Private army for the president: the history of the most delicate assignment of Yevgeny Prigozhin

The Bell – January 29, 2019

Original Article

Yevgeny Prigozhin is the private army for the president Putin

Illustration: Rita Morozova

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s name has become synonymous with Russia’s informal presence in conflict points where there are its interests, from Syria to West Africa and Venezuela. The Bell found out that the risky assignment to take part in the creation of a private army – “Putin’s cook” at one time could receive from the top military leadership, and the idea itself was born at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum back in 2010. Prigozhin himself persistently denies his participation in the creation of PMCs, and calls the size of his business greatly exaggerated.


· The idea of creating a PMC was invented in the General Staff

· The consultant was the creator of the world’s first legal PMC Eben Barlow

· Prigozhin laid out to The Bell his version of events

I. The private army was invented by the military

“It all started when our generals met Eben Barlow,” recalls one of The Bell’s interlocutors with good contacts in the Defense Ministry. “He gave a brief lecture on the benefits of mercenaries right on the St. Petersburg forum.”

In the official program of the forum in St. Petersburg in June 2010, Barlow was announced as a participant in one short session – about how the military can establish cooperation with the private sector and whether it is possible to “privatize” the army at all. But the main purpose of his visit was a closed presentation to a small delegation of the General Staff.

Eben Barlow, founder of the South African PMC Executive Outcomes. Photo: Wikipedia

It was also attended by employees of the Main Operations Directorate, which is responsible for plans for the use of the army, three sources close to the Ministry of Defense shared with The Bell.

The creation in Russia of a team of “retirees” – siloviki who formally retired, but were trained and have experience in combat operations, at that time had been discussed for about a year. The plan was supported by General of the Army Nikolai Makarov, who headed the General Staff, they say. The Ministry of Defense did not respond to The Bell’s request, it was not possible to contact Makarov.

Barlow is a former lieutenant general in the South African security forces and the founder of the world’s first legal private army. In the late 1980s, with the beginning of the fall of the apartheid regime, after which Nelson Mandela dispersed most of the military in the country, he created the company Executive Outcomes, which for the next 15 years kept the whole continent in suspense.

The purges of militants in Angola and Sierra Leone, the suppression of coups d’état, several civil wars, the head office in London and the provision of expensive services for the protection of valuable goods and facilities to Western corporations – films were made about this African PMC, journalists of the world’s largest TV channels were brought to its military bases, and Barlow himself wrote several books about it.

But it is unlikely that even the most well-read visitors to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2010 had a chance to recognize the legend in this rather tentative-looking European a little over 50.

Barlow himself told The Bell that he remembers his performance in St. Petersburg very well:

“Even then, I said that private military companies from the West and from the East would flood Africa – there and there are people who are looking for power, influence and control over resources. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Barlow did not discuss the details of his visit, explained that he hated journalists, and stopped communicating.

At the forum in St. Petersburg, Barlow told the military about the model of creating PMCs and even offered options for adapting such a company to Russian conditions. The main debatable question after that was whether such a structure should be legal, but some of the security forces were categorically against it because of the obvious difficulties in controlling the circulation of weapons.

Less than four years remained before the annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s participation in large military campaigns abroad was out of the question. The idea was to use “illegals” for special assignments to minimize publicity and the number of problems in case of failure.

The Ministry of Defense remembered well the lesson of 2004, when three career soldiers were detained in Qatar on suspicion of eliminating Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, accused of terrorism. It was possible to return them to Russia only after the personal intervention of Vladimir Putin. Mercenaries would not have to be pulled out – they risk for a decent fee or posthumous compensation, interlocutors close to the Ministry of Defense retell the essence of the idea.

The castling of Vladimir Putin with Dmitry Medvedev, the scandal with the resignation of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, the retirement of the head of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov – all this postponed the implementation of the PMC idea for several years, but it was not forgotten.

General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, who replaced Makarov in 2012, supported it and, having direct access to the president, probably agreed, the interlocutors of The Bell say. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment for the article.

