Russia’s Wagner Group, led by its chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, shocked the world last week when it revolted against the Russian government.
The Wagner Group captured two key Russian cities and the Russian military headquarters overseeing the Russian war-efforts in Ukraine.
The Wagner personnel marched to Moscow and reached within 200 kms of the Russian capital before a deal was brokered between Prigozhin and Kremlin.
While Wagner Group has been a key element of the Russian war-efforts in Ukraine, it was not that widely known before the beginning of the war. In fact, it was during the war that the existence was formally acknowledged and Prigozhin first appeared in public as its boss.
While it is formally a private military company, the Wagner Group is much more than that and its activities are spread across continents.
Here we explain who Yevgeny Prigozhin is, what the Wagner Group is, and why they revolted against the Russian government.
Yevgeny Prigozhin's journey from hotdog stall to Wagner boss
Yevgeny Prigozhin was born in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in Russia in 1961. He is the boss of Wagner Group.
Prigozhin is the most well-known private military operator in the world today and has risen to this position out of his closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is known as “Putin's Chef” as his company runs restaurants where Putin and fellow Russian elite used to eat.
In his early life, Prigozhin was sentenced to 13 years in jail for robbery. He spent close to a decade in jail and was finally released around 1990.
Upon his release, Prigozhin began a hotdog stall and that was the start of his long ascent to power, aided by his knack for developing friendships with the powerful. Among them, the relationship most consequential to his rise would be with Putin. So close were they that he called him “Papa” among the Russian elite.
The Guardian reported that once Prigozhin's hotdogs began doing well, he began making good money and acquired a stake in supermarket chain. In 1995, he decided to open a restaurant and roped in hotel administrator Tony Gear for the job. That was how he ran into Putin.
The Guardian reported, “Prigozhin hired Gear to manage first a wine shop, then his new restaurant, the Old Customs House, on St Petersburg’s Vasilievsky Island...Gear focused on marketing the eatery as the most refined place to eat in a city that was only just discovering fine dining. Pop stars and businessmen liked to eat there, as did St Petersburg’s mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, who sometimes came with his deputy, Vladimir Putin.”
Prigozhin served as a caterer to the Russian elite during this time, including to Putin who in his early days of presidency often hosted guests in his hometown of St Petersburg.
Prigozhin won a series of large food and catering contracts from the Russian government, including to supply food to the military, and that fuelled the expansion of his assets and increased his influence. He also provided catering services to Russian government events and has been photographed serving food at Putin’s meetings with former US President George W Bush, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and King Charles (then Prince) of the United Kingdom.
In 2014, Prigozhin pitched the idea of a private military to Putin at the time Russia was annexing the Crimea region of Ukraine. The idea was to coordinate with the Russian Defence Ministry and carry out the state’s agenda but with an arm’s length, so that anything could not be directly attributed to the Kremlin. That was how Wagner Group began. By 2018, Wagner was operating in Ukraine, Syria, and 10 countries in Africa, according to Guardian.
The Time Magazine also notes that Prigozhin is also believed to be involved in 2016 Russian election interference in the United States through his Internet Research Agency (IRA).
What is the Wagner Group?
Wagner Group has been described as a Russian private military company (PMC). However, the nature of Wagner's work goes far beyond that of a PMC.
Conventionally, a PMC is a private organisation that provides security or military services, which includes providing security personnel to corporate or government facilities, security equipment, security consultants, or bodyguards to high-value targets. The work of Wagner goes far beyond these activities as it has been known to fight very much like a regular military in multiple theatres and carry out intelligence and political operations as well.
“Russia for years relied on Wagner to do its bidding around the world in places where it did not want to openly commit troops or resources, where it could operate in a kind of grey zone. That granted Moscow a degree of plausible deniability as it exerted its influence and interests in other corners of the globe, from Syria to Mali to Venezuela,” notes Vox.
Wagner provides everything from security training, political and military advice, intelligence collection, influence operations, and combat operations, according to Vox. Russian security affairs expert Mark Galeotti described Wagner Group as “one-stop shop for all autocrats around the world” to Vox.
Wagner came to the fore in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine. Wagner is understood to have participated in the annexation along with involvement in the militant and separatist activities against Kyiv in Ukraine's Donbas region in the East.
Wagner is most well-known for providing mercenaries for Russian causes or the causes of Russian allies, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it also engages in a number of other activities such as natural resources extraction and political and intelligence support.
