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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Putin's Pet: How Wagner Group Boss Prigozhin Is Gaining Power — And Enemies

Putin used to keep his respectable and criminal circles of friends separate. But the increasing power of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former prisoner and head of the Wagner paramilitary group, has many inside and outside the Kremlin worried.

photo of Yevgeny Prigozhin

Yevgeny Prigozhin at a meeting of Russian and Turkish government officials and business leaders in 2016.

Metzel Mikhail/TASS
Important Stories

-Analysis-

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Russian paramilitary organization Wagner PMC, has complicated relations not only with the Russian Defense Ministry, but also with the inner circle of Vladimir Putin. But in both cases, his position is increasingly one of power, as Prigozhin's role in the war with Ukraine has become ever more crucial.

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With convictions for theft, assault, and involving minors in criminal activity, Prigozhin spent many years in prison in his youth. In 1981, a court in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) sentenced him to 13 years in a maximum security penal colony, serving nearly 10 years.

One of Prigozhin's cellmates recently circulated a message that said that during his incarceration he belonged to the lowest caste of prisoners — the so-called "offended" who provided sexual services to other prisoners.


It is unknown whether this information is true. But the Wagner owner has made many enemies — some now in high places. Independent Russian news outlet Vazhnyye Istorii (Important Stories) talked with inside sources close to Putin's old friends, Russian counterintelligence Federal Security Service (FSB) officials, and senior military officers about Prigozhin's past and current standing.

St. Petersburg friends

Prigozhin has complicated relations with Putin's old friends, particularly with Yuri Kovalchuk, the primary owner of Rossiya Bank, which has its headquarters in St. Petersburg.

"Since his time in St. Petersburg, Putin has lived in two worlds," says a man who knows the president's friends well from his home city. “One world is the circle of decent people... which has brought together Putin's colleagues and associates. And the other world consists of former criminals or people who are somehow or other connected with crime."

The source explains that Putin quickly finds common ground with people from both worlds due to his experience in the KGB. However, in the view of his old acquaintances and Putin himself, the two worlds should not have intersected.

"Usually, Putin's acquaintances, formerly associated with crime, understood this," says the source. "Those who didn't, ended up either in the cemetery… or in prison."

The war in Ukraine has changed the game and raised the credibility of Prigozhin. Nicknamed "Putin's chef," he had served food at the Kremlin after running successful restaurants, eventually becoming extremely wealthy through a series of state contracts. Some of his fortune he invested into the Wagner Group, which carried out armed exercises around the world.

Wagner would reach a whole new level of prominence with the beginning of the war in Ukraine, immediately moving to the frontlines. Feeling Wagner PMC’s importance, Prigozhin took advantage of this and began to intervene in political matters.

According to the source, it is unacceptable for the old Petersburgers, who cannot stand the notion that a man with a criminal past can play on the same field. But they also can't confront him openly now because Putin values Prigozhin.

Wielding influence

Another person Prigozhin is at odds with is Sergei Kirienko, the first deputy head of the presidential administration. His relations with the Kremlin administration deteriorated after he attempted to influence the appointments and dismissals of officials, even a political figure like St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov.

Prigozhin is of concern to the administration because it cannot control him or his media.

Prigozhin urged St. Petersburg residents to let him know about problems that Beglov had overlooked. He demanded that the Prosecutor General's Office and the FSB check the governor and his entourage for corruption. He also said that he would not participate in initiatives by St. Petersburg for the restoration and rebuilding of Mariupol.

"I'm not going to participate in any tenders, especially murky ones, and build something in Mariupol, primarily because the contracts are unlikely to be transparent," Prigozhin said.

As an independent player with direct proximity to the president and his media resources, Prigozhin is of concern to those in the Kremlin because they can control neither him nor a media he founded.

People, some wearing military outfits, in the lobby of the PMC Wagner Centre, inaugurated in November 2022.

People in the lobby of the PMC Wagner Centre, inaugurated in November 2022.

Valentin Yegorshin/TASS

Rivalry with Shoigu and Kadyrov

Prigozhin has long had an information war with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the generals who led the invasion of Ukraine. Prigozhin supports the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who considered some of the actions of the Defense Ministry to be ineffective and often harmful.

The Wagner PMC is integrated into the army system, and though Prigozhin does not command the PMC, he provides its operations and funding. This includes major funding from the country's oligarchs, whom the Kremlin has obliged to support the war financially.

Like the Kremlin insiders, military officials and Sergei Shoigu have their hands tied when it comes to Prigozhin. Putin has been convinced that Prigozhin's paramilitary is ultimately more effective than the professional army — a perception of the Wagner PMC that is sustained through his media resources.

In turn, the PMC enjoys unequal conditions in terms of supply, financing, and information support, which cannot but irritate the traditional military leadership.

Clashing with FSB over prison recruiting

Tense relations with the FSB arose because the counterintelligence was obliged to accompany the activities of Prigozhin in recruiting prisoners for Wagner PMC. Sending armed prisoners to war in Ukraine was not an approach that suits the FSB. The intel chiefs understand that, ultimately, they may become responsible for this war-trained contingent and, more importantly, for the consequences of their return to civilian life.

Prigozhin can now afford to do many things.

Meanwhile, any rewards in the case of victory will go to Prigozhin himself, leaving the FSB to do the dirty work of tracking and controlling dangerous criminals who have acquired new skills in the art of killing and subterfuge.

Rather suddenly, the war in Ukraine has made Prigozhin a very public political figure, which he never was before. He has new powers and resources to protect him from any attacks. He can now afford to do many things, and the security services, those in charge of domestic policy, and even the president's cronies have to reckon with him.

The war has become a window of opportunity for Prigozhin, which hints at the type of people who may end up in power in Russia as the "special operation" evolves, and the fierce struggle to fight external and internal enemies continues.

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