Wagner Around the World: The Rise and Fall of Warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin

A billboard reading "Join us at Wagner", which is associated with the Wagner private milit
AP Photo

The surprising and short-lived mutiny by Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 24 brought new attention to the shadowy mercenary organization, which has been active in Africa and the Middle East for many years.

The Wagner Group does a lot more than hire out slay-for-pay mercenaries to nervous authoritarian regimes.

The Wagner Group was founded as a private military company (PMC) in 2014 by Yevgeny Victorovich Prigozhin, a shady Russian oligarch with close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Prigozhin was born in 1961 in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), the same city Putin hails from. He had a troubled youth, culminating in his 1981 arrest for robbery and fraud – according to court documents obtained by a Russian media outlet in 2016, he helped to rob a woman at knifepoint, broke into a few apartments, and hoodwinked a guy into paying 250 rubles for illicit merchandise Prigozhin did not actually have. He was sentenced to 13 years in a penal colony for these offenses but got out four years early when the Soviet Union collapsed.  

After getting out of jail, Prigozhin rose to fame and fortune by securing lucrative catering contracts for the Russian educational system and military, earning the nickname “Putin’s Chef.” The questionable details of Prigozhin’s personal mythology hold that he pulled himself up from poverty by opening a hot dog stand, then established a St. Petersburg restaurant on a boat that became hugely popular with Russian elites, and wound up becoming a billionaire food service oligarch.

FILE - Yevgeny Prigozhin, top, serves food to then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow, Russia on Nov. 11, 2011. Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group private military company, has used his longtime ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin to increase his clout. (AP Photo/Pool, File)

Yevgeny Prigozhin, top, serves food to then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at Prigozhin’s restaurant outside Moscow, Russia on Nov. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Pool, File)

According to Prigozhin himself, he met Putin when the authoritarian president gave that floating St. Petersburg restaurant a shot and fell in love with the cuisine. Putin came to dine one fateful day in April 2000 with Japanese Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro as his guest. By 2003, Putin was holding his birthday parties at the restaurant, and the big catering contracts started rolling in a few years after that.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Sergei Chirikov, Pool)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with former Japanese Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Sergei Chirikov, Pool)

How Prigozhin went from restauranteur to mercenary warlord is not entirely clear. At some point in 2014, he partnered with Dmitry Utkin, a former officer in Russia’s foreign military intelligence service, the GRU. Utkin left the GRU in 2013 to serve with the Spetznaz, Russia’s premier special forces operation.

After reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, he left the military and began working for private military contractors, then decided to establish his own company. He was evidently able to talk Prigozhin into bankrolling the endeavor with some of that hot dog money. Prigozhin did not publicly admit he co-founded the Wagner Group until last year, in part because mercenary companies are technically illegal in Russia.

Utkin retained close ties with the GRU, so Wagner was never really an independent business enterprise. The name of the group is derived from Utkin’s military call sign, which was inspired by his love for the music of 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner (which means the name of the mercenary company is properly pronounced “Vagner”).

Utkin never really seemed to stop thinking of himself as a soldier of Russia, and Prigozhin greatly enjoys pretending to be one. Until now, Wagner’s primary base of operations has been a facility jointly operated by the GRU in the town of Molkino, a highly unusual arrangement to say the least. Wagner units are often ferried to overseas assignments on Russian military aircraft, and wounded Wagner operatives are treated in Russian military hospitals. Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU, claims Wagner forces obtain passports from a special desk in Moscow secretly run by the Ministry of Defense.

Wagner’s first caper was the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Wagner operatives were an integral part of Putin’s “Little Green Men” strategy, in which the Crimean peninsula was slowly infested by swarms of mysterious soldiers in unmarked uniforms who suddenly seized control of government buildings in the small hours of a February morning. The Putin regime vehemently denied having any control over the Little Green Men until a year later, when Putin triumphantly took credit for the brilliant annexation strategy.

A Pro-Russian militant carrying binoculars and a rifle walks in the woods by a check-point, on the road between Donetsk and Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, on May 25, 2014. (FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Putin was evidently pleased with Wagner’s contributions in Crimea, because he began using the organization as his unofficial, highly deniable shadow army, sending Wagner troops into every conflict of interest to Moscow – from the Syrian civil war to the invasion of Ukraine. Befuddled young Russian men hired as cannon fodder for Wagner in Syria told reporters they thought they were working for a Nazi, a reference to Utkin’s fondness for Richard Wagner’s music and his collection of Nazi paraphernalia. 

The Wagner Group’s most notorious misadventure in Syria was the Battle of Khasham, fought in the Deir ez-Zor province on February 7, 2018. Wagner mercenaries teamed up with Syrian government forces to attack a position held by Kurdish and Arab troops supported by U.S. special forces operators. U.S. military officials contacted Russia and told them to call off the attack, and when they refused, the Wagner troops were obliterated by U.S. airstrikes and artillery fire. 

The Russian government strove to conceal the full extent of Wagner’s casualties in Deir ez-Zor for over a year after the battle, to the great anguish of the family members of slain Wagner operatives.

syria and russia together

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP).

