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Behind the headlines

The former cook who’s giving Putin a hard time

Yevgeny Prigozhin in St Petersburg in 2016. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty

One day in 2017, says Paul Wood in 1843 magazine, an armoured black BMW pulled up at the Wagner Group headquarters in St Petersburg. Inside the building, “a hush descended” as word spread that it was carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary organisation’s “stocky, bullet-headed” leader. But not everyone recognised him. During a meeting, one hapless junior executive stood up to introduce himself. “Prigozhin simply stared at him. Then he took the man by the sleeve of his jacket, led him into the corridor and punched him, hard, in the face.” Few Russians would make the same mistake today. Prigozhin, “more than any general, is the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine”. And thanks to his “stream of combative communiqués” on social media – openly attacking his country’s military leaders for incompetence – some think he’s the man who’ll end up replacing Vladimir Putin.

Prigozhin certainly appears to be on manoeuvres, says Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic. In recent weeks he has mocked Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s daughter for leading a life of luxury; accused the chief of the general staff of throwing “paranoid tantrums, yelling and squealing at anyone surrounding him”; and said we are “two months away from the firing squads”, presumably for the top brass. There is no evidence the Wagner Group boss is actively trying to oust Putin. But he does seem to be positioning himself to replace him, “should the Russian president accidentally fall out of a window”.

🍳💀 Prigozhin rose to prominence as “Putin’s chef”, says Paul Wood: he was the “caterer of choice” for grand state occasions. That may sound like a strange route to power, but it’s an important role in a country with a “long tradition of political poisoning”. Putin knows this more than most – his grandfather was Stalin’s personal chef.