In a video released in mid-January, Yevgeny Prigojine praises the work of the fighters of Wagner, his paramilitary company, in eastern Ukraine.
“Probably the most experienced army in the world,” comments the 61-year-old.
The statement was seen as a criticism of the regular Russian army – and it was not its first.
Unlike many Russians, Yevgeny Prigojine can afford to publicly slam the military command.
“He has too long a relationship with Vladimir Putin to be endangered by his statements,” said Brian Taylor, professor of political science at Syracuse University. I think the risk is mostly political and economic for him if he goes too far and upsets Putin. He depends on him for military support, because Wagner cannot operate without coordinating with the army. »
Prigozhin is nicknamed “Putin’s chef”, in reference to his work in the restaurant business and his lucrative government food supply contracts. After years of denying it, he finally confirmed his role as head of the Wagner Group in September.
The man recognizable by his bald head and his high wrinkled forehead seems to want to come out of the shadows where he remained for many years, behind the scenes of Russian power.
My impression is that his power and visibility have increased a lot since the start of the war in Ukraine. He’s a much more public figure than a year ago, and I think that reflects his ambition. And, up to a certain point, the impression it has of its current usefulness.
Brian Taylor, Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University, on Yevgeny Prigojine
Prigojine’s rise began in the mid-1990s. Its posh restaurants were then frequented by the country’s elite, fond of the new luxuries.
Evguéni Prigojine has been noticed, in particular by the current Russian president.
Jail and hot dogs
But the man from St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, has not always evolved behind the scenes of power.
As a young adult, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for thefts. He was released almost 10 years later, in 1990.
The Soviet Union was then on the verge of collapse. Prigozhin has found a new source of income: selling hot dogs. A more profitable trade than it seems, if we are to believe the interviews he gave to the Russian media, and which propelled him towards high-end catering.
He became a rich man. And more and more powerful.
Trolls and paramilitaries
In recent years, the United States has accused Prigozhin of interfering in elections and leading an army of keyboard soldiers, sowing disinformation on social media.
But the multi-millionaire became known above all in connection with the Wagner Group, founded in 2014, during the annexation of Crimea. Its paramilitaries have worked in different hot zones, including Syria, Mali, Libya and the Central African Republic.
“I think the Wagner Group is different compared to other private security companies, like those that worked with the United States in Iraq, notes Tanya Mehra, researcher for the think tank International Center for Counter-Terrorism, attached to the Netherlands. They too have committed more than one human rights violation, but what is different with the Wagner Group is that it is a network that operates in a host of illegal activities. »
Prigojine is known to recruit directly from prisons in exchange for a reduced sentence.
With her colleague Méryl Demuynck, Ms.me Mehra published an argument on January 17 for the inclusion of the Wagner Group on the lists of recognized terrorist entities. A complex process, but which, according to them, would put even more pressure on countries to cut ties with Prigojine and his company – more than the numerous sanctions currently in force, they argue.
Without going as far as the notion of “terrorist group”, the US Treasury Department announced new sanctions against Wagner on Thursday, designating it an “international criminal organization”, accusing “Wagner’s personnel [de s’être] engaged in a continuing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abduction and physical violence in the Central African Republic and Mali”.
There is no Canadian equivalent to this American designation. The Canadian government has already imposed sanctions on Evguéni Prigojine and the Wagner Group, said in an email, the press attaché to the office of the Minister of Public Security, Audrey Champoux.
It was not possible to know if the group’s status is being evaluated for possible inclusion on Canada’s terrorist entity list, an independent process.
With Agence France-Presse, The Guardian and The New York Times
- Estimated number of Wagner’s forces, according to Western intelligence
Source : The Guardian