As Vladimir Putin’s armies stalled and stumbled in Ukraine, Prigozhin’s forces were needed more than ever. Wagner mercenaries, who had fought all over the world, had far more experience than the average Russian soldier, and they were able to help Moscow capture some key towns in the Donbas this spring. At least at first.
This summer, when it was clear that Putin would be unable to wage this war with an all-volunteer army, and that a full draft would be too politically combustible, he called upon Prigozhin to fill in the gaps. Prigozhin was allowed to (literally) helicopter into penal colonies all over Russia, where the guards would gather the prisoners in the yard and force them to listen to Prigozhin personally make his pitch: sign a six-month contract with me to defend the Motherland in Ukraine and you have a chance of getting your sentence expunged by the end of it—if you make it out alive.
Thousands signed up, reinforcing Russian lines in Ukraine, where Wagner units are also digging and reinforcing trenches with concrete pyramids designed to stop tanks and armored personnel carriers. According to all my sources, the equipment, as well as Wagner’s fighters’ weapons and ammunition, is all coming directly from the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Which, by the way, Prigozhin has not been shy about criticizing. As dozens of Russians are being thrown in jail under a new law that criminalizes “discrediting” the armed forces, Prigozhin has regularly taken to his personal Telegram channel to slam defense minister Sergei Shoigu as a weak and ineffective leader. It is a criticism that many Russia observers see as a thinly-veiled stab at the czar himself. And yet, not only does Prigozhin remain a free man, but he helped influence the appointment of Sergei Surovikin, a.k.a. “General Armageddon,” to head the Russian forces in Ukraine.
He also maintains what is, essentially, his own personal army. Putin designed the modern Russian political system to be an estate without competition, foreclosing any alternatives to his leadership. He has jailed, poisoned, shot, or driven out of the country anyone who could possibly pose a challenge to him, at least from the liberal flank. Nevertheless, he has entrusted a surprising degree of power to Prigozhin, a henchman to his right who not only constantly criticizes his leadership of the war but now has a loyal force of armed followers. It has many, like the former Russia director of the N.S.C., Fiona Hill, wondering if Prigozhin “is just the junkyard dog to scare the elites into line, or is he something more,” like a direct threat to Putin’s rule?
“This is uncharted territory for Putin,” said Christo Grozev, chief Russia investigator for Bellingcat, the Dutch investigative journalism organization, who told me he regularly corresponds with Wagner fighters at the front. “Prigozhin has 20,000 bloodthirsty, armed and aggressive men who are much more aggressive than their master. They’re telling me, ‘We’re wondering if we should just lay down our arms because we’ve been turned into cannon fodder and go to Moscow?’ That’s in their thought process already.”
And while most are skeptical, there are some in the U.S. government who are eyeing Prigozhin warily, wondering if, 10 months into the war, the source of a potential coup has emerged. There are rumors circulating around the Russian world that Prigozhin, feeling the surge of his own power, is lobbying for a formal political position in the Kremlin—and making it known that he will not settle for window dressing. And though Prigozhin has denied it, independent Russian media has reported that Prigozhin is starting to build his own political movement—of the hardcore, nationalist variety—to give himself a political base of support as well as a military one.
Grozev told me he sees it this way. “Either Putin pretends to have lost control of Prigozhin in order for him to create an impolite rivalry between power centers, or he’s lost control,” Grozev said. “I’m more inclined to say he’s lost it.”
The Night at New Island
There’s a reason that Prigozhin is so comfortable around prisoners: he was one, himself. After receiving two and a half years’ probation for theft in 1979, Prigozhin immediately returned to a life of crime, working with a group of co-conspirators to rob Leningrad apartments of crystal and stereos, denim and purses, whatever they could get their hands on in those lean times.
Prigozhin and his friends were finally caught in March 1980, when they spotted a woman leaving the restaurant where they were celebrating a particularly successful haul. She was wearing a beautiful coat and Prigozhin suggested robbing her. They followed her outside, where Prigozhin asked her for a smoke. “She wanted to reach for the cigarettes, but Prigozhin suddenly grabbed her neck and began to choke her,” according to the Soviet trial materials obtained by St. Petersburg journalists decades later. “She screamed for help but Prigozhin began to squeeze her throat harder. Due to the constriction of her throat, she lost consciousness and when she came to, she saw that her earrings and boots had been taken off of her.”
