In a shocking statement on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Vladimir Putin’s private army, spoke out about Russia’s relationship with American democracy. “Gentlemen, we have interfered, we do interfere, we will interfere,” he said.
It was just the latest sign of how the catering boss-turned-warlord—known as “Putin’s chef”—has become one of the most powerful voices in Russia, with a say in how Moscow deals with everything from the stumbling war in Ukraine to powerful adversaries in Washington.
But it’s not only Russia’s foreign rivals that should be worrying about Prigozhin—officials at home are not safe from his attacks either. Last week, Prigozhin accused the governor of Saint Petersburg, Alexander Beglov, of corruption.
Prigozhin’s company, Concord, published his appeal to the prosecutor-general of Russia, demanding an investigation into “the possible involvement of the governor Beglov in the creation of an organized crime group on the territory of St. Petersburg in order to plunder the state budget and enrich corrupt officials who are a part of his circle.”
This is an unprecedented situation in modern Russia. “Prigozhin going after governor Beglov is a sign of the species in power beginning to eat each other in a Darwinian way,” St. Petersburg deputy Boris Vishnevsky told The Daily Beast. “Putin’s men are running out of resources.”
Alexander Cherkasov, the chair of the Nobel Prize-winning human rights agency Memorial, told The Daily Beast that it is now up to the prosecutor-general to decide whether to investigate Beglov or ignore Prigozhin’s request by passing it on to a different law enforcement agency.
Prigozhin himself, meanwhile, seems immune to such accountability.
“When Memorial filed our request to investigate a violent murder by Prigozhin’s men in Syria, the authorities simply ignored it,” Cherkasov told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “We had a video for investigators showing how militia beat the person to death and then burnt the body but our video did not seem enough evidence for the investigators.”
Prigozhin has been regularly attacking top Russian officials in recent weeks, lambasting the Russian military for poorly managing the war in Ukraine.
His soldiers, meanwhile, are building a “Wagner Line” of fortifications near the border with Ukraine, which is now controlled by the Russian Federal Security Service.
Last month, RIA FAN, one of the news websites linked to Prigozhin, reported “some problems” with local authorities who were trying to stop the construction of the fortifications in the Belgorod region. The governor of Belgorod himself, Vyacheslav Gladkov, then went so far as to personally ensure the construction work continued.
“Everything seems to be allowed to Prigozhin these days, he can even arm local men in Belgorod or Kirov regions,” Olga Bychkova, a longtime observer of Kremlin politics, told The Daily Beast. “But this is a very dangerous situation: today Prigozhin criticizes local governments, arms locals and tomorrow somebody who thinks they control the situation in Russia, won’t be able to control it.”
Just as his catering company is trusted to keep the ultra-paranoid Putin regime fed, Prigozhin has seemingly been given free rein in Russian politics, foreign policy and the the war in Ukraine. In another dangerous twist, the Wagner commander, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in the 1980s for theft, fraud and assault, has recently been filmed recruiting thousands of prisoners around Russia’s corrective labor colonies and prisons, promising inmates freedom in exchange for fighting in Ukraine.
Gabidulin said he did not enjoy working under Prigozhin during his time with Wagner. “His Wagner Group should not exist, it’s criminal and he is not spending much of his own money on it,” Gabidulin told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “He sends untrained soldiers, including criminals, to die in the slaughter on the front.”
“For as long as Prigozhin is loyal to Putin, nobody is going to dare to stop this criminal. He is a brutal leader,” Gabidulin added.
Some experts who spoke to The Daily Beast even suggested that Prigozhin was trying to take over Putin’s presidential chair. “Prigozhin’s catering company feeds Putin and his men, so he has a huge network of agents in the Kremlin, always giving data on where the wind blows, what Putin dislikes. Prigozhin does not miss any of Putin’s signals,” one of the world’s leading Kremlinologists, Vasily Gatov told The Daily Beast.
During Russian operations in Ukraine, Syria and in Africa over the past eight years, 61-year-old Prigozhin apparently went to great lengths to keep his underground role in the Wagner mercenary group secret. Three journalists were killed in 2019 trying to investigate operations by Prigozhin’s men in the Central African Republic.
But recently, it appears that Prigozhin has decided to let loose. In late September, he started boasting about his achievements, admitting he had founded the Wagner Group in 2014. “I went to training grounds… and tried to throw money around in order to collect a group that would go and defend Russians,” he bragged on his Telegram channel, Prigozhin’s Cap.
Sources who spoke with The Daily Beast about Prigozhin were all skeptical about his efforts to rock the boat and become a leading voice in Russia, with many saying that he could be dangerous for Putin’s “stability” in Russia.
As for the hierarchy of Russian military power and law enforcement agencies, Prigozhin does not seem to occupy any top positions—at least not yet.
“There are commanders responsible for much bigger armies, including the Special Operation Forces and Putin’s personal security, the FSO,” Gatov told The Daily Beast.
Olga Romanova, the founder of Russia Behind Bars—an independent group monitoring Russian prisons—believes that though the situation could soon change, Putin’s authority in Russia is still unchallenged.
“Putin is the main criminal boss,” she told The Daily Beast. “Everybody understands that.”