The Wagner Group is the “shadow instrument of state policy” of Russia, says Swasti Rao, Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia Center, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA).
Rao tells Outlook that Prigozhin is an ex-convict turned businessman who has carried out dirty jobs for the Russian state everywhere from Ukraine to Central Africa to Syria.
“Until the war in Ukraine, Prigozhin had not officially identified himself as the boss of Wagner Group. It was around September 2022when he came out in public and subsequently became a vocal critic of the Russian defence leadership after the Russian military’s operational setbacks led to poor performance began to perform poorly in the Ukraine War as the Ukrainians retook Kharkiv and other areas in the counter-offensive last year,” says Rao.
Explaining why Putin would want a private military company around him, Rao says that it’s critical to understand the internal dynamics of Russia — a country that might be hard to understand for those living in democracies like India.
She tells Outlook, “For an autocratic leader autocrat who has been in power for two decades, having a personal security arrangement is a must. Wagner has also been promoted by Putin to perform the domestic function of a personal sword-arm. An autocratic leader with two decades of being at the helm needs to coup proof himself by multiple safeguards to protect him in case the military or other state elements turn against him. This is one of the reasons why Putin has promoted Wagner and other special forces.”
Why did Prigozhin and the Wagner Group revolt?
The question is natural: How did a person so important to Putin's agenda emerge as the biggest threat to his authority?
The answer is complex as, one, we do not know everything that transpired in Russia and, two, the Russian politics is way more complex.
Experts have said that there is factionalism within Russia and Prigozhin’s revolt could actually be supported by elements within Putin’s administration.
“I still don’t understand yet how independent Prigozhin is. He could be ordered to behave like this or be used blindly...It seems to me that Prigozhin is not completely independent. Some groups in the special services or the presidential administration may be behind him,” says Kseniya Kirillova, an analyst at the Washington DC-based think tank Jamestown Foundation.
Kirillova further tells Outlook that the Wagner mutiny was not necessarily against Putin but was more of a power struggle among the Russian ruling elite.
“I'm not sure if it was a coup specifically against Putin. Perhaps, this is a showdown between the elites, for example, against Defence Minister Shoigu. However, it shows the weakness of the Russian government. Even if Putin was not the target of this coup attempt, the fact that the elite are fighting among themselves, ignoring the consequences for his authority, speaks volumes,” says Kirillova.
In his own words, Prigozhin's revolt was not against Putin but it was against “injustice” on part of the Russian defence leadership.
Prigozhin's main targets were Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov. He had termed his march to Moscow as a march for justice committed by these leaders.
Prigozhin claimed that the Russian military had carried out attacks against Wagner personnel and that was the reason for his revolt. He later said that his objective was to save Wagner Group from the Russian military leaders. However, this runs counter to available intelligence with the West. The CNN reported that the US had intelligence, shared only with the closest allies like the UK, showing that Prigozhin had planned the rebellion as early as June 10.
“It was not clear exactly when Prigozhin would act, the sources said. But he appears to have decided to move forward with his plan following a June 10 declaration by Russia’s Ministry of Defense that all private military companies, including Wagner, would be forced to sign contracts with Russia’s military beginning in July and essentially be absorbed by the Russian Ministry of Defense,” reported CNN.
For months, Prigozhin had thrashed Russian defence leadership and had accused them of adversely affecting Wagner’s operations in Ukraine. The private military of Wagner Group has been at the helm of some of the bloodiest fighting in Ukraine and has delivered the biggest victories to Russia in recent months, including in the months-long grinding war of attrition in Bakhmut and also in Soledar.
In an 11-minute statement released after the end of the revolt, Prigozhin said there are “serious problems with security on the whole territory of our country”, according to The Guardian.
The Guardian reported Prigozhin as saying that his march to Moscow was a “demonstration of our protest” against the “injustice” from the Russian defence leadership, referring to the attacks on his personnel that he claimed. The Russian government has denied any such attack.
“It was not our goal to overthrow the regime...We stopped at that moment, when it became clear that much blood would be spilled. That’s why we believe that the demonstration of what we were planning to do was enough. Our decision to turn back had two factors: we didn’t want to spill Russian blood. Secondly, we marched as a demonstration of our protest,” Guardian quoted Prigozhin as saying.
Prigozhin further said, “The goal of the march was to not allow the destruction of the Wagner private military company and hold to account the officials who through their unprofessional actions have committed a massive number of errors. Society demanded it.”