Ii. The organization of PMCs was offered to prigozhin

The idea to make st. Petersburg restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin responsible for financial and economic issues was born in the General Staff, according to the interlocutors of The Bell, close to the Ministry of Defense. Just after 2010, he began to build his business for the supply of food for state needs. Starting with the organization of meals in schools, Prigozhin set his sights on the market, which he himself estimated at a trillion rubles in 2011: “We have plans – the army. That’s more than half a million people. The police are two million …” – said the businessman in an interview that in 2011 was published by the St. Petersburg portal “City 812”.

By the end of 2012, according to Forbes calculations , the size of contracts of structures directly or indirectly related to Prigozhin exceeded 90 billion rubles.

For this material, Prigozhin, perhaps, for the first time gave detailed comments on the topic of PMCs and about his place in the state market. Through a representative, Prigozhin conveyed that he had no companies that would be associated with contracts for the supply and provision of services to the army “with the exception of rare events in the framework of catering services,” and he himself has nothing to do with the Wagner PMC.

The candidacy of Prigozhin did not arise by chance: he is “an active person”, “he knows how to achieve his own,” The Bell’s interlocutors in the Ministry of Defense describe. But most importantly, Prigozhin is personally acquainted with Putin and, more importantly, Putin is familiar with him, one of them emphasizes. An important factor in the choice of candidacy could be the fact that, unlike Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg – long-time friends of Vladimir Putin, who became successful businessmen – Prigozhin was not part of the inner circle and remained in the shadows much longer.

Prigozhin, according to the story of the businessman himself, personally met with Putin almost 20 years ago. “We met when he came with Japanese Prime Minister Mori, then with Bush,” the restaurateur said in 2011 in the same interview. Most likely, we are talking about the visit of Yoshiro Mori to St. Petersburg in April 2000, when Putin was still acting president. George W. Bush came to St. Petersburg during the unofficial part of his visit to Russia in 2002 – the city prepared for the visit very carefully, and Prigozhin had to participate in this in the most direct way.

For the walk of George and Laura Bush through the canals, a double-decker ship was chosen with the floating restaurant of Yevgeny Prigozhin New Island, decorated in the style of an American saloon.

The dinner was attended by the then head of the Ministry of Defense Sergei Ivanov, deputy head of the presidential administration Sergei Prikhodko, from the American side – Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Probably, Putin was pleased with the reception. In the autumn of 2003, he celebrated his birthday in the same institution.

By 2005, the restaurateur, he said, had Russia’s largest field service firm — “all the eights, the summits [were] for us.” In 2004, his firm served a banquet in honor of Silvio Berlusconi – no longer in St. Petersburg, but in Novo-Ogarevo.

This became clear from the correspondence published later by employees of Prigozhin’s catering company Concord, which was hacked by hackers from Anonymous International. In it, one of Prigozhin’s subordinates recounted to him the content of the conversations of the heads of state over dinner.

“Prigozhin hears a lot of things at different receptions, it looks so simple, but he remembers everything, and then he looks for the use of this information,” one of the high-ranking government officials told The Bell.

If you believe the restaurateur himself, to solve his problems, he could get to the president in the literal sense “through two handshakes” – through Alexander Beglov, who knows Putin from St. Petersburg in the early 1990s.

Beglov worked for a long time in the Kremlin, held the post of plenipotentiary in the Northwestern Federal District, and at the end of last year replaced Georgy Poltavchenko, becoming acting governor of St. Petersburg.

With the first contracts for the provision of food to the army units of Prigozhin’s company, the former deputy general director of Voentorg, Leonid Teif, could help – at least, Novaya Gazeta wrote in 2012. According to the publication, it was Teif who allegedly oversaw the transfer to Prigozhin of the assets of Voentorg, involved in providing food supplies and bath and laundry services to the army.

Recently, in the United States, where Teif now lives, he was charged with organizing a scheme under the contracts of the Ministry of Defense, according to which kickbacks were paid in the amount of about $ 150 million (in addition to laundering, Teif is accused of bribing an official in the United States, planning a murder, illegal possession of weapons, as well as deceiving immigration authorities, RBC quoted the case materials.

