Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? Wagner Group mercenary chief feared dead in plane crash

Once a low-profile businessman who profitted from having Russian president Vladimir Putin as a powerful patron, Yevgeny Prigozhin moved into the global spotlight since the onset of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Now the owner of the Kremlin-allied Wagner Group, the mercenary force seen fighting some of the Russian military’s toughest battles in Ukraine, most notably the drawn-out pursuit of Bakhmut, the 62-year-old stepped into his most dangerous role yet this summer: preaching open rebellion against his country’s military leadership.

Two months after the attempted uprising, Prigozhin is feared dead in a plane crash in Russia. On 23 August it was reported a private plane had crashed near Moscow, killing 10 people on board. While it has not been confirmed that he was onboard, Prigozhin was on the passenger list for the flight.

Prigozhin has repeatedly condemned Russia’s regular army leaders (AP)
Prigozhin has repeatedly condemned Russia’s regular army leaders (AP)

It comes after Prigozhin finally escalated what had been months of scathing criticism of Russia’s conduct of the war in June, when he called for an armed uprising to oust Russia’s defence minister. As his men occupied Rostov-on-Don and marched on Moscow, Russian security services reacted immediately, opening a criminal investigation and demanding Mr Prigozhin’s arrest.

In a sign of how seriously the Kremlin took the threat posed, riot police and the National Guard scrambled to tighten security at key facilities in the Russian capital, including government agencies and transport infrastructure, Tass reported.

Mr Prigozhin – a onetime felon, hot-dog vendor and longtime associate of Mr Putin – urged Russian civilians to join his “march to justice” and the situation remained extremely volatile throughout the following Saturday before peace talks, seemingly mediated by Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, brought the standoff to a peaceful conclusion, with Mr Prigozhin agreeing to relocate to Belarus, only to subsequently return to his homeland.

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov revealed that a three-hour meeting had taken place on Thursday 29 June with 35 people in attendance, including Wagner unit commanders, who reiterated their loyalty to their leader.

‘Putin’s chef’

Mr Prigozhin and Mr Putin go way back, with both born in Leningrad, now known as St Petersburg.

During the final years of the Soviet Union, Mr Prigozhin served time in prison – 10 years, by his own admission –although he does not say what it was for.

Afterwards, he owned a hot dog stand and then a series of upmarket restaurants that attracted interest from Mr Putin. In his first term in office, the Russian leader took then-French president Jacques Chirac to dine at one of them.

“Vladimir Putin saw how I built a business out of a kiosk, he saw that I don’t mind serving to the esteemed guests because they were my guests,” Mr Prigozhin recalled in an interview published in 2011.

Mr Prigozhin shows Mr Putin his school lunch factory outside St Petersburg in 2010 (Sputnik/AFP/Getty)
Mr Prigozhin shows Mr Putin his school lunch factory outside St Petersburg in 2010 (Sputnik/AFP/Getty)

His businesses expanded significantly to catering and providing school lunches. In 2010, Mr Putin helped open Mr Prigozhin’s factory that was built on generous loans by a state bank.

In Moscow alone, his company Concord won millions of pounds in contracts to provide meals to public schools. He also organised catering for Kremlin events for several years – earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef” – and has provided catering and utility services to the Russian military.

In 2017, opposition figure and corruption fighter Alexei Navalny accused Mr Prigozhin’s companies of breaking antitrust laws by bidding for around £300m in defence ministry contracts.

Mr Prigozhin reportedly has a net worth of $1 billion.

Military connection

The former catering entrepreneur also owns the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-allied mercenary force that has come to play a central role in Mr Putin’s projection of Russian influence in trouble spots around the world.

The United States, European Union, United Nations and others say the mercenary force has involved itself in conflicts in countries across Africa in particular.

Wagner fighters allegedly provide security for national leaders or warlords in exchange for lucrative payments, often including a share of gold or other natural resources. US officials say Russia may also be using Wagner’s work in Africa to support its war in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Mr Prigozhin’s mercenaries have become a major force in the war, fighting as counterparts to the Russian army in battles aainst Ukrainian forces.

A poster of a Russian soldier with a slogan reading ‘Glory to the heroes of Russia’ stands opposite the PMC Wagner Centre in St Petersburg (AFP/Getty)
A poster of a Russian soldier with a slogan reading ‘Glory to the heroes of Russia’ stands opposite the PMC Wagner Centre in St Petersburg (AFP/Getty)

That includes Wagner fighters taking Bakhmut, the city where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place.

By May 2023, Wagner forces and Russian soldiers appeared to have largely won Bakhmut, a victory with strategically slight importance for Russia, despite the cost in lives. The US estimates that nearly half of the 20,000 Russian troops killed in Ukraine since December were Wagner fighters in Bakhmut.

Mr Prigozhin’s soldiers-for-hire included inmates recruited from Russia’s prisons.

Raging against Russia’s generals

As his forces fought and died en masse in Ukraine, Mr Prigozhin increasingly raged against the Russian military’s top brass.

In a video released by his team in May, Mr Prigozhin stood next to rows of bodies he said were those of Wagner fighters. He accused Russia’s regular military of incompetence and of starving his troops of the weapons and ammunition they needed to fight.

“These are someone’s fathers and someone’s sons,” Mr Prigozhin said then. “The scum that doesn’t give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell.”

A ‘bad actor’ in the US

Mr Prigozhin earlier gained more limited attention in the US, when he and a dozen other Russian nationals and three Russian companies were charged with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory.

They were indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. The US Treasury Department has since sanctioned Mr Prigozhin and associates repeatedly in connection with both his alleged election interference and his leadership of Wagner.

Masks showing the faces of Putin, Prigozhin and Chechnya's regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov on display at a souvenir shop in St Petersburg (AP)
Masks showing the faces of Putin, Prigozhin and Chechnya's regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov on display at a souvenir shop in St Petersburg (AP)

After the 2018 indictment, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Mr Prigozhin as saying, in a clearly sarcastic remark: “Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I treat them with great respect. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

The Biden White House called him “a known bad actor” and State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Mr Prigozhin’s “bold confession, if anything, appears to be just a manifestation of the impunity that crooks and cronies enjoy under President Putin and the Kremlin”.

Avoiding challenges to Putin

As Mr Prigozhin grew more outspoken against the way Russia’s conventional military had conducted the fighting in Ukraine, he continued to play a seemingly indispensable role for the Russian offensive and appeared to suffer no retaliation from Mr Putin for his criticism of Moscow’s generals.

Media reports at times suggested Mr Prigozhin’s influence over Mr Putin was growing and that he was hoping to be rewarded with a prominent political post, although some analysts felt this assessment of his ambitions was overstated.

“He’s not one of Putin’s close figures or a confidant,” said Mark Galeotti of University College, London, who specialises in Russian security affairs, speaking on his podcast, In Moscow’s Shadows.

“Prigozhin does what the Kremlin wants and does very well for himself in the process. But that’s the thing – he is part of the staff rather than part of the family,” he said.