The Bakhmuth Challenge, a desperate battle to conquer 0.02% more territory in the increasingly devastated Donbass, is becoming a crucial juncture not so much in the fate of Russia’s military adventure in the Ukraine, but in determining the future. future of Putinism, which assumes increasingly dark and satanic tones, and, consequently, of many geopolitical balances in the world order. The supplies of arms and ammunition from both sides, even in view of a new massive confrontation in the spring, reveal the most extreme dimensions of military strategies, and in Russia the figure of Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, former convicted, Putin’s “cook”, oligarch and military leader, ideologue and politician, and today also a self-candidate for the presidency of Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s biography is a summary of late and post-Soviet history. 61 years old, born in Leningrad -like Putin and Patriarch Kirill-, fatherless from a very young age (he was a cross-country ski instructor), Yevgeny grew up with his mother, a nurse. He won some ski competitions, which allowed him to attend a special school for athletes, and his classmates remember him as someone “who really liked to read.” However, his sports career ended very soon, when he was sentenced, at the age of 18, to two years of community service for robbery. Before the term was up, however, he was accused of various acts of vandalism and sentenced again to 13 years in prison.
Prigozhin’s entrepreneurial career began in prison, where he became a “brigadier” of the inmates’ self-management squads (usually made up of the most violent thugs), forcing all his colleagues to prepare souvenirs to sell outside, accumulating a few not inconsiderable first savings for the last Soviet years. According to the stories of his cellmates, “every day he swelled his muscles with exercises, and he did not stop reading books.” He got his sentence reduced and was released from prison in the fateful 1990 of Gorbachev’s changes.
He did not continue his criminal career and enrolled in the Leningrad Chemical-Pharmaceutical Institute, although he did not get a diploma. Instead, he was one of the first to jump into the frenzy of business in the early post-Soviet years. His fame as a “cook” began with street stalls where he prepared hot dogs, a symbol of the Americanization of Yeltsin’s Russia. It didn’t take long to open, in 1995, his first restaurant, Staraya Tamozhnya (“Old Customs”), in the old Kunstkamera building in renamed Saint Petersburg, the first elegant restaurant in the northern capital frequented by the most prominent characters from the city. Later Prigozhin experimented with other restaurant formats: Russky Kitsch, the Jewish chain Set Sorok, Blin!Donalt’s (“Wow!Donalt”, a parody of MacDonald’s) and others.
The height of his “cook” fame came in 2001, with a new floating restaurant, New Island, where the new president Vladimir Putin arranged a meeting with his French counterpart Jacques Chirac and the following year with Georges W. Bush. In 2003 Putin even celebrated his birthday there, consolidating the privileged link with Prigozhin and his kitchen. The business expanded spectacularly with catering, becoming Russia’s main businessman in that area with the Konkord company, which mainly served protocol luncheons in the Kremlin and even presidential inaugurations. School canteens in Moscow and St. Petersburg were also organized by Prigozhin’s company, until in 2010 he signed a gigantic exclusive contract with the Ministry of Defense to feed soldiers and officers.
The transition from pans to automatic weapons is actually quite dark. Prigozhin for years denied that he was the founder and commander of the “Wagner Group”, which he is proud of today as “the best army in the world.” Its first activities are related to the beginning of the “hybrid war” in the Donbass, after the Kiev Maidan uprising and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The first public news appeared on the St. Petersburg site Fontanka.ru in 2015, where it was reported that two years earlier, in 2013, two managers of a private security agency, Moran Security Group, Vadim Gusev and Evgenij Sidorov (actually front men for Prigozhin) had registered the Slavjansky Korpus, “Slavic Corps”, in Hong Kong. who was in charge of defending commercial ships from pirates. The Slavjansky Korpus hired about 300 guards to “defend mines and oil wells” in Syria, where they actually took part in the ongoing civil war.