Shortly before the creation of PMCs, companies that, according to some indications, were associated with Prigozhin, began to clean military units, heat, build military towns, remove waste, supply food – all this was written by the media. Another large source of state order for its structures was called Moscow schools and hospitals, as well as presidential administrators.

Part of the money received from the state went to the destination, the other – to the organization of PMCs, say the interlocutors of The Bell, close to the Ministry of Defense.

It is impossible to accurately estimate the size of the contracts – most of the companies that the media previously associated with Prigozhin, indirectly related to the businessman’s entourage, the activities of his Concord group, were associated with it either by addresses, or telephones, or by the same managers.

Prigozhin himself conveyed that The Bell’s calculations in terms of Concord’s companies are incorrect (but we summed up the contracts not only of Concord, but also of other companies mentioned in connection with the businessman).

Estimated volume of state contracts

Total: ₽149.8 billionSource
: data from the public procurement website and the SPARK-Interfax system

III. The biggest success and failure of PMCs

The team for PMCs began to be recruited around 2013, says a man who has worked for many years in private structures that solved various, including military, tasks abroad. He himself was invited to the “interview” by the head of Prigozhin’s security service, Yevgeny Gulyaev, a former operational officer of the St. Petersburg police. “I came to the first meeting, and it immediately seemed to me that Prigozhin did not like this whole idea with PMCs at all, and I liked him even less,” the interlocutor of The Bell recalls. At first, Prigozhin was really not enthusiastic about this project – it is dangerous, and the benefit is not obvious, confirms the interlocutor of The Bell, close to the Ministry of Defense. “But such instructions are not abandoned,” he eloquently adds.

For the first time, Fontanka wrote about the “Wagner Group” in the autumn of 2015: the publication all these years most fully covered the activities of PMCs. Possible ties of Prigozhin with PMCs were subsequently investigated by other media – for example, RBC, WSJ, BBC, again Fontanka. Sources close to the Ministry of Defense also confirm them.

But Prigozhin himself, in answering questions from The Bell, denies not only his involvement, but also the very existence of pmcs.

“In the Russian Federation, there is no concept of a private military company (PMC). The fact that my name was mentioned in connection with a PMC is a consequence of the information originally issued to the public through the Security Service of Ukraine […]Prigozhin said. – Journalists often write about the presence of PMCs in other countries. Can you tell your readers how to distinguish a man on the street from a PMC-shnik, from a “Wagnerian”?”

In February-March 2014, mercenaries were seen in the Crimea, and later in the south-east of Ukraine. The Ministry of Defense then called this information “stuffing”. The role of PMCs in the events of the “Crimean Spring” was very limited, say two interlocutors of The Bell, close to the Ministry of Defense: the regular number of servicemen transferred to the Crimea was quite enough to ensure the safety of the population and suppress the resistance of the Ukrainian military. It was possible to test the pmc forces already in the south-east of Ukraine, but even there their role was far from leading: despite the high level of training, the “retirees” needed constant training so that commanders and subordinates could find a common language.

For “team building” around the middle of 2015, a site was chosen near the GRU base in southern Russia. The military part of the GRU was served mainly by companies associated with Prigozhin, RBC wrote . They could also equip a mercenary camp, the publication suggested. “In the Ministry of Defense, with which I have no connections, I cannot negotiate the financing / supply of PMCs, which does not exist,” Prigozhin replied.

Reserve Colonel Dmitry Utkin could be responsible for military training and directly in the battle for PMCs, Fontanka wrote . The call sign “Wagner”, by which the media began to call the PMC itself, Utkin allegedly received for germanophilia – even the gaps between tents in the training camp were called “Die Straße”.

Already in August 2015, the Wagner PMC gathers fighters and prepares them for the first trip to foreign countries – a business trip to Syria.

The Ministry of Defense insisted that Russian troops did not participate in the land operation, until in March 2016, the commander of the group, General Alexander Dvornikov, admitted that “individual tasks” on the territory of the republic are solved by units of special operations forces (highly mobile troops of the Ministry of Defense). But, as RBC wrote , employees of a private military company also participated in the battles.