In October 1981, Prigozhin was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but was released early, in 1990, just when things were getting interesting. The Soviet Union was collapsing and Prigozhin found an old schoolmate who had gotten himself situated in the part of the city where organized crime and the restaurant business intertwined. At first, Prigozhin sold hot dogs. Then he moved into restaurants and grocery stores.
The details of what Prigozhin really did in the 1990s are incredibly murky, said Denis Korotkov, an investigative journalist from St. Petersburg who was the first to write about Prigozhin and Wagner in a local outlet called Fontanka. “No one knows” what Prigozhin did back then, Korotkov told me, just as no one really knows how Prigozhin met Putin.
I’ve come across several versions of their introduction. In one, Prigozhin opened a high-end new restaurant in St. Petersburg in 1996, which quickly became a favorite among the city’s ruling elite, including then-mayor Anatoly Sobchak, for its extravagant truffle menu and caviar dishes. (Putin was Sobchak’s protégé and deputy.) In another rendition of events, Prigozhin, already a full-fledged St. Petersburg restaurateur, hosted Putin in 2002 at New Island, his boat restaurant on one of the city’s many canals. It was a particularly important dinner, because Putin brought with him then-President George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell. In still another version, it was Jacques Chirac that Putin took to New Island—in 2001. Regardless, Putin was so impressed with Prigozhin’s establishment that he decided to celebrate his birthday there the following fall.
In another version, conveyed to me by a former Western intelligence official, Prigozhin was brought into the Kremlin as Putin was deciding to return to the presidency in 2012 after the Medvedev interregnum. The Rotenberg brothers, Putin’s childhood judo buddies who had become rich and powerful under his rule, thought Prigozhin would be a useful source of muscle if there were ever any friction between the various Kremlin clans after Putin re-ascended the throne. “They saw Prigozhin as someone who didn’t mind doing things that were dirty, getting his hands dirty in a way that guys who wear Rolexes and Brioni suits couldn’t do,” the source told me. “They wanted someone who could be comfortable in the halls of power but can also put on a track suit and talk tough. And that’s how Wagner was born.”
“Everyone’s lying because no one knows,” said Korotkov of the various Putin-Prigozhin origin stories. “It’s completely unclear.” Korotkov, who has spent much of the last decade investigating Prigozhin and Wagner, speculates that, in the shadowy world of 1990s St. Petersburg, Putin and Prigozhin were never separated by more than a couple of degrees—a couple handshakes, in the Russian parlance. The idea that Putin knew Prigozhin before he became president is especially plausible given Putin’s involvement, as St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor, with the city’s world of organized crime. At one point, Prigozhin worked with his old school friend at his casino, a breeding ground for the Russian mob. Licensing casinos, which became yet another corrupt scheme, was one of Putin’s pet projects in Sobchak’s mayoral office.
It is also not quite clear how Wagner really came to fruition. Was it Prigozhin’s own idea? Was it Putin’s? Was it the military’s or the G.R.U.’s? It seems it was a combination, and by February 2014, Wagner fighters appeared as auxiliary “little green men” in Crimea. That spring, they sprouted up on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine as “volunteers” and “separatists” in what Russia continued to claim, however implausibly, was a Ukrainian civil war in which Russia played absolutely no role. Wagner’s commander was a man named Dmitry Utkin, a retired officer of the G.R.U., or Russian military intelligence. (According to some reports, it was Utkin’s fondness for German culture that earned the group the moniker Wagner, after the composer, and their fighters the nickname “musicians.”) Wagner’s military supplies allegedly came from the Russian Ministry of Defense. And their money allegedly came from, or rather through, Prigozhin’s catering business, Concord.
