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The irresistible rise of Prigozhin, Putin’s “friend” of more than 20 years…

The irresistible rise of Prigozhin, Putin’s “friend” of more than 20 years…

Like the Russian president, Evgueini Prigojine was born in Saint Petersburg and owes his business success to him. But after returning the favor in a shady way, he finally parted company with violence. It’s a way of doing things that fits in well with the itinerary of the heads of the Kremlin and the Wagner Group.


Sulfur, secrecy and lies: three words that sum up the career of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner militia who almost turned the tide of war in Ukraine. And whose behavior greatly destabilized Vladimir Putin.


Secrecy still surrounds the details of the negotiations which led the former militiaman to abandon his coup de force in Moscow and repatriate his troops on June 24. He then flew back to Belarus, having obtained the dropping of criminal charges against himself and the Wagner group fighters.


Romantic itinerary


What is more certain, however, are the milestones that led this unsympathetic character to gradually climb the steps of wealth and power. And from obscurity into the limelight.


His story is reminiscent of other famous Russians, such as Stalin, ex-anarchist and bank robber who became a bloodthirsty dictator in the Kremlin, or the dissident writer Limonov, founder of the National-Bolshevik party, whose tortuous itinerary is described by Emmanuel Carrère in his book “Limonov”.


Prigozhin’s years in the shadows began in Saint Petersburg, where he was born…like Vladimir Putin. His adult life got off to a bad start, with a twelve-year prison sentence at the age of 20, in 1980, for organized crime, pimping, hold-ups and other acts of violence.


The end of the Soviet empire


10 years later, in 1990, he received a timely early release from prison. It was the end of the Soviet empire and the Communist regime, a propitious time for unscrupulous businessmen like him. In just a few years, he built up an empire with multiple ramifications…


His irresistible rise began in the restaurant and food sector. Thanks to modest (but successful) beginnings in the…sale of hot dogs, he had the means to buy a chain of grocery stores.


But it was above all his entry into the restaurant business in the late 90s that was to trigger the explosion of his career.


The “New Island”, the renowned luxury restaurant he opened in the city of St. Petersburg, became a must for the local elite, and in particular for Vladimir Putin, then in the midst of his political rise.


In fact, it was Prigojine’s establishment that he chose to take his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, to in 2001, when he was elected President of Russia.


Golden markets


Wagner’s future leader is not going to let his chance go by and is getting closer to Russia’s new strongman. With him, he shares a taste for secrecy and remorseless violence (Vladimir Putin began his career as a KGB agent). Thanks to the master of the Kremlin and the substantial contracts he won to feed Russia’s schoolchildren and army, Prigojine’s business changed gear again. In the early 2010s, he became a billionaire.


Since then, he has been known as “Putin’s cook”, a man who knows how to take advantage of the Russian president’s largesse while returning the favor with invaluable services. These are not just traditional borscht or caviar…


His new playground isn’t really about knife and fork, but rather about knife and fork.


Nebula of companies


Thanks to contracts signed with the Ministry of Defense (or, according to some rumors, on the sly with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency), Prigojine will develop a nebula of companies, operating more or less in the shadows, involved in online disinformation, military actions or economic strongholds (mining, gas, oil, gold…) in the countries where he intervenes (Syria, Libya, Central Africa, Mali).


Nearly 400 companies (real or fictitious) belonging to Prigojine were identified in 2023 by Dossier Center, a group of investigators financed by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky.


There are many mysteries surrounding the founding of the notorious Wagner militia in 2014. It appeared at the time of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and was founded either by Prigozhin, according to some sources, or by Dmitri Outkin, a former Russian lieutenant-colonel nostalgic for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. An interesting detail, given that Vladimir Putin “justified” his invasion of the Ukraine by saying that he wanted to eradicate the neo-Nazi ideology of the country’s nationalists!


Recruitment of Russian prisoners


In any case, after years of denying any involvement in the Wagner group, Prigozhin stated in a 2014 interview that he had founded it. And in September 2022, six months after Russia’s famous “special military operation” began in Ukraine at the end of February, he declared that he was its representative. A video shows him recruiting Russian prisoners for his militia in exchange for their freedom. A population he knows well, and for good reason…


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At the same time, the Russian government itself admitted to being behind the Wagner Group…even though private military companies are supposedly banned in Russia.


Prigogine’s story is still shrouded in secrecy: how many of Wagner’s nearly 50,000 men were used as cannon fodder and died in combat. And who do not appear in the official military casualty figures.


Troll farm


As comfortable as Vladimir Putin in the art of online disinformation and propaganda, our man also created the Internet Research Agency (IRA), an agency that thrives in this field. This Kremlin-sponsored troll farm is credited with online campaigns to denigrate Russian opponents and the French presence in Africa. And on the political front, destabilizing actions at the time of the Brexit, or during the 2017 US presidential elections.


A few years later, Prigozhin’s talent for destabilization was put to good use by Vladimir Putin, but in a different, “more transparent” form. By distancing himself from Russian power and attacking it crescendo for its mismanagement of the war in Ukraine.


In November 2022, Prigozhin’s opening of a Wagner Group office in St. Petersburg is already perceived by some experts as a provocation to the Russian intelligence services, for whom the national territory is a “preserve”.


Virulent criticism

But it was above all Wagner’s fierce criticism of the Russian military command over the past few months, with its accusations of incompetence and corruption, that marked the first blows against his former protector.


And while he avoided directly attacking Vladimir Putin, who himself seemed to turn a blind eye to his actions, Prigozhin finally backed the Russian president into a corner by marching on Moscow to “liberate the Russian people”.


After the outcome we all know about – abandoning the rebellion to “avoid shedding Russian blood”, exile in Belarus and dropping the charges against Wagner’s leader and his troops – several secrets remain: what were the conditions of Prigojine’s renunciation and Putin’s “clemency”? But with these two aces at disinformation, we’ll probably have to wait a long time before the truth emerges, perhaps, one day…