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How a former caterer created the mercenary army fighting Putin's war in Ukraine

A poster displays a Russian soldier with a slogan reading "Glory to the Heroes of Russia."
Olga Maltseva
AFP via Getty Images
A poster displays a Russian soldier with a slogan reading "Glory to the Heroes of Russia."

It's been one year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As the Russian military has struggled in the war, tens of thousands of mercenary soldiers, many of them convicts recruited from Russian prisons, have joined the fight.

Veteran foreign correspondent Shaun Walker has written about the company that recruits and fields the mercenaries, the Wagner Group, as well as the colorful past of its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin. He describes Prigozhin as a tough-talking ex-con who transformed himself, first into a powerful businessman and now a trusted warlord to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"[Prigozhin] spent his whole 20s pretty much in jail. He emerges just before his 30th birthday into this rapidly changing country [in] the very last death throes of the Soviet Union," Walker says. "He comes out of prison and he starts off selling hotdogs. ... But very quickly, he moves on to bigger things."

Among Prigozhin's many business ventures was a catering service that handled high-profile occasions for the Russian president. Eventually the catering contracts expanded to include military services. In 2014, Walker says, the nature of Prigozhin's business shifted when Putin decided to annex Crimea and invade Ukraine for the first time.

"The Kremlin is sort of looking for ways to disguise the fact that its troops are active in Ukraine [and] Prigozhin steps in," Walker says. "He offers to set up a kind of private military company, which will be able to do the Kremlin's work for it, but retain that kind of deniability. And then that moment, I think, is really the beginning of the Prigozhin we have today as the kind of warlord."

Walker reports that Prigozhin has become a wealthy man and an increasingly visible political actor within Russia, clashing publicly with Russian military leaders. With Putin's blessing, the Wagner Group has recruited inmates from Russian prisons to fight in the war in Ukraine — promising a pardon if they survive six months on the battlefield.

"The basic pitch is six months: It's going to be horrible. It's going to be very difficult. If you try to run away, we'll shoot you. If you don't give your everything, we will shoot you," Walker says. "But you go to the front, you put in your service ... after six months, you're free to go."

The Wagner Group forces have suffered high casualty rates in the war and have been accused of atrocities against civilians. The New York Times estimated that about 40,000 inmates have joined the Russian forces — roughly 10% of the country's prison population.

"It's just so out of the realms of fantasy that this former convict is going to fly around prisons in his helicopter and offer people salvation for fighting for him at the front, and then lead these battalions of prisoners to their almost certain death. ... It's so dystopian that it's really hard to believe. But yet it has happened."

"It's just so out of the realms of fantasy that this former convict is going to fly around prisons in his helicopter and offer people salvation for fighting for him at the front, and then lead these battalions of prisoners to their almost certain death," Walker says. "It's so dystopian that it's really hard to believe. But yet it has happened."

Interview highlights

On how Prigozhin's criminal past enables him to connect to prisoners

He's a big guy. He's got a shaved head. He speaks in quite coarse language. It's clear that this is not a polished guy. This is not a particularly well-educated or cultured guy. ... Me and my colleague, when we were researching this article, we managed to get hold of a few prisoners who are still in prison and speak with them either by text message or in other ways, and ask them how they saw this guy, why people agreed to go, why, in that case, they didn't agree to go. And they all said to us, "We could see from this guy that he was one of us. We kind of respected him because he'd also been in prison." ... They all said, You could see that he was a former [inmate], the way he talked, the way he kind of gave his word that if they fought for him, he would give them their freedom. All of these people said, "We wouldn't trust a normal Russian official, but this guy had something about him that made us think he was one of us." ...

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a meeting with business leaders at the Kremlin on July 4, 2017.
Sergeu Ilnitsky / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a meeting with business leaders at the Kremlin on July 4, 2017.

He's not sugarcoating this at all. He's not pretending that this is going to be pleasant or this is going to be a holiday. He's basically saying, look, you're probably going to die. It's going to be absolutely horrible. The fighting is incredibly intense. We're going to throw you right in at the front line. But if you survive this, I've got your back.

On Prigozhin's recruitment pitch to prisoners to come fight in the war

Even if you've got 20 years left on your sentence, if you come with [Wagner Group for] six months, you will be free. Rights advocates, lawyers say they have no idea on what basis he's able to make this offer. There's nothing in the Russian legal code, and there's been no amendments to suggest that it's possible to simply take people out of prisons and pardon them. But the first set of people have already done that six months and some of them have been freed. So it's clear that Prigozhin has the authority to do this.

On Prigozhin's goal of changing Russian society

What Prigozhin is trying to do is really redefine who makes up Russian society and the Russian nation. ... Part of Prigozhin's pitch really is that patriotic, real Russia is not the guys that go to Paris for the weekend. It's not the cosmopolitan elites. It's these prisoners. And if you want to get Freudian about it, he spent his 20s in prison himself. So there is part of this, I think that is about this guy saying to these people, even convicted of horrific crimes, you do your time at the front and you will get redemption and you will be released back into society and you will become part of society. And I guess in certain constituencies in Russia, that's something people find horrifying. And in other constituencies, it's something people find perhaps quite appealing.

On the little training the Wagner Group mercenary soldiers get

Perhaps a couple of weeks [of training]. All of the reports we've had of the way that the convicts are used by the Wagner Group is that they're not used on sort of difficult strategic operations or anything particularly targeted and careful. They're really used as cannon fodder. Talking to Ukrainians who have been on the other side of the lines and kind of watched the Wagner troops approach them, they've said the same thing: that it's really strength in numbers. It's a bit of a disregard, really, for human life. And for those who have not fancied it and have decided that they want to either defect or don't want to advance, we've had numerous credible reports that there's been executions of their own people as kind of punishment for disobeying orders and to keep everybody else in line and forcing them to to sort of surge forward in these pretty grim, almost suicidal movements forward. ...

We've had very different figures of how many have been captured or killed or wounded. But Ukraine has claimed that more than two-thirds of [the Wagner troops] have been either killed, captured or wounded. And we can definitely see, just from the number of fresh graves in the Wagner cemetery in southern Russia, that they certainly have been taking huge casualties.

On the dangers of investigating Prigozhin

People who look into Prigozhin's activities tend to have rather worrying, sinister things happen to them. Soon after, one of the journalists [from Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper] who did one of the biggest investigations into Prigozhin had a severed ram's head delivered to his newsroom and a funeral wreath delivered to his home address. So it's kind of a bit of a sort of mafia touch.

[Alexei Navalny's] team did a series of investigations into Prigozhin and into how he was winning these government contracts, back in 2015, 2016. And the main investigator on these was a woman called Lyubov Sobol, who is one of Navalny's top aides. And not long after one of these investigations came out, her husband was just arriving home to their apartment when [an] unknown assailant appeared, stabbed him in the leg with a syringe and ran off, and he then collapsed. I was talking to Lyubov about this recently when we were preparing this article about Prigozhin. Now she is convinced that, of course, this attack was linked to her investigation and they managed to rush her husband to [the] hospital. He got very quick medical attention. She said that the doctors told her that if it had been a bit longer, he may not have survived. It was a very strong animal tranquilizer that had been injected into his leg. ... So, yes, some pretty sinister things can happen to you if you cross Yevgeny Prigozhin, let's put it that way.

Audio interview produced and edited by: Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner.

Audio interview adapted to NPR.org by: Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

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