During the offensive operations of the Syrian army, with the support of Russian aviation, mercenaries often found themselves on the front line. “First, Wagner’s guys work, then Russian ground units come in, then Arabs and cameras,” one of the participants in the events told the publication. The peak of the entire operation was the capture of Palmyra in 2016, in which Wagner’s fighters played a crucial role. In March, the city returned to the control of the Syrian government, and two months later the Mariinka Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Valery Gergiev gave a concert in the city’s ancient amphitheater.

It was a triumph: at the end of the year, Utkin and several other PMC fighters were received in the Kremlin. The head of the PMC got into the report of the “First Channel” from the reception in honor of the Heroes of the Fatherland on December 9, 2016 – a photo was published on the network, in which Vladimir Putin was most likely captured together with Utkin and other PMC commanders.

But soon the first victories were seriously overshadowed – in February 2018, the private army suffered the first large one-time losses, and Prigozhin incurred the wrath of the military command, according to two sources close to the Ministry of Defense. The reason was the fight of PMCs in the Syrian Deir ez-Zor, in which, according to various unconfirmed reports, from several dozen to more than a hundred PMC fighters were killed (in just 2017, the total losses in Syria among Russian servicemen and private military specialists amounted to about 40 people, Reuters wrote in its investigation).

Kommersant, comparing the versions of the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense, described the events as follows: on the evening of February 7, about 250 (according to other sources – 600) fighters of pro-government Syrian formations, reinforced by fighters of the Wagner PMC, moved to the area of the former Al-Isba oil refinery. The purpose of the offensive was an attempt by local “major businessmen supporting Bashar al-Assad” to seize oil and gas fields that were under the control of the Kurds – US allies, a Russian military source told the publication. In response, the US Air Force struck, the column came under shelling, which lasted a total of more than three hours. Later, the Pentagon said that after the discovery of the convoy, the military preemptively contacted the Russian Ministry of Defense, but they said that there were no Russian military in the area, after which the Americans launched a massive attack.

The PMC carried out the order of a Syrian businessman, confirmed the interlocutor of The Bell in another private company. Shortly before these events, presumably in January 2018, the company Euro Polis, which the media also associated with Prigozhin, concluded an oil deal with the government of Bashar al-Assad. As The Bell found out then, the company signed a binding agreement on participation in oil and gas projects in Syria – its conditions are not exactly known, but it was assumed that it would liberate fields and oil refining facilities from opponents of the Syrian government, participate in their protection, and in return – will be able to claim a quarter of the oil and gas produced in these territories.

The attack, which was reported by all the world’s media, was indeed not authorized by the command of the Russian group of troops in Syria, two sources close to the Ministry of Defense confirm. The military was “just dumbfounded” by such high-handedness, says one of them. A few days later, the Foreign Ministry had to admit that Russian citizens not connected with the Russian armed forces participated in the battle, five were killed, dozens of wounded were assisted to return to Russia for treatment.

“There are Russian citizens in Syria who went there of their own free will and for different purposes. It is not the business of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to assess the legality and legality of such decisions,” the ministry said in a statement.

This episode was one of the most painful for PMCs and personally for Prigozhin, says the interlocutor of The Bell, close to the Ministry of Defense. Without disclosing details, the two soldiers made it clear that it was later difficult to convince the presidential administration that this “misfire” was of a single nature, and that “corrective labor” would be carried out with the perpetrators.

IV. Expansion of the geography of PMCs – from West Africa to Venezuela

Since the battle in Deir ez-Zor, there has been no information about the participation of PMCs in active hostilities, but its employees managed to notice almost a dozen other countries – mainly on the African continent. This surprisingly coincided with the active establishment of Russia’s foreign policy ties with the leaders of African states.

