On September 26, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman known as “Putin’s chef” because of the Kremlin catering contracts won by his Concord company, acknowledged that he was the founder of the Russian private military company known as the Wagner Group.
Answering a question submitted by the Russian website Bloknot.ru, Prigozhin said that in 2014 he wanted to support Russia's military involvement in the Ukraine’s Donbas region, but that no one had yet created a paramilitary group worthy of his financial backing.
“Then I flew to one training ground and did it myself. I cleaned the old weapons myself, figured out the bulletproof vests myself, and found specialists who could help me with this,” Prigozhin said.
“From that moment, on May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, which later acquired the name BTG [Battalion Tactical Group] Wagner.”
Prigozhin also confirmed Wagner’s involvement in conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Africa and Latin America, something he had repeatedly denied.
Prigozhin’s connections to Wagner have been widely reported, yet he went so far as to sue journalists for saying he created the company. Prigozhin denied any connections to the Wagner Group as recently as February 16, when he sued the Dutch investigative journalism group Bellingcat in a Moscow court, demanding a retraction.
“The contested publications contain false information that the plaintiff [Yevgeny Prigozhin] is affiliated with the Wagner Group, finances it, and that the Wagner Group belongs to him,” the court filing stated.
Wagner Group mercenaries participated in the 2014-2021 fighting by Russian troops and pro-Russian separatists in Donbas, and in the Syrian civil war on the side of the dictator Bashar Assad. Wagner troops have seen action in Libya, the Central African Republic and Mozambique as well. They have been accused of looting and abuses.
As recently as February 12, Prigozhin applied to the General Court of the European Union with a demand that the EU Council retract wording describing him as sponsor of Wagner Group and justifying sanctions against him.
“Yevgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] has always denied and continues to deny the existence of any links between him and any militarized or paramilitary structures,” Concord said.
In June 2021, Prigozhin sued Alexei Venediktov and Vitaly Ruvinsky, the heads of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, for claiming on air that the businessman was owner of the Wagner Group.
Prigozhin first denied his involvement with the Wagner Group in November 2017 in an interview with the Russian website RBK.
“We are not aware of the activities of the organization you mentioned. Yevgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] also asked me to convey that he was extremely surprised by the very fact of the existence of this company and had nothing to do with its activities,” the Concord company said.
Prigozhin has denied not only his ties with the Wagner Group, but also the company’s involvement in the war with Ukraine.
In July 2022, the independent Russian news site Meduza, based in Latvia, published an investigation into Russian mercenaries in Ukraine. Prigozhin demanded that the authors be criminally prosecuted.
His representatives cited the questions Meduza sent him alleging that the Wagner Group was taking part in the Russian-Ukrainian war.
“The questions asked contain the initial information of their authors that a certain private military company, Wagner, is directly involved in the special operation conducted by the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine,” Concord said, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to analysts and news reports, Wagner is closely connected to the Russian Defense Ministry. Its mercenaries use Russian military bases, are transported by Russian military aircraft, are served by military medical services, and receive passports as Defense Ministry employees, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, reported in September of 2020.
In September, a video emerged showing a man resembling Prigozhin inviting convicts in the Russian Mari El prison colony to sign up as mercenaries. Later, Prigozhin, told critics that “either PMCs (private military contractors) and prisoners, or your children,” would be fighting in the Ukraine war.
Prigozhin himself is a former criminal who did time in Russia in the 1980s. He has been on U.S. sanctions lists starting in December 2016, when he was designated for assisting with Moscow’s military provocations in eastern Ukraine.
In February 2018, a federal grand jury charged Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg firm allegedly controlled by him and involved in propaganda and disinformation campaigns as well as hacking, for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Concord disputed the charges, which later were dropped.
In December 2018, the U.S. Treasury “took action against Russian actors that attempted to influence the 2018 U.S. midterm elections” and imposed sanctions on Russia’s RIA FAN (Federal News Agency) for links with the Internet Research Agency. Treasury targeted the private planes, yacht and front companies associated with Prigozhin.
The U.S. list of sanctioned companies associated with Prigozhin expanded after he tried to evade sanctions by using several front companies. As of early 2021, according to the U.S. Treasury, “Prigozhin continued to coordinate messages in an attempt to spread disinformation about the United States government.”
The 2018 indictment landed Prigozhin on the FBI's "most-wanted" list.