The Washington Post reported on June 20 that the Battle of Khasham was a factor in Prigozhin’s mutiny, because the mercenary leader has never gotten over losing dozens – or possibly hundreds – of his men, a bloodbath he blames to this day on Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Russian army chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the two men he also blames for bungling the Ukraine invasion.

Wagner did plenty of for-profit mercenary work in addition to breaking legs for the Kremlin mafia. Wagner rents gunmen to regimes across the Middle East and Africa and it has a habit of seizing valuable local resources in the course of providing “security,” especially gold and diamond mines in Africa, and oil in Syria.

According to the Washington Post, the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad cut Wagner in for a quarter of the profits from some of Syria’s largest gas and oil fields because the mercenary company helped to recapture them from the Islamic State.

Wagner has enraged European leaders and the United Nations by spreading propaganda in Africa that European and U.N. counter-terrorism forces cannot be trusted, so Wagner mercenaries should be hired instead. The mercenary group has been very effective at marketing itself with such techniques.

The Wagner Group is noted for its extreme brutality. The U.S. government accuses it of “committing atrocities and criminal acts” in countries around the world. Human rights experts are investigating alleged Wagner war crimes in Mali, where the mercenaries are accused of executing the populations of entire villages to quell an Islamist insurgency.

FILE - Malians demonstrate against France and in support of Russia on the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Mali in 1960, in Bamako, Mali, Sept. 22, 2020. The banner in French reads: "Putin, the road to the future". Russia has engaged in under-the-radar military operations in at least half a dozen countries in Africa in the last five years using a shadowy mercenary force, Wagner, analysts say is loyal to President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/File)

Malians demonstrate against France and in support of Russia on the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Mali in 1960, in Bamako, Mali, Sept. 22, 2020. The banner in French reads: “Putin, the road to the future.” (AP Photo/File)

In Libya, Wagner was accused of planting “land mines and improvised explosive devices in civilian areas” while supporting warlord Khalifa Haftar. In the Central African Republic (CAR), Wagner instructors taught government soldiers and militia fighters how to torture captives and erase villages. A United Nations report in May 2022 accused Wagner of using rape as a weapon against civilian populations.

The U.S. Treasury Department designated the Wagner Group as a “significant transnational criminal organization” in January 2023.

“Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali,” the citation said.

When France followed suit in May 2023 and moved to designate Wagner as a terrorist organization, Prigozhin threatened to pull French President Emmanuel Macron’s teeth out with pliers.

Wagner deals very harshly with its own operatives, many of whom are recruited from the worst Russian prisons with offers of a reduced sentence. Prigozhin was filmed recruiting prisoners in September 2022 after years of denying he indulged in the practice. 

In January 2023, one of Prigozhin’s prize prison recruits, a 23-year-old Zambian named Lemekani Nyirenda, was killed while fighting in Ukraine. Nyirenda’s death threw a spotlight on Wagner’s habit of using Third World prisoners as cannon fodder; the Zambian government declared his death a national tragedy and vowed it would never happen again.

TOPSHOT - Pastor Ronald Kalifungwa preaches during the memorial service of Lemekani Nathan Nyirenda at Lusaka Baptist Church on January 24, 2024. - Hundreds of Lusaka residents, in a somber mood attended the memorial service for the Zambian student who died while fighting in Ukraine, whose remains will be put to rest on Wednesday. (Photo by SALIM DAWOOD / AFP) (Photo by SALIM DAWOOD/AFP via Getty Images)

Pastor Ronald Kalifungwa preaches during the memorial service of Lemekani Nathan Nyirenda at Lusaka Baptist Church on January 24, 2024. (SALIM DAWOOD/AFP via Getty Images)

It clearly has happened again, because facial recognition software revealed that some of the Wagner troops that joined Prigozhin in seizing the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don during his mutiny were convicted criminals.

Wagner also became notorious for executing its own operatives if they fled from battle or disobeyed orders. The weapon of choice for such executions is a sledgehammer, as seen in several videotaped murders which the Kremlin refused to investigate.

The future of the Wagner Group is uncertain after Prigozhin abandoned his eight-hour mutiny and sought refuge in Belarus. He went into the Ukraine conflict as one of Russia’s richest men, but now the Putin regime is moving to take over Wagner’s incredibly valuable operations in Africa and the Middle East, with assurances to existing clients that business will continue as usual.

Deutsche Welle (DW) noted that countries like Mali have little choice but to keep employing Wagner mercenaries, no matter who actually runs the organization, because they have burned their bridges with Europe and the United Nations. 

Moscow has little choice but to keep supplying hired guns, because it desperately needs the income Wagner has been siphoning out of Africa by taking control of gold and diamond mines, in addition to those mercenary contracts. Mali is reportedly spending over $100 million a year on Wagner contracts, and the CAR is probably spending more.

Former Wagner mercenary Marat Gabidullin told Al Jazeera News that he expected Prigozhin to remain quietly in control of the organization, no matter what show of exile in Belarus, or perhaps eventually exile to Africa, he and Putin might put on.

“Africa awaits him, Syria awaits, there’s no one down there to replace him. His projects there can be called successful,” Gabidullin said.


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