First, Prigozhin allegedly muscled his partner out of the business, then pushed him out of the market by seemingly (non-fatally) poisoning a banquet he was catering to various high-placed St. Petersburg functionaries. Korotkov, who reported on the event, said that after ambulances were called, it was over for Prigozhin’s competitor. “That’s how they started, joking around; they weren’t killing anyone yet. Just poisoning banquets, spreading cockroaches in hospitals, et cetera,” Korotkov said of Prigozhin and his people. “Then they started breaking limbs.”
Soon, using his Kremlin connections, Prigozhin, who was now known as “Putin’s chef,” started getting massive state contracts worth tens of billions of rubles—as well as billions in financing from state banks—to feed the military, the police, and school children. Much of this money went right through his catering company to fund projects that were far more interesting to the Kremlin, like Wagner and the Internet Research Agency, also known as the “troll farm.” This project was a key part of the Russian government’s efforts to influence American presidential elections, for which Prigozhin and a dozen of the agency’s employees were indicted by Robert Mueller in 2018.
So much money was going out Concord’s backdoor to fund these projects that barely anything, it seemed, was left to fulfill the original purpose of the contracts. In December 2018, a massive outbreak of dysentery swept Moscow schools, where Concord had a near monopoly on supplying cafeterias. Several children were hospitalized. In early 2019, an employee from Concord approached Alexey Navalny’s team, saying she wanted to go public with photographs of the spoiled produce and meat that was being provided to school cafeterias behind the scenes. But as soon as the documentary was published, she went on camera and said Navalny had paid her to lie. This looked a lot like an old tactic of Prigozhin’s. About a decade ago, he started paying Russian publications to print articles, only to turn around and out them for taking bribes. It was his way of showing the public that the press was not to be trusted.
“Nameless, Faceless People”
Wagner claims to be a private military company, just like Blackwater, but just as with so many things in Russia, a lot gets lost in the translation. As some observers have noted, the Russian security establishment, in its infinite paranoia, often creates the tools it thinks the West is using, but isn’t. Moscow imagined that Blackwater was private in name only but was actually invented and controlled by the U.S. government to pursue its foreign policy goals abroad. And so, the Russian state created Wagner, to do what it thought the American government was doing.
“Wagner is a creature of the military and G.R.U, it’s a cutout between the two,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. “I think that’s who’s coordinating between them and the Russian military, though it’s still unclear who they take their orders from.” Vladimir Osechkin, who runs the anti-torture N.G.O. Gulagu.net and has been helping several Wagner defectors flee Russia, describes the structure this way: the G.R.U. provides the coordination with the military and the cash to pay out the contracts that mercenaries sign. The military provides the equipment and the gear, the weapons, munitions, and the planes for transport. The training happens on or near G.R.U. bases.
People who saw Wagner operate in other countries said that the mercenaries were usually mixed in with the Russian military and G.R.U. officers to the point that it was hard to tell who was who, which was kind of the point. “This kind of hybrid warfare is great because it’s deniable for everybody, but there’s certainly connections,” one former U.S. government official told me. “Everybody has plausible deniability. It’s all these nameless, faceless people doing this shit.”
Ultimately, though, these are operational details, trees and branches in the forest that is the Russian feudal political system, with the court of Vladimir Putin at its core. “Wagner has been completely moved outside of the legal framework of the Russian government,” said Korotkov. “Only one person can decide that in this country. No one else can give that command.” Which is why it was Putin who personally pinned one of Russia’s highest military medals on the chests of Utkin and his deputy at a reception at the Kremlin in 2016.
After Wagner cut its teeth in the Donbas in 2014, the Kremlin decided to expand its use. It was a valuable foreign policy tool, providing Russia with the thing it craved most while operating abroad: plausible deniability. Putin could send a contingent of fighters anywhere and still say he knew nothing about it. After all, private military companies are still illegal in Russia.
For years, both Prigozhin and the Russian military denied any connection to Wagner. But it seemed to be one of the worst kept secrets not just in Russia, but in the world. “Wagner takes orders from the Russian military command and they do it through cutouts,” said the former Western intelligence official. “Wagner is an auxiliary force for the Russian Ministry of Defense and they do things in a way that they think Americans use Blackwater. And whenever there is a problem, the Ministry of Defense can say, it wasn’t us.”
