15.03.23 Prigozhin Review

The Chef in the Kitchen of Dirty Deeds: researchers have mapped the company activity of Yevgeny Prigozhin, while The New York Times predicts that he will continue to battle for political influence after military defeat

Yevgeny Prigozhin has established a global network of companies that operate together as a single body and complement one another's efforts. Some of these companies profit from the extraction of natural resources in Africa, while others conduct social media and media-based information campaigns. Some fight for political power, or promote values close to the businessman through film-making and the organisation of cultural events, and others are engaged in military conflicts. Therefore, the Wagner private military company, which is currently engaged in the conflict in Ukraine, is just one component of a larger empire — one that has a significant amount of financial, informational, and human capital at its disposal. Even if the Wagner PMC were to lose its role in the war, as a result of its conflict with the Russian military command, Prigozhin's empire would remain one of the key players in Russia’s future political and administrative conflicts.

Yevgeny Prigozhin has emerged as one of the most prominent figures in the Russian-Ukrainian war and has likely become the central figure in Russia's public military policy. He is not shy of hurling obscenities at whoever he wishes, he openly criticises Russia’s top army generals, attempts to influence crucial military appointments, and promotes extrajudicial executions, which are carried out by his personal troops, the Wagner PMC. Further, he has successfully lobbied for unprecedented legislation that criminalises the identification of convicted murderers and criminals as such. Prigozhin's influence is far-reaching, and although he was previously only known as ‘Putin's chef,’ he has now begun to appear almost as the president’s political alter ego. The New York Times predicts that he is laying the groundwork to take up a significant role in Russian politics sometime in the near-future in their detailed profile of Prigozhin ‘Russia's Mercenary Chief Prepares Ground for a Political Advance.’As Re: Russia has previously reported, Yevgeny Prigozhin's increased political influence this year can be attributed to three ‘accomplishments.’ First, he has managed to successfully rally pro-military public opinion through his own media resources. Second, he has been able to direct dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of the military operation towards the high army command through his network of Telegram bloggers, thereby increasing the command’s allegiance to him. Finally, he was crucial in the stabilisation of the front lines in late summer and early autumn as he was able to significantly expand his troops through the recruitment of prisoners. However, after the appointment of Valery Gerasimov as the head of the General Staff and commander of the military operation in Ukraine, Prigozhin's military activities have dramatically declined.

Before February 24, 2022, the Wagner PMC had approximately 5,000 combatants, primarily former soldiers with combat experience from elite Russian regiments and special forces. However, according to a BBC News article citing British military sources, as of January 2023, around 50,000 Wagner PMC fighters are currently participating in combat operations in Ukraine. Deutsche Welle estimates their numbers to be around 20,000. The composition and nature of the PMC have changed drastically since the Russian invasion of Ukraine — it is no longer an elite unit of ‘war professionals,’ but rather has become an ‘uncontrolled division.’ According to the US National Security Council (these statistics were also cited by the BBC), approximately 80% of the ‘Wagnerites’ currently fighting in Ukraine are prisoners, who were released from Russian prisons to be sent to the front. Despite suffering significant losses near Bakhmut and a decline in the private army’s quality, Wagner is yet to achieve decisive success due to limited artillery support from regular military units and a suspension on its recruitment of new prisoners to replenish its troops. Prigozhin has issued warnings that the Russian front in Ukraine will collapse if the ‘Wagnerites’ are destroyed, but it appears increasingly likely that they will lose their role in the war and lose the status that they had held in late 2022.

However, it should be noted that the Wagner PMC represents only a fraction of the Prigozhin ‘extended universe’. Researchers at the GEODE Cyber Research Center at the University of Paris 8 and CASSINI, supported by The Russia Program at GW, have created an interactive map that showcases and categorises all of Yevgeny Prigozhin's activities and organisations around the world since 1997. Using open source data, these experts were able to identify 373 initiatives led by Prigozhin and his affiliated companies, along with their respective names and roles. They also attempted to gauge the significance of each initiative, project, and activity within the wider world of Prigozhin.

Prigozhin’s network mainly operates in Europe (68%), Africa (19%), and North America (8%). The main actors within this network are the Wagner Company (21%) and Prigozhin himself (19%). The Internet Research Agency LLC, also known as the ‘troll factory", comes in third place, occupying 15% of Prigozhin's activities. It is engaged in disinformation campaigns on social media, as well as astroturfing. 55% of the agency’s efforts are oriented towards Europe and 34% towards North America, where Prigozhin has been attempting to exert influence on American politics. According to publicly available data, the Internet Research Agency was most active in 2014 (38%), with references to the organisation’s activities steadily declining year on year since 2015.

The Concord group of companies takes fourth place (12%) in Prigozhin's empire and was established in 1997, the point at which this empire began to grow. Fifth place is occupied by two media sources controlled by Prigozhin — Patriot Media Group and RIA FAN — which account for 10% of Prigozhin's total activities. Both identified and anonymous political consultants are also crucial players in his network, as they provide various services, including sociological research, which is then used to influence elections, win tenders, and eliminate competitors. They are most active in Africa (67%) and Europe (23%), with North America accounting for only 7% of their activities.

In sixth place are a number of commercial enterprises and individuals whose primary aim is to generate income for Prigozhin. These include companies that are involved in the extraction of natural resources and minerals, as well as those engaged in manufacturing or trading commercial goods. The majority of their activities (56%) are focused in Africa, followed by 24% in Europe, 12% in Asia, and 8% in North America. Last place is occupied by Aurum Production, a company that produces patriotic films. Over the past few years, they have released movies such as Rzhev, Tourist, Granite, and the trilogy Shugaley, Solntsepek, and 16th.

Experts have categorised and analysed the various types of activities undertaken by Prigozhin's ‘kitchen’ and identified seven different categories. The largest proportion of initiatives were classed within the  ‘Influencing’ category, which accounts for 29% of all Prigozhin’s ventures. The second most significant category was ‘Military campaigns,’ which constitute 22% of all his activities. ‘Doing business’ and ‘Working with media and social networks’ were ranked third and fourth, each accounting for 13% of his activity. The military activities of Prigozhin's businesses peaked in 2022 (19%), although in 2021, the figure already occupied 14% of the various initiatives. Finally, the apex of Prigozhin's business activity was in 2019 (26%). His various enterprises began to work in the social media space in 2011, with the most significant level of output observed in 2020, 2016, and 2015 (21%, 19%, and 15%, respectively). However, this activity decreased to just 8% last year.

Areas of activity of Evgeny Prigozhin's companies, 1997–2023, %

The types of activities that Prigozhin's enterprises undertake are often complex and have multiple objectives. Recently, the Italian authorities accused Wagner PMC of having instigated the migrant crisis in Europe. They believe that the military actions of the PMC deliberately provoked the displacement of civilians in Syria. Moreover, the Italians suspect that several of Prigozhin's initiatives have also been fueling the migrant crisis on social media through astroturfing and disinformation campaigns.

As such, even if the Wagner PMC is ‘defeated’ by the General Staff — an outcome that seems highly probable at present — and the remaining members of the group are absorbed into the regular army, thus losing their unique status in the ongoing conflict, Prigozhin's ‘kitchen of dirty deeds’ or rather, the empire he has built, will remain a significant source of influence and will play one of the leading roles in Russia’s political and administrative confrontations in the near future.