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Yevgeny Prigozhin, 'Putin's Chef,' has emerged from the shadows with his Wagner Group

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a meeting with investors at the Eastern Economic Forum on Sept. 2, 2016, in Vladivostok, Russia.

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — In a gritty industrial district of St. Petersburg, a 23-story glass office tower rises — the words "Wagner Center" emblazoned across its rooftop and entrance.

"Mostly we are interested in those who are patriotic," explains Anastasia Vasilevskaya, a spokesperson, during a tour of the space — still under renovation.

There will be a free 24-hour media lab, and snacks, for patriotic bloggers, she explains. Also, seed money to incubate Russian tech startups with potential military applications. On the upper floors, luxury board rooms with a sweeping view.

It's a symbol of Wagner's growing business empire and, perhaps, the rising political fortunes of its once-secretive owner.

For after years of operating in the shadows, Wagner's founder — 61-year-old Yevgeny Prigozhin — now very much wants to be seen.

The man known as "Putin's Chef" is taking new orders

Americans may know Prigozhin as the mastermind behind Russian troll farms during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

But inside Russia, Proghzin's notoriety is tied primarily to the Wagner Group — a private military contractor linked to various Kremlin covert operations over the past decade but now openly central to Russia's war effort in Ukraine.

Prigozhin has led efforts to recruit thousands of imprisoned Russian convicts to go fight in Wagner units deployed to Ukraine. The contract on offer: Survive six months and receive a full amnesty. Die in battle and get a hero's burial.

"Both God and Allah can take you out of here in a casket," says Prigozhin in a leaked video that showed him addressing convicts in a prison colony last September. "I can get you out of here alive. But I can't promise to bring you back that way."

Prigozhin has since emerged as a regular presence near the front lines, and often in the headlines: handing out medals to soldiers and crowing about Wagner's hard-fought victories when they come.

"They're probably the most experienced army in the entire world today," he boasted of Wagner soldiers following their seizure of the town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine last January.

He's pushing for influence

Longtime observers say Prigohzin's new public embrace of his past is — at its core — a fight for influence at a moment of political disarray.

"It's what we call a classic struggle for power," says Denis Korotkov, a Russian investigative journalist who broke several of the early stories on Wagner's activities, beginning in 2014.

Back then, Prigozhin was better known as "Putin's Chef" — a nickname he earned after building a restaurant and catering empire favored by the Kremlin from humble beginnings as an ex-con running a hot dog stand.

Yet Korotkov discovered Prigozhin was also quietly recruiting Russians to fight alongside separatists in the Donbas region — part of a Kremlin off-the-books effort to hide Russian meddling in the then-nascent proxy war in eastern Ukraine.

"Many of these people couldn't make anything close to that kind of money at home," Korotkov says of the Wagner recruits at the time.

"And Prigozhin could only do that with the permission of one man," he adds, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Fast forward to today and Korotkov has fled Russia amid a crackdown on independent media that threatens journalists with lengthy jail sentences for reporting "false information" about Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine.

But he says Wagner's pay-for-play army — which has grown into a force of some 50,000 men, according to Prigozhin — is now key to efforts to salvage Russia's struggling military campaign.

"The Russian army doesn't appear to have much incentive to fight. The people who enter Wagner are more motivated," Korotkov says.

Though allies on the battlefield, Wagner and the Russian military are politically at odds

Prigozhin presents Wagner ranks — dubbed "the musicians" in homage to the 19th-century German composer, Richard Wagner, that is the group's namesake — as better-trained, equipped and paid than regular Russian military troops.

Prigozhin has even produced slick action films that mythologize Wagner heroics while acknowledging the cost of war.

"We have a contract. A contract with a company. A contract with the motherland and our conscience," concludes Better in Hell — a stiff action thriller that celebrates Wagner's role in the war in Ukraine.

Prigozhin's media holdings have also been deployed as a battering ram against the Defense Ministry's top brass — criticizing generals as incompetent and out of touch as Russian forces faced repeated setbacks against Ukrainian troops beginning last summer.

Indeed, the infighting grew to a crescendo last month as Prigozhin accused the defense minister and chief of Russia's general staff of "treason" — claiming they were intentionally starving his own Wagner forces of ammunition out of spite and jealousy.

He included a picture — unconfirmed — that shows scores of supposedly dead Wagner soldiers lying in the snow.

Viktor Litovkin, a military analyst with the state-run TASS news agency, says despite Wagner's now acknowledged role in the Kremlin war effort, the mercenary force is still — formally — an outlawed militia at home.

"If the government allows Wagner to work and doesn't get in their way, it means the government approves," Litovkin says in an interview with NPR.

"It approves but it bears no responsibility. Because the men serving in Wagner aren't soldiers. The law doesn't apply to them," he adds.

Like Russia's military, Wagner has faced — and denied — allegations of war crimes in Ukraine.

Undisputed is the group's practice of extrajudicial killings of its own fighters suspected of disloyalty.

In November, Wagner released video footage of the execution of one of its own members. The fighter — a convict recruited for the war — had surrendered to Ukrainian forces and was later returned in a prisoner swap.

Prighozhin has since embraced the executioner's tool — a sledgehammer — as a proud symbol of Wagner battlefield justice.

The U.S. government labeled Wagner a "transnational criminal organization" in January. And Prigozhin has long been wanted by the FBI over efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Putin's role in Prigozhin's activities remains unclear

Prigozhin's public embrace of violence and infighting with top generals have launched a cottage industry of conspiracies of how this is happening on President Putin's watch.

One theory: Prigozhin's brutality and bravado are a prelude to a push for personal power.

Whether the Kremlin leader condones or can't control it is an ambiguity which some argue suits Prigozhin just fine.

"We don't know for sure what Putin thinks about Prigozhin. And Prigozhin knows that no one knows," says Alexandra Prokopenko, an independent analyst who writes frequently on Russian government policymaking.

Prokopenko says this ambiguity creates "quasi-influence" for Prigozhin — even if tenuously built around the patronage of one man: President Putin.

"When the war ends, and it will definitely end someday, I think he will become a liability," she tells NPR.

For now, Prigozhin insists he's a simple patriot — focused on the mission at hand and providing Russians with an unvarnished view of the conflict.

In a recent video interview with a pro-Kremlin military blogger, Prigozhin insisted he had "zero" political ambitions. He said he only hoped to retreat with his mercenaries to a warm climate once the war is won.

Yet Korotkov, the journalist, says Prigozhin's continued public role, perhaps even survival given the powerful enemies he has made, depends on his mercenaries constantly proving themselves on the battlefield — whatever the cost in lives.

"If Wagner doesn't make significant achievements in Ukraine, Prigozhin's star will of course fall," Korotkov says.

"And there will be plenty of people who would be happy to participate in burying him."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.