Russian President Vladimir Putin chief enemy in the what has been described as an attempted coup is longtime Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been tied to Putin for over 30 years, played a role in multiple warzones worldwide, and even admitted to helping orchestrate Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Prigozhin, 62, opened a restaurant business in St. Petersburg in 1994 after serving a 13-year sentence for robbery and assault charges, according to Meduza, an independent Russian investigative publication.
Prigozhin first met Putin—then the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg—in the early 1990s, according to the Associated Press, allowing Prigozhin—who earned the nickname “Putin’s chef”—to develop a successful catering business that earned contracts with the Kremlin and Russian military once Putin became president.
Prigozhin was later suspected of having an influence on foreign policy inside the Kremlin, though Putin denied this claim, suggesting Prigozhin was just “a restaurant keeper in St. Petersburg.”
He later financed the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm” that was blamed for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and helping elect President Donald Trump, a claim Prigozhin—who was charged by federal prosecutors in 2018—later admitted to.
Despite previously denying any connection to the Wagner Group amid rumors he had financed the group, Prigozhin confirmed last year he founded the mercenary firm in 2014.
The Wagner Group, which boasts an army of more than 25,000, has been heavily involved in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since last February—even recruiting inmates from Russian prisons to fight—but Prioghzin has increasingly criticized the Russian military and government over its decisions.
Moscow has repeatedly utilized the Wagner Group through the years, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and is linked with Russian military efforts in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Mali, Mozambique and the Central African Republic, according to the New York Times.
Prigozhin said Saturday that Putin made “a deep mistake” when he accused the Wagner Group of treason earlier that day, according to Reuters, adding, “We don’t want the country to continue to live in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”
A federal grand jury indicted Prigozhin and 12 other Russian nationals in 2018 for allegedly interfering in U.S. elections, according to the Justice Department. The indictment alleges Prigozhin funded the Internet Research Agency, which employed the Russian nationals, through several of his companies, who allegedly created a reported “troll army” of accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and made it appear as though they were controlled by Americans. They then used those social media accounts to sway American users to vote for certain political candidates, including Donald Trump, while recruiting other users to promote political campaigns or stage rallies. Prigozhin—who initially denied any involvement—later admitted to interfering in U.S. elections and indicated he would continue to do so.
Tension between Prigozhin and Russian officials have worsened over the last year. Previously, Prigozhin claimed the Russian Defense Ministry was “stealing Wagner’s victories” by indicating Russian forces independently won battles without Wanger’s help, according to the Washington Post. Prigozhin condemned Russian military leaders in October as “pieces of garbage” for signaling a retreat from Kherson, a key Ukrainian city noted for its access to the Black Sea and Crimea. He has also accused the Russian government of instructing state media from avoiding to quote him or mention the Wagner Group, despite early praise, according to the Post. Last month, Prigozhin accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov for failing to supply ammunition for his troops during an assault on Bakhmut. The Wagner Group later claimed Russian soldiers shot Wagner forces during the assault. Russia’s Federal Security Service accused Prigozhin of treason on Friday, after he accused the Russian military of attacking one of the Wagner Group’s camps. The Wagner Group then claimed control of Russian military facilities in Voronezh and Rostov, according to CNN, while Prigozhin has threatened to march his troops toward Moscow.
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