The Russian businessman known as “Putin’s chef” has admitted to creating the infamous private military contractor Wagner despite previously suing journalists who linked him to it.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, who gained his nickname for organising banquets for the Russian president, said he founded Wagner in May 2014 as a patriotic gesture to ward off Ukrainian troops seeking to regain control of separatist-held eastern Ukraine.
Mr Prigozhin, who owns a catering business in Vladimir Putin’s hometown of St Petersburg, said he took an interest in military contractors just before the annexation of Crimea.
“I went around military training grounds and tried to spend money to hire a group of people who would come to [Ukraine] and defend Russians,” he said in a statement posted on social media by his catering company Concord on Monday.
“I went to one of the training grounds and did it all myself: I cleaned the old weapons myself, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself and found experts who could help me with this.”
Mr Prigozhin’s stunning admission comes eight years after Russian journalists first unmasked him as the man behind the notorious military contractor. But the businessman vehemently denied it and even sued several Russian and Western journalists over the reports.
Wagner first emerged in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and later expanded its operations to Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique where its fighters have been accused of committing human rights abuses including torture of local residents.
Wagner took an active role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this spring, and Mr Prigozhin in recent weeks personally toured Russian prisons in order to find recruits as the Russian army faced an acute shortage of manpower.
The fact that a businessman without any official mandate was allowed into high-security prisons and was able to get some prisoners released and shipped to Ukraine underscores his influence in Russia’s establishment.
Just a few weeks before the Kremlin announced a mobilisation to shore up its losses in Ukraine, Mr Prigozhin tried to defend his recruitment drive in prisons, arguing it was “better” to send convicts, not “your sons”, to fight in Ukraine.