World’s most infamous mercenary steps out the shadows

Published by The i paper (7th November, 2022)

Russia, like most modern countries, sees matters of defence, security and foreign policy as something that should be controlled by the state. So under the constitution it is prohibited for private companies to run military forces or for individuals to fight in armed conflicts abroad.

Yet last week, the world’s most infamous mercenary firm opened a showcase in the heart of St Petersburg’s business district, a military and technology hub in a glistening 24-storey glass building designed to resemble a ship. The firm’s name is emblazoned above the entrance. And there were declarations that this “patriotic” venture would make the nation stronger in front of an audience of military veterans in uniform and young professionals invited to celebrate the event.

There has always been a surreal edge to Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship where lies, truth and distorted reality collide in spectacular fashion, as the world has learned to its cost. Yet, this unusual corporate opening marked the latest step in a series of significant moves made by a sinister man who has caused untold misery around the world with secret armies of soldiers and trolls, which are involved in nefarious activities on at least three continents.

As Russia’s stupid war in Ukraine stumbles, humiliating the Kremlin and a vain leader who has never looked more out of touch during 22 years in power, there is growing suspicion that this character may even be making an unsubtle play to succeed the president.

His name is Yevgeny Prigozhin. He is the boss of Wagner Group, a mercenary firm co-founded by a former special forces officer with Nazi tattoos, and allegedly named after Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer.  You may have seen Prigoshin in videos inviting prisoners from penal colonies to join his forces on the Ukrainian front line, promising freedom if they survive six months of fighting.

These show how this billionaire tycoon is stepping on to the political stage. Just two months ago, he denied ties to the outfit and sued journalists making such claims. Now analysts argue that he may be deliberately undermining Putin’s pose as a strongman, positioning himself as a potential tough guy saviour of his nation.

Look at Prigozhin’s life story and it is little wonder Peter Pomerantsev, the writer and expert on Russian propaganda, called his brilliant book on the Putin regime Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. For here is a man, one of the dictator’s closest aides, who personifies that title. Prigozhin spent 10 years in prison after strangling a woman until she fell unconscious as a teenager, then stole her gold earrings and leather boots.

After his release, Prigozhin ran a hotdog stall, then opened a St Petersburg restaurant that became a success. The timing was perfect, coinciding with the country’s takeover by a KGB-linked cabal from the city, so he leveraged his contact with a corrupt new president who dined there, into lucrative state catering contracts for schools and soldiers.

The shadowy Wagner Group first emerged alongside special forces stirring up supposed separatist insurgencies in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Then its mercenaries started to crop up in conflicts across the Middle East and Africa. They blur accountability for Russia. Their soldiers have been routinely accused of gross human rights abuses from Sudan to Syria, while covertly taking control of oil fields and diamond mines.

Journalists probing their activities have been killed. Prigozhin also funds the “troll farms” that meddled in Western elections and stirred up dissent in democracies with lies and divisive claims on social media. Needless to say, he is sanctioned by the United States, Britain and the European Union.

The jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny saw the rise of “Putin’s chef” as a parable of Russia. One Russian journalist likened him to the “mad monk” Rasputin, the dark power behind the Tsarist throne. Bellingcat, the open-source investigators, called him “the Renaissance man of deniable Russian black ops”.

Now Prigozhin is clearly on manoeuvres as he steps from the shadows. He has admitted running Wagner, whose troops are often better equipped and more formidable fighters than the official military in Ukraine. He has attacked defence chiefs over their bungled war effort, aided by nationalist bloggers under his wing and winning a battle to get a close ally installed as invasion commander. And he is engaged in a public struggle with the governor of St Petersburg, another key ally of the president.

In his latest moves, Prigozhin has praised Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky – demonised by the Kremlin – as “a strong, confident, pragmatic and nice guy” and announced plans to fund defence forces along the Ukrainian border. The big question is whether he is doing Putin’s bidding – ensuring the Kremlin court is divided at a time when the president is wounded by blunders – or positioning himself for a power grab if the president falls?

The expert on Russian security Mark Galeotti argues that the Wagner boss is despised within the elite and simply a “thuggish political opportunist” exploiting the situation to get back at military chiefs who failed to give him sufficient credit or contracts.

I suspect he is right. Yet, as Winston Churchill said, Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. “An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.”

There is, sadly, no sign that the repulsive Russian president is about to fall from power while rumours about ill-health remain unproven. But Prigozhin’s sudden emergence from the shadows serves to remind us that while it would be wonderful to see Putin’s reign collapse into the hell that it deserves, there is no guarantee his successor will be any better. Russia may remain in the darkness of dictatorship for many years to come, even if Ukraine wins its noble fight for freedom and survival.

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