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As I See It: What’s “Putin’s Chef” cooking?

Is he after the Defense Ministry position or President Vladimir Putin’s?

If there’s one person who can challenge Putin, observers say, it’s Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, a paramilitary force or group of mercenaries that waged the short-lived rebellion in Russia lately.

Unknown to many, Prigozhin was a close friend of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. So, the latter considered the former’s action as a “stab at the back.”

Also, not many know it, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the Wagner Group was part of the Russian forces (although the group was operating on its own… its leader was in command of the group and not the Russian generals in the field.) Did Wagner’s crucial participation in the Russia-Ukraine impact the on-going war? Ukraine president Vladimir Zelensky said the rebellion in Russia staged by the Wagner group “weakened” Putin as a leader.

Prigozhin, however, never acknowledged that he was the leader of the group until last year after Russia began its full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Under his command, the group has been instrumental in several of Russia’s victories, securing victory in the battle for Bakhmut and the capture of the salt mine town of Soledar.

Starting as a small group, its ranks swelled due to a tactic of recruitment from Russian prisons as well as from ultra-nationalists. The mercenary group was part of the Russian military that invaded Ukraine (although the group is operating as an independent group under Russian forces), fighting side by side with the Russian military forces in the ground.

At the very start, however, there was tension between Russia’s defense ministry and Wagner which became apparent when Prigozhin alleged that Russian forces had attacked Wagner camps in Eastern Ukraine, killