Yevgeny Prigozhin: What to know about the Wagner Group founder

Russian mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin, who urged an armed rebellion against the country’s military leadership, had deep ties to President Vladimir Putin. But that relationship has soured, with Russia’s leader calling Prigozhin’s actions a “betrayal” and “treason” during a speech in June.

Prigozhin is believed to have been killed in a plane crash on Aug. 23.

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In June, Prigozhin’s private army called the Wagner Group, appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, located 660 miles south of Moscow, which commands Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense told The Associated Press. Eventually, forces led by Prigozhin advanced toward Moscow, moving north to the Lipetsk region. That is approximately 250 miles from Russia’s capital, The Washington Post reported.

A billionaire who earned his money and the nickname “Putin’s chef” through government catering contacts, Prigozhin has been on the U.S. intelligence radar for years, the newspaper reported. He founded the Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit, in 2014 and owned the Internet Research Agency, which operated “troll farms,” according to the newspaper.

The “troll farms” spread lies and waged information warfare against the U.S., The New York Times reported.

In February 2018, Prigozhin was one of 13 Russians indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury for interfering in the 2016 presidential election through the Internet Research Agency, according to the newspaper. He was one of 15 Russians and companies blacklisted in December 2016 for their dealing in Ukraine and Crimea, the Times reported.

Here are some things to know about Prigozhin.

Early life

Prigozhin was born on June 1, 1961, in St. Petersburg, when the city was called Leningrad. He lost his father at a young age, SkyNews reported.

He turned to crime as a youth, beginning with theft and advancing to more serious crimes, according to the news organization. According to Meduza, an online investigative publication, Prigozhin was sentenced to prison in 1981 for robbery and other crimes, The New York Times reported.

“Prigozhin is a former conman -- he was a thug,” Samantha de Bendern, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, told SkyNews. “He was put in prison in the 1980s for basically assaulting a woman in the street. He spent quite a number of years in the Soviet Union’s penitentiary system.”

Becoming ‘Putin’s chef’

Prigozhin was pardoned in 1988 and released in 1990, according to SkyNews. He soon began selling hot dogs at a flea market with his mother and stepfather in his hometown, Reuters and SkyNews reported. He became involved in a chain of supermarkets and eventually opened his own restaurant and catering company, according to the news outlet. He also operated convenience stores, according to the Times.

Putin and Prigozhin share the same hometown, Politico reported. Putin began to notice Prigozhin during his own rise to political power, and by the time he became president he used the entrepreneur to serve state dinners.

That included a 2006 state dinner with then-President George W. Bush, which led to Prigozhin’s nickname of “Putin’s chef,” according to Politico.

Prigozhin has denied being a chef, saying that “butcher” was a more accurate description, SkyNews reported.

“They could have just given me a nickname right away -- Putin’s butcher, and everything would have been fine,” he said.

Other heads of state that Prigozhin has met include then-French President Jacques Chirac, who dined with Putin at one of his restaurants, SkyNews reported.

The Wagner Group

Prigozhin had denied his affiliation with the Wagner Group for years, even suing journalists who hinted at his involvement, according to Reuters. But he admitted in September 2022 that he founded the mercenary operation in 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

That same year, the group also provided support to Russian-backed separatists who annexed part of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Reuters reported.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Prigozhin threw his mercenary outfit into the battle, swelling its ranks with prisoner recruits, the Times reported. That filled the void created when thousands of Russian citizens fled a conscription drive in late 2022, the Post reported.

“In NATO countries, in Western countries, the main logic behind using private contractors when it comes to security and defense policy has been the flexibility of resources,” Dr. András Rácz, a Russian expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told CBS News. “However, on the Russian side, the logic has been different. Russia, from the beginning, perceived these companies as a way of exerting state power in a covert way.”

Savvy in social media

Prigozhin has used social media to his advantage, advancing his tough talk and brutality into a personal brand, the Times reported.

On Saturday, Prigozhin posted videos of himself at the military headquarters in Rostov, claiming that his forces had taken control of the city’s airfield and other military facilities, the AP reported. Other videos posted to social media showed military tanks on the streets, according to the news organization.

Prigozhin has used social media to lobby for what he wants, casting himself as ruthless and competent while complaining that Russia’s military leaders are weak and indecisive, CNN reported.

Prigozhin’s apparent death

Two months after his mutiny against Putin, a plane that was apparently carrying Prigozhin crashed just over 20 minutes after taking-off from Moscow en route to St. Petersburg, the AP reported. Prigozhin was listed on the passenger manifest along with six other people and three crew members.

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