In 2015, when Putin announced that Russia would be intervening in Syria to help Bashar al-Assad claw back territory and stay in power, he made clear that there would be no Russian boots on the ground. Russian presidents don’t like body bags coming home that much more than American presidents do. Russia, Putin said, would only be providing air support to the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies. But that wasn’t quite true. Wagner was on the ground, doing quite a bit of fighting. (“In Syria, they were part of a group under Surovikin,” claimed Osechkin. “That’s where Prigozhin got to know him.”)
Soon, Wagner started showing up all over the African continent: in Libya, in Madagascar, in Mali, in the Central African Republic. Sometimes, it wasn’t fighters, but “political technologists,” the Russian term for spin doctors. They appeared in Madagascar and in C.A.R., where the president suddenly got a national security advisor who was a retired G.R.U. officer. “Prigozhin agreed to take on a lot of [Moscow’s] work in Africa,” noted the former Western intelligence official. “That way, if anybody’s feelings get hurt or things went belly-up, he takes the fall and keeps the government’s hands clean. And because Prigozhin himself has a checkered past, he would not have a hard time finding guys who can’t do things legitimately.”
Because Wagner doesn’t make as much money as Blackwater and the South African companies it’s modeled on, everywhere Wagner showed up, Prigozhin is reported to have come away with some kind of deal: the right to a local diamond or gold mine or an oil field. It is an easy way to pay Prigozhin and to finance his operations outside the Russian federal budget. “Wagner is bringing a certain level of capability to the table and it allows them to encroach into government institutions,” said the former U.S. government official. “They’ve now influenced Libyan oil production. Once they start getting into the fabric of the Libyan National Army, once the Libyans become reliant on Wagner, I don’t know that they can really disengage. But Wagner is an arm of the state. Ultimately, the influence goes back to Russia, to the Kremlin.”
But this kind of resource grabbing also got Prigozhin into trouble. On February 7, 2018, a group of nearly 300 Wagner soldiers set out to take an oil refinery near Deir ez-Zor, in Syria. Apparently, Prigozhin had cut a side deal with some Syrian businessmen to capture the refinery and adjacent oil fields from the Kurds. But he had not apparently consulted the Russian Defense Ministry, who would have told him that the area was under the control of the Kurds—American allies—and that they would have to pass too close to American special forces positions in the area. (Russian military sources later told The Bell that they were “just stunned” by Prigozhin’s brazen adventurism.)
Inevitably, that’s what happened. Americans spotted a column of Prigozhin’s fighters moving toward them. Two U.S. defense officials who watched the events unfold in real time told me what happened next. Using the hotline that Moscow and Washington had set up for deconfliction in Syria, they said, American forces called their Russian counterparts to let them know that Russian troops were getting too close to the American position. “They’re not our guys,” one defense official recalled the Russians saying. The Wagnerites moved closer to the American outpost, and the Americans radioed the Russian defense ministry again. “We told them, Those are your fucking guys,” one of defense officials told me. “We were really emphatic. But they just said, They’re not our guys.”
The defense official remembered thinking, Ooookay, and then the American military opened fire before Wagner had a chance to fire a shot. “We were emptying everything we had at them,” the defense official said, grimly. Drones, F16s, artillery barrages, and some direct fire. “It was a fucking thing to see,” recalled a second defense official, shaking their head. “It was like an advertisement for the arsenal of the American military.” Periodically, the American forces would stop firing to give the Russian military a chance to respond or call the Wagnerites back. But they never did. The whole time, some of the Americans could overhear the mercenaries radioing back and forth, screaming in fear and anger: the Russian military was letting them be slaughtered and they knew it. “They don’t give a shit about us,” the first defense official recalled hearing.
It was over within minutes. Among the burned-out husks of military vehicles lay the remains of some 200 Wagner fighters. Moscow, which is normally quick to seize on any act of American aggression to call a U.N. Security Council meeting, downplayed the incident—as well as the body count. When I asked Grozev, of Bellingcat, about this incident and why the Russian defense ministry let the Americans kill Prigozhin’s guys, he had a simple answer. “They were killed,” Grozev explained, “because the Ministry of Defense was trying to teach Prigozhin a lesson.”
