The most notorious outfit fighting in Ukraine doesn’t even officially exist.
The Wagner group, who have battled on the Russian side of the conflict are not officially recognised by anyone, and being a mercenary is illegal under both Russian and international law, but they were nonetheless at the heart of another government scandal this week.
The website openDemocracy reported that while Rishi Sunak was chancellor in 2021 the treasury granted a special licence to the organisation’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to take libel action against Belingcat editor Eliot Higgins, bypassing UK government sanctions.
The action related to a story published by Latvian website Meduza concerning the reasons Progozhin found himself in a Soviet prison and later detention centre for nine years between 1981 and 1990. In November 2020 the businessman sued Meduza for their article ‘The right to be forgotten by Yevgeny Prigozhin: What the restaurateur who served the presidents of Russia wants to hide about himself’, but his claim was dismissed by the Savelovsky District Court of Moscow. However, the Moscow City Court overturned that ruling, ordering that the article be removed and Prigozhin be paid 80,000 rubles in damages. Meduza is appealing.
Born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in 1961, Prigozhin was raised by a single mother and dreamed of being a cross-country skier in his youth. He attended a prestigious athletic boarding school, where he studied with swimmer Vladimir Salnikov and gymnast Alexander Dityatin, who would both go on to win gold medals at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
His sporting dreams went unfulfilled though and Prigozhin was given a two-year suspended sentence in 1979 having been found guilty of theft. He was given 12 years for more serious crimes in 1981 but released in 1990. By then Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms had been implemented and private business was permitted, with the 29-year-old and his stepfather selling hot dogs, garnished with mustard ground in their flat, to the people of Leningrad. His fledgling business career took off when he set up with a former schoolmate, Boris Spector, who was developing casinos and supermarkets.
The young entrepreneur was tasked with running the Contrast food stores, which proved wildly popular due to their wide selection of products – a rarity in the early days after the downfall of the Soviet Union. In 1993 a Kirill Ziminov came on as commercial director and both he and Prigozhin were given 15 per cent stakes in the business. The pair became close friends, buying apartments on the same floor and car-pooling to work for eight years.
Progozhin entered the restaurant business in 1996 when, thanks to a tip-off from Ziminov, he opened the Old Customs restaurant in St Petersburg’s Kuntskamera. The initial $350,000 investment was paid off within five months and Old Customs, which is still in business to this day, became known as the city’s first truly elite restaurant.
Over the coming years Prigozhin expanded his culinary empire, including restoring an old river cruiser to create the New Island restaurant. It quickly became the most fashionable spot in St Petersburg and in 2001 Vladimir Putin invited French president Jacques Chirac to dine there. Progozhin waited on them personally.
“Prigozhin came into Putin’s confidence gradually, first building relations with his personal driver, then with the head of Putin’s security, Viktor Zolotov,” a source told the Russian version of Forbes in 2013. A noted raconteur, his charm and storytelling ingratiated him with Russia’s most powerful man, who invited George W Bush to New Island in 2002 and celebrated his birthday there the following year.
Having broken with Ziminov, Prigozhin used his newfound influence to win lucrative contracts for his company, Concord Catering, which also received numerous loans from the state development fund Vnesheconombank. In 2012 the company was awarded 92 billion rubles – around $2.8bn – to supply food to the Russian army.
Ration packs would not be his last military connection.
The Wagner Group’s exact origins, like those of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion – the far-right militia whose absorption into the Ukrainian national guard were among Russia’s justifications for invasion – are hard to pin down.
It first emerged as a military contract firm during Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the subsequent war in Donbas in 2014. The small strip of land had been declared part of Russia following the Bolsheviks’ ultimate victory in the civil war that followed the October Revolution, but was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of a historic treaty between Tsarist Russia and Ukraine. Following the collapse of the USSR it declared itself an autonomous republic, before it was forcibly abolished by Ukraine in 1995.
It declared independence once again after a disputed referendum in 2014, with Russia officially recognising the declaration and sending military support. It’s alleged Wagner were among the ‘little green men’ who entered Crimea. A subsequent plebiscite saw 96.77% vote to be absorbed into Russia. The referendum was illegal according to the Ukrainian constitution, and is not recognised by most countries, but polling by organisations such as the United Nations Development Fund, Pew, and Gallup repeatedly showed residents desiring either autonomy within Ukraine or to be part of Russia.
Around the same time separatist groups declared independence for Donetsk and Luhansk – collectively referred to as the Donbas region – and Russian-backed groups seized a number of government buildings. Fighting alongside the Russian troops were Wagner. It’s believed the group was founded by a former soldier, Dmitry Utkin, who its claimed used ‘Wagner’ as his callsign in the army in reference to Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer. He appears to have the Nazi eagle and SS logo tattooed on his body. Utkin hasn’t appeared publicly since 2016.
This is Dmitry Utkin – callsign “Wagner” – the founder of the Kremlin’s “Wagner Group” PMC.
Yes; that is a Nazi Eagle tattooed on his chest, and those are Nazi SS ‘Schutzstaffel’ runes tattooed on his collarbones.
Because unlike Jewish Zelensky, Utkin really *is* a neo-Nazi. https://t.co/pifyGF5KS9 pic.twitter.com/dwGScgXwZD
— Jimmy Rushton (@JimmySecUK) February 28, 2022
Wagner operatives are believed to have fought in Syria, Libya and Sudan, though the Kremlin denies any link. Three Russian journalists – Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal – investigating private contractors fighting in the Central African Republic in a seemingly random attack on a remote road. The driver escaped unscathed and nothing was taken from the vehicle. During those conflicts Wagner were accused of war crimes such as shooting prisoners and intentionally targeting civilians.
Having previously been made up for former soldiers, Wagner has been recruiting heavily from prisons to bolster its numbers in Ukraine.
An undated video appears to show Prigozhin recruiting inmates and telling them they’ll be set free should they survive on the frontlines for six months. In September Meduza reported 3,000 prisoners had been sent to the frontline. Russian outlet Important Stories put it at 6,000. Both agree that most recruits don’t last long.
This week a Reuters investigation found the names of at least 39 people buried in a small plot of land in the Krasnodar region could be matched to Russian court records, publicly available databases or social media accounts. The dead, some as young as 25, included a contract killer, murderers, career criminals and people with alcohol problems. Backing out is not an option – it’s widely reported that deserters are shot on the spot – and the group’s leader doesn’t appear to have much regard for his recruits. Prighozhin, in videos released on his own media outlet, refers to the dead as having “finished their contracts”.
It is not just against enemy combatants that Wagner have been accused of atrocities. In November a video posted to Telegram by a Wagner-linked account showed 55-year-old Yevgeny Nuzhin, freed for the frontline near the end of a 24-year stretch for murder, being beaten to death with sledgehammers. He’d been captured by Ukrainian forces, expressed pro-Ukraine sentiments and allegedly been handed back by the Ukrainians in a prisoner exchange, drawing criticism from human rights groups. Prighozin dismissed Nuzhin as a traitor who had betrayed his comrades.
Despite Prighozhin’s promise that his mercenaries – which some estimates say now number up to 50,000 – would capture Bakhmut, it appears the Kremlin may be going cold on Putin’s chef. Wagner-linked general Sergey Surovikin was recently demoted, while Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov was appointed to the overall command of Russia’s forces. His troops do not appear to be supporting Wagner in Bakhmut.
That could well spell bad news for the group’s leader, who had been disparaging of the Russian conventional forces’ abilities and stated that he would bear responsibility for the assault on the city. If you’re Putin’s chef you don’t want to leave a bad taste in his mouth.
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