Vladimir Putin's 'shadow army chief' pre-empts 'large-scale attack' Ukraine offensive
Yevgeny Prigozhin is believed to have played a key role in the funding and organization of the Wagner Group’s activities in Ukraine. He is reported to have recruited former Russian military veterans and mercenaries to fight on behalf of the separatists, arming them with the wherewithal and logistical support for the war. Girish Linganna reports
Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as 'Putin's chéf' due to his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin that fetched him lucrative government contracts, including one that feeds the Kremlin, has said a 'large-scale' Ukrainian offensive is imminent.
The offensive, according to him, aims to cut off the fighters of his Russian mercenary Wagner Group from the main body of the regular Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Media outlet Al-Jazeera quoted an unusual, open letter to Russian Defence Minister Shoigu published by Prigozhin’s press service on Monday.
Prigozhin -- known to host lavish dinners for Putin and other high-ranking officials which fetched him his sobriquet of Chéf -- said the 'large-scale attack' had been scheduled for late March or early April in a letter. "I ask you to take all necessary measures to prevent the Wagner private military company being cut off from the main forces of the Russian army, which will lead to negative consequences for the special military operation," he said, using the oft-used Moscow term for its Ukraine invasion.
Prigozhin had not earlier published any such correspondence with Shoigu, whom he has often berated over the conduct of the war. The move likely has the purpose of pinning the blame on Shoigu -- and not Prigozhin -- in case the surmised Ukrainian manoeuvre proves successful.
THE WAGNER GROUP
The Wagner Group, also known as Wagner the PMC (Private Military Contractor), is a Russian private military entity which is believed to be funded and controlled by Prigozhin. The group has involved itself in several conflicts across the world -- including in Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
The group provides military support to Russian-backed forces in conflict zones, very often covertly. They are accused of human rights violations and heinous war crimes, including the massacre of civilians.
The exact size and composition of the Wagner Group are not public knowledge, but it is believed to host thousands of mercenaries and fighters, many of whom ex-Russian military veterans. The group has links to -- and the backing of -- the Russian military and intelligence services.
The Wagner Group has become an increasingly important instrument of Russian foreign policy, enabling it to pursue its strategic goals and interests without any apparent direct military involvement.
ELUSIVE YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN
Prigozhin is a Russian businessman-restaurateur believed to be the founder and funding source of the Wagner Group. Born in Leningrad in 1961 (now St Petersburg), Prigozhin grew up in a working-class family and was a school dropout in the 9th Grade. He then worked as a cook and later started his own catering business, escalating it into a chain of restaurants and catering services.
Prigozhin’s business empire grew exponentially in the 1990s, when he earned the sobriquet, 'Putin's Chéf'. In the 2000s, Prigozhin diversified his business interests and became involved in the private military industry. The Wagner Group is believed to have been created to provide Putin with a private army that could be used to further Russian interests without direct military involvement. Prigozhin is reported to have recruited former Russian soldiers and provided them with arms and training.
Prigozhin’s Wagner Group attracted sanctions by the US government for his alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election. He has denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the sanctions as politically motivated. Prigozhin has also been linked to the financing of far-Right groups in Europe.
After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, Prigozhin had direct links to the conflict, providing military support to Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region. In 2018, three Russian journalists investigating the activities of the Wagner Group were killed in the Central African Republic, where the group was also believed to be operating. It was later reported that the journalists had been investigating the activities of Prigozhin’s companies in Africa and their links to the Russian government. Despite all the controversies over his activities, Prigozhin remains a powerful and influential figure in Russia, calling the shots in the Ukraine War.
The author of this article is a Defence and Aeronautics expert