For nearly a decade, Evgeny Prigozhin would only admit to being a very successful caterer. He sued anyone who suggested that he was the man behind Wagner, a private military company whose mercenaries were popping up all over the world—in Syria, Libya, Ukraine. And because he was suing in Russian courts and not just a caterer but a longtime ally of Vladimir Putin, universally dubbed as “Putin’s chef,” he pretty much always won.
But if 2022 brought disaster to Prigozhin’s favorite customer, it was otherwise a transformative year for Prigozhin, himself. It was the year that he finally stopped hiding and began to brag, both about his ownership of the Wagner P.M.C. and about his role in influencing the 2016 American presidential election. He had much to celebrate. As Vladimir Putin’s armies stalled and stumbled in Ukraine, Prigozhin’s forces were needed more than ever. Wagner mercenaries, who had fought all over the world, had far more experience than the average Russian soldier, and they were able to help Moscow capture some key towns in the Donbas this spring. At least at first.
This summer, when it was clear that Putin would be unable to wage this war with an all-volunteer army, and that a full draft would be too politically combustible, he called upon Prigozhin to fill in the gaps. Prigozhin was allowed to (literally) helicopter into penal colonies all over Russia, where the guards would gather the prisoners in the yard and force them to listen to Prigozhin personally make his pitch: sign a six-month contract with me to defend the Motherland in Ukraine and you have a chance of getting your sentence expunged by the end of it—if you make it out alive.