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On Sunday, British Intelligence reported that Russia’s Wagner Group was constructing a defensive zone behind the current front line to deter Ukrainian counteroffensives.
Named in honor of Hitler’s favorite composer, Wagner is a secretive private military contingent whose founder is Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch nicknamed Putin’s chef. Some speculate that he could become a potential successor to Putin himself. At minimum, as Vladimir Putin is shifting his strategy in Ukraine to unconventional and asymmetric warfare, Prigozhin will likely be his point man.
A former thief turned restaurateur and businessman, Prigozhin is so dangerous that the FBI placed him on the Most Wanted List and the State Department is offering a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to his and his associates’ arrest. What the feds are after is not Putin’s favorite borsch recipe.
Part of Putin’s inner circle, Prigozhin – who goes by Zhenya, an informal version for Yevgeniy – has Putin’s ear and trust, which he developed gradually, having first built a relationship with Putin’s personal driver and then with his head of security. Although Putin publicly denies friendship with Zhenya, their relationship spans at least two decades.
In May 2002, Prigozhin personally served dinner to Putin and President George W. Bush in his luxurious boat-restaurant “New Island,” floating down the Neva River in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. As this was Bush’s 56th birthday celebration, Prigozhin put on a Russian imperial-style feast. The menu consisted of duck liver pate and gingerbread served with prunes and caramel from aged port wine, black caviar on ice, fried beef fillet with black truffles served with fresh morels and young carrots boiled in rowan broth, and raspberry milfey for a dessert.
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Putin’s charm offensive, with Prigozhin’s culinary masterpieces a key ingredient, paid dividends. In November 2002, Bush declared that Putin was one of his “good friends,” that the Cold War is over,” that “Russia is a friend; Russia is not an enemy,” and that the interests of Russia and the United States are “identical in many strategic areas.”
Putin who trusts almost no one, lets Prigozhin serve him food and drink in a country that has elevated poisonings of the regime’s opponents to a form of statecraft. The two have a lot in common. Both Putin and Prigozhin grew up in very tough conditions in St. Petersburg and had troubled youths. Putin, who easily got into fights as a teenager, may very well have become a criminal if it were not for his elementary school teacher Vera Dmitriyevna Gurevich and his judo instructor Anatoliy Rakhlin, both of whom mentored him.
Prigozhin did end up a criminal, landing in jail. Born in 1961, he committed his first crime, theft, at 18, for which he was sent to a chemical plant as punishment. Two years later, Prigozhin was sentenced to 13 years in a high-security prison camp for fraud, theft and robbery. His offenses included breaking into apartments in high-end areas of St. Petersburg and stealing jewelry, crystal and other luxury items and selling them on the black market. Once, he almost strangled a woman on the street, in order to obtain her boots and earrings.
Like Putin, Prigozhin is into sports. Trained by his stepfather Samuil Zharkoy, a prominent instructor in cross-country skiing, young Prigozhin attended a special boarding school that bred future Olympians. But his path to a championship career was derailed by his felonies.
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Eventually, Prigozhin started a hotdog stand that he expanded into a business empire that included restaurants and catering. Prigozhin provided meals to schools, hospitals, prisons, the Russian military and the Ministry of Defense. Putin has sampled menus in almost all of Prigozhin’s restaurants, and even contracted with Prigozhin to cater his 2012 inauguration.
Prigozhin eventually adding killing to his menu of businesses. The Wagner Group and The Internet Research Agency (IRA), founded by Prigozhin in 2013, have been placed on the sanctions list by the U.S. Treasury Department for conducting “dangerous and destabilizing operations in foreign countries, such as Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, Libya, and Mozambique.” Prigozhin provided funding and hands-on operational support and direction to the IRA, which the U.S. government indicted for running multi-year interference operations, targeting U.S. elections and political groups.
As Russia has reached its limits in conventional warfare, having failed to defeat Ukraine in the past eight months, Putin is looking to Prigozhin’s experience in covert operations. Since 2014, Putin has relied on Wagner to do special projects across the globe that Russian regular armed forces could not, while maintaining plausible deniability for the Kremlin. Highly critical of the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine, Prigozhin deployed Wagner, which has made some tactical advances in the Donbas.
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Prigozhin’s credentials as a “Zek” – Russia’s slang for “prisoner” – have proven useful in recruiting convicts from Russian jails to fight in Ukraine. “Before, you were a felon, and now you are a war hero,” he told one of the wounded mercenaries who was recovering from wounds in a special hospital upon return from Ukraine. Responding to those who voiced concerns about having convicts fight in Ukraine, Prigozhin said, “It’s either Zeks, mercenaries, you or your children… You decide.”
But Prigozhin is not just a problem for Ukraine. With Putin’s blessing, the Internet Research Agency is almost certainly targeting our electoral process, pressing what Russian intelligence believes are hot buttons for Americans – U.S. security aid to Ukraine and U.S. engagements in foreign wars – in an effort to diminish support for Ukraine.
Neither Prigozhin, nor Putin has the ability or intention to elect specific candidates. Russia’s main goal is to pit Democrats and Republicans against each other, polarize our country even further and foment disorder and chaos.
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