The Wagner Group is “Putin’s secret army”, says Larisa Brown in The Times. Its 5,000 mercenaries, equipped with planes, helicopters and missiles, do the “dirty work” the Russian government wants to keep at arm’s length. Since the group was first spotted battling alongside pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, it has been active in up to a dozen countries. It has been linked to the brutal torture and murder of a Syrian army deserter in 2017, and to the killing of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic a year later.
The connection between this “murky fighting force” and Moscow is 59-year-old Yevgeny Prigozhin. After spending his twenties in a Soviet prison for robbery and fraud, he started a hot-dog business and ended up catering for Kremlin banquets. “Putin’s chef” has since received billions of pounds’ worth of Russian government contracts. Many of these are alleged to be worth far more than what Prigozhin is expected to deliver, with the excess cash reportedly going to Wagner.
Prigozhin was estimated to be worth £68m in 2016 and owns three private jets, a six-bedroom yacht and a $105m estate in St Petersburg. In February he was added to the FBI’s “most wanted” for financing a “troll factory” that created hundreds of online personas supporting Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Prigozhin has demanded his removal from the list, saying he is “a squeaky-clean person”.
It’s to be expected from a former teenage mugger, says anti-corruption activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “You can take a guy out of a St Petersburg back alley. But you can’t take the back alley out of him.”
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