“The Hammer of Retribution”
Wagner, however, is hardly a flock of lambs. Prigozhin has a reputation for great brutality. Journalists have been killed or poisoned while investigating Wagner’s activities abroad. According to a report in Novaya Gazeta, whose editor won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, Prigozhin had a pharmacist in his employ who, with help from Prigozhin’s security staff, would stab people with syringes, sometimes killing them. (The pharmacist and his team were kicked out of Syria after accidentally poisoning a high-ranking member of the Mukhabarat, Assad’s intelligence service.)
But Prigozhin’s savagery does not spare his own. In mid-September, Evgeny Nuzhin, a Russian convict who signed up to fight in Ukraine, gave an interview to Meduza, an independent Russian publication. Nuzhin told the journalist that, after two weeks of training, he was given a machine gun and sent to the front lines. “As I understood it, [the convicts performed the role of] cannon fodder,” he said. “If you don’t carry something out, if you don’t do something, they ‘nullify’ you. They shoot you. They call it nullification.”
There have been numerous reports, and I have heard from U.S. government sources, that Wagner has used prisoners as its assault troops, though they are much more poorly armed. They are allegedly sent in—sometimes, as one convict recently recalled, with fewer than a dozen bullets—as the first wave of attack against Ukrainian positions. This allows the Wagner commanders to spot the opponent’s strong and weak points, but in the face of Ukrainian artillery—and American HIMARS—each wave of convicts is decimated. Behind them, according to U.S. government sources, Wagner makes sure they don’t panic by having commanders ready to nullify anyone who dares to retreat. (The N.K.V.D. infamously played this role in World War II.)
Nuzhin, who said he had family in Ukraine and didn’t agree with Putin’s invasion, fled to the Ukrainian side and turned himself in. But soon Nuzhin was back in the hands of Wagner, who decided to make an example of him, whom Prigozhin called “a traitor.” In his taped confession, Nuzhin said he was walking down the street in Kyiv when he was knocked unconscious and then woke up in one of Wagner’s basements. Nuzhin’s head was taped to a cinder block with packing tape and then smashed in with a sledgehammer. Wagner published the video of the execution—or “liquidation”—on one of its Telegram channels and called it “the hammer of retribution.”
“This is their trademark,” said Osechkin, of the anti-torture N.G.O. Osechkin told me Wagner regularly executes deserters, real or imagined, by firing squad or sledgehammer, in front of the others, to instill the kind of fear that might fill the gap where no morale exists. “They do this in public in [the Central African Republic], they do it regularly in Ukraine. Now there are dozens of deaths like this.” Osechkin said that, to conduct these public executions, Wagner brings in a group called Myod, which answers directly to Prigozhin. Their name in Russian means “honey.”
Wagner’s numbers aren’t public, but Russian human rights activists have noted that, since Prigozhin began recruiting convicts, the prison population in Russia dropped precipitously, by 23,000. A decline like that hasn’t been seen in years, not when Putin announced a widespread amnesty, and not even when judges tried to empty out prisons at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. If all those prisoners made it to the battlefield, most of them, as Prigozhin himself promised in his recruitment speech, won’t make it back.
When he faced criticism for this, Prigozhin was viciously pragmatic in addressing those “assholes” who use Chanel perfume and drive cars with seats of Nappa leather. “Those who don’t want Wagner or convicts to fight, those who don’t want to do anything and who don’t want to do absolutely anything about this, send your own kids to the front,” Prigozhin wrote on Concord’s social media page. “Either it’s Wagner and convicts, or your kids. You decide.”