Over the past year and a half alone, Russia and its state-owned companies have signed agreements on military and economic cooperation with Guinea, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, etc. And Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev personally and sometimes more than once met with the leaders of Sudan (its president Omar Bashir promised to give Moscow a “key to Africa”),Gabon, the Central African Republic and the Libyan commander-in-chief, General Khalifa Haftar.

Since the end of 2017, mercenaries of the Wagner PMC or Russian political technologists began to appear in Africa, according to sources and local media. The Bell wrote that with the Sudanese authorities they made a deal similar to the Syrian one: concession agreements for gold mining in exchange for the training of mercenaries in the soldiers of the local army. One of the next points was the CAR. Officially, in coordination with the UN, 5 military and 170 civilian Russian instructors have been working in the country since January 2018. Who these instructors are, what their status is and what they do has not even been mentioned in the UN reports. But The Bell was able to find documents according to which the company Lobaye Invest, presumably associated with Prigozhin, received in the CAR two licenses for the exploration and development of deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals, which it will only find on the territory of 4 thousand square kilometers. Journalists Orkhan Dzhemal, Kirill Radchenko and Alexander Rastorguev, who died there under unclear circumstances, were going to investigate what is happening in the CAR.

Lobaye Invest exploration sites in the CAR

Source: documents on the website of the Ministry of Finance and Budget of the Central African Republic, data from the Carnegie Moscow Center,

At the end of 2018, Russia was suspected of sending troops to Libya, and soon Prigozhin was caught on video by the Main Command of the Libyan Armed Forces – it turned out that he was personally present at the talks in Moscow between Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Field Marshal Haftar. “Famous Russian restaurateur Evgeny Prigozhin […] organized an official dinner and took part in the discussion of the cultural program of the visit of the Libyan delegation, “the military-diplomatic source commented later on TASS.

Photo: video screenshot of the information bureau of the General Command of the Libyan Armed Forces

An “explosive mixture” of mercenaries and political strategists provides African countries with security services, trains and engages in pre-election consultations, Bloomberg wrote in its investigation in November. According to him, PMCs from Russia are working or are about to start in 10 countries with which the Russian military has already established relations – among others, the agency called the Congo, Madagascar, Angola, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. In March, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a tour of five African countries.

Political strategists from Russia advised the current President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa after the military coup in the country last year, prepared for the elections of the current head of the Congo Joseph Kabila and several candidates in Madagascar, the agency wrote , citing its sources. Former employee of the St. Petersburg police chief Valery Zakharov now officially holds the post of security adviser to the President of the Central African Republic Faustin-Archange Touadera.

And at the end of last week, Reuters, citing its sources , reported on the transfer of employees of the Wagner PMC to Venezuela – during the coup attempt, they allegedly received the task of protecting President Nicolas Maduro. Peskov refuted this: “Fear has big eyes. No, of course not,” he said , answering the question “so our 400 fighters protect Maduro in Venezuela or not?”.

Following the example of the legendary Executive Outcomes, wagner’s PMC has prospects to turn into a diversified holding company that provides customers with a variety of services – from the physical protection of leaders and the protection of various facilities to direct military participation. It will probably be possible to assess whether she manages to make money on this in a few years.

But first, we have to recoup the costs. In total, according to the interlocutors of The Bell, from 7 to 10 thousand mercenaries could pass through PMCs since 2014. At the beginning of the Syrian campaign, the maintenance of the private army, including compensation for the dead, cost at least 5 billion rubles a year, RBC estimated . Last year, the costs, according to The Bell’ calculations, based on the approximate number of the group and the estimated costs, could amount to about 2 billion rubles.

When asked by The Bell whether the PMC is a commercial structure aimed at making a profit, Prigozhin said that he would give a “philosophical answer” and advised to learn to think logically:

“If a PMC can exist somewhere abroad, then presumably, it is engaged in security and military activities. Most likely, this company is aimed at making a profit. However, mining-related projects are carried out by fossil mining companies (IDCs). There is no place for PMCs in the scope of the IIR.”

Irina Malkova, Anton Baev

With the participation of Anastasia Yakoreva; a journalist from another publication also participated in the preparation of the article at the request of The Bell.

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