The members of the group later returned to Russia, where they were arrested for “illegal mercenary activities.” One of the leaders was Dmitri Utkin, the “colonel”, now 52 years old, who soon after appeared in action in Lugansk defending the Russian-speaking population against the Ukrainian army. The name “Wagner” was associated with him for the first time, Utkin’s nickname evoking the inspiring musician of the Third Reich, of whom the ex-spetsnaz was supposedly a great admirer. The symbol of the Group has the Soviet star in the center, with two intertwined swords on a reddish-brown background, the colors of “fascio-communism”, and the words “Blood, Honor, Fatherland, Courage” around it. Other sources attribute the start of operations to an agreement between Russian defense officials and a South African security agency, Executive Outcomes, which recruited military officers who were formally retired but still fully active.
In fact, Wagner waged the war in the Ukraine for eight years, with hundreds of members taking turns supporting the separatists in city and neighborhood fights, under the command of a mercenary boss, Igor Girkin, known as Strelkov ( the Archer), who became the public face of the pro-Russian militants in Donetsk. The group also conquered the Lugansk airport and took it upon themselves to select the local characters most liked by the Kremlin, leaving others out of the game with brutal methods. Until June 2022, the Moscow courts condemned those who attributed the Wagner leadership to Prigozhin, such as the well-known journalist Venediktov, but since September last year the same “cook” and oligarch began to go publicly to different detention centers to recruit soldiers for his mercenary company.
It is difficult to establish the number of Wagner’s mercenaries, which has obviously never been published anywhere. It is certain that it has released from prison between two and three thousand convicts, many of whom died in combat, and the group’s strength could reach 15-20 thousand people among the many places in the world where it operates, with a constant rotation of new recruits. Prigozhin himself recently spoke of the incorporation of foreign members from various countries, including the hated Western Europe and America. The funding behind them, both public and private, is also unclear. It is estimated at around 200 million euros per year, partly ensured by the restaurants and shopping centers of Prigozhin. The same founder affirmed that “the Wagner is financed with the money obtained from the sale of the tears and the sufferings of the western democracies”.
Along with Ukraine and Syria, the two wars in which it is officially involved, the Group operates in several African countries: Sudan, Libya, Central Africa, Mozambique, Mali and Burkina Faso, supporting parties in conflict in various ways, in wars civilians and power struggles. Therefore, it is not unlikely that the European politicians who accuse Prigozhin of also operating with the flows of migrants, which are sent across the Mediterranean, via Libya and Syria itself, to cause difficulties for enemy governments, may be right.
Prigozhin’s most sinister fame is related to the execution, in November last year, of a member of the Wagner, Yevgeni Nuzhin, accused of desertion. Nuzhin, of Kazakh origin, was a criminal and murderer sentenced to 25 years in prison, who was recruited by Prigozhin and later became one of the field commanders in Ukraine, where he had become very popular with the soldiers. Photos of his execution with a kuvalda, a heavy-duty mace, were circulated, and since then the menacing tool has become the new symbol of Wagner and Prigozhin himself, sending eloquent specimens to his worst enemies. Along with military operations, the “cook” is also famous for the “troll factory”, that is, hacker attacks and meddling in the election campaigns of Western countries, starting with the United States in the election of Donald Trump of 2016, and that same year in the British Brexit referendum. Prigozhin recently admitted that “we have interfered, are interfering and will continue to interfere…precisely and surgically, as we do.”
Many compare Prigozhin to Rasputin, the monk who had a decisive influence on the policies of Tsar Nicholas II and today Prigozhin tries to pit Putin against the rest of the Kremlin leadership, which in his opinion is “a mass of incompetents, who in He doesn’t really want to win the war. Rasputin was assassinated, after many attempts, by the conspiring nobles in 1916, because he wanted to dissuade the tsar from going to war. One hundred years later, the spirit of the monk whose name evokes that of the new tsar, seems to want revenge, this time inciting the most extreme violence. Putin means “the man of the road” (Put), Ras-putin “the man of the crossroads”, where Russia must choose its destiny.
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