And that is exactly the proposition that Prigozhin is offering Putin. If Wagner once offered a veil for Russian government operations abroad, now Wagner is offering it to them at home. “If Wagner guys are coming home in body bags, that’s very different from a regular Russian kid coming home in a body bag,” said the former U.S. government official. That’s the message Prigozhin is sending to the Russian public, said Korotkov, the journalist who has spent a decade reporting on Prigozhin. “I can solve everything,” Korotkov said, summarizing Prigozhin’s message. “You don’t want to fight? Fine, I’ll take convicts, they’re shit. You don’t care about them, I don’t care about them either, and they don’t care about themselves. One out of ten will survive, who cares, they chose this.” As long as Russia wins the war, Prigozhin is wagering, Russians won’t care how they did it.
But Russia likely won’t win this war, at least not on the terms Putin originally set out in February. That’s where talk of a Prigozhin-led coup comes in. “It will be in 2023,” Grozev predicted confidently. “This pressure cooker has to explode in one direction or another. Either it will be a bloody revolution or something else.” If it were the former, Grozev was sure it would be Prigozhin at its helm.
Others aren’t so sure. For one thing, Wagner’s forces have lost whatever advantage they had over their conventional military counterparts. After 10 months of grinding warfare, everyone has combat experience and everyone is worn out, short of munitions and men. “Their efficacy doesn’t seem better than that of regular forces,” one State Department official told me. “They’re recruiting from the same shoddy pool. I don’t know that there’s a meaningful difference anymore.” The loss of battlefield efficacy is followed, inevitably, by a loss of political power back in the capital. What good are you to Putin if you can’t help him win his war?
Korotkov spat dismissively when I asked him if Prigozhin could lead a coup against Putin. “Right now, in Moscow and its environs, there are several battalions each of police special forces, the national guard, the regular police,” he said, explaining that that was at least 15,000 to 20,000 armed people who are, ostensibly, loyal to Putin. “Then, how is he going to get to Moscow? On foot? How’s he going to get to Mr. Putin’s lair? Moreover, he has no ideology. How is he dangerous?” And another thing, added Korotkov: “He doesn’t have bullet factories!”
How do we know the security forces wouldn’t flip to Prigozhin’s side? “The F.S.B. can’t stand Prigozhin,” said Roman Dobrokhotov, editor of The Insider, Bellingcat’s Russian investigative partner, which has unmasked numerous G.R.U. and F.S.B. plots. “The F.S.B. hates everyone who is untouchable because they want to control everything.” It’s true. The F.S.B. also famously loathes the only other man in Russia with a personal army, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, though his ambitions are focused more tightly on Chechnya and the Muslim world. Kadyrov’s own security forces rule Chechnya with ruthless efficiency and the power of the F.S.B. stops at Chechnya’s borders, though it is technically part of the Russian Federation and therefore under their jurisdiction. The fact that it is not actually under their control drives the F.S.B. insane. It’s not hard to imagine that there is also no love lost between the F.S.B. and Prigozhin, especially given that he is affiliated with a rival security service, the G.R.U. “If Putin says execute Prigozhin, I’m sure they not only wouldn’t hesitate but that they would do it with tremendous glee,” Dobrokhotov said, of the F.S.B. “They’re just waiting for this order.”
Moreover, how much does Prigozhin actually control Wagner? “In Russia things like this aren’t really private,” Kofman explained. “Your money isn’t really private. The regime sees these as public resources and they can be taken away at any moment. The money isn’t his, the position isn’t his, Wagner isn’t his.” Said the former Western intelligence official, “My guess is if things went belly-up, Prigozhin’s not a big deal.” That is, it wouldn’t be a big deal to do with him what he’s done with others: nullify him.
The threat posed by Prigozhin is not great and it is clearly not immediate, but it’s not zero. Prigozhin is an ambitious man with an army who has been publicly attacking the defense minister and the powerful governor of St. Petersburg without consequence. He is either setting out to build a nationalist political movement and raising enough eyebrows in the Kremlin that people in the presidential administration leak about it to the independent Russian press (who are all now considered foreign agents), or he’s enough of a threat that these Kremlin apparatchiks are inventing and leaking these rumors to try to sink him. People in the U.S. government are taking notice at the highest levels. That is not nothing. It is clearly too soon in the drama to know when this gun goes off and which direction, but by the laws of Russian political gravity, go off it must. The question is whom it takes down first: Prigozhin or Putin himself?