The Bell has released an extensive report that aims to document the rise of the private military company (PMC) “Wagner,” in which the caterer and restaurateur Evgeny Prigozhin reportedly plays a leading role. Prigozhin’s ties with the Russian president have earned him the nickname “Putin’s Chef,” and multiple journalists have confirmed that the Wagner PMC has been involved in conflicts from southeast Ukraine to Syria.
The South African connection
Unnamed sources told The Bell that the idea for a PMC gained steam among Russian military leaders following a private presentation for Russia’s Joint Staff at the 2010 St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Eeben Barlow, a retired officer of the South African Defense Force, allegedly gave the presentation; Barlow founded the South Africa-based PMC Executive Outcomes.
The idea of employing veterans in Russia, where military service for men is avoidable but technically mandatory, to create a PMC evidently struck a chord with the Joint Staff. Its members had reportedly been discussing the idea for a year before Barlow’s presentation.
Despite its popularity in the highest echelons of the Russian military, the idea of a Russian PMC took time to get off the ground, The Bell reported. An initial idea to create small undercover teams of mercenaries for special assignments seemed to reach a dead end due in part to major personnel changes in both the military and the government, including the brief presidency of current Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. However, the broader impetus to create a private military force under Russian control reportedly remained.
Settling on Prigozhin
According to The Bell, when Russia’s Joint Staff set about creating that company, Prigozhin had already made a name for himself as a major state catering contractor. The Joint Staff reportedly asked him to manage the new PMC. In 2013, Prigozhin allegedly began hiring staff for Wagner against his own wishes.
Since then, reports in multiple news sources have described Wagner operations in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria. The company’s first operations in Syria, which took place in August 2015, also represented a test case for the concept as a whole: it was the first time Wagner had attempted to affect a conflict long-term and at a distance from Russia. The Bell claimed that after initial military victories were overshadowed by the capture of two alleged Wagner employees near Deir ez-Zor, Prigozhin was asked to explain the company’s failure to his superiors. Despite Prigozhin’s reported promises that the incident would not repeat itself, Wagner employees have not been sighted in active combat in Syria since early 2018.
However, Wagner’s operations have continued to expand in multiple countries in Africa. The Bell report attempts to shed entirely new light on the company’s activities in part by clarifying the role of Prigozhin and his businesses in the enterprise. For example, journalists reported that various government sectors from the Defense Ministry to the Moscow school system signed contracts with companies associated with Prigozhin. According to The Bell, the funds those agencies allocated were used only in part to fund agency projects while the rest of the money was siphoned toward Prigozhin’s PMC. Schemes like these have allegedly allowed Wagner to employ more than 10,000 mercenaries since 2014. The Bell estimates the company’s operating costs last year at 2 billion rubles, or $30.3 million.
One final point of interest in the new report is that The Bell’s journalists received comments from Evgeny Prigozhin himself. The businessman asserted that he works with Russia’s Defense Ministry on catering projects periodically but denies any ties with the Wagner PMC. He argued, “I can’t negotiate with a Defense Ministry where I have no ties about financing/provisioning a PMC that doesn’t exist.” Prigozhin went on to accuse Ukrainian security forces of spreading rumors about his involvement with Wagner. When Prigozhin did come to consider the hypothetical possibility that a Russian PMC is currently active in Africa, he asserted that it would be impossible to verify whether soldiers sighted there might be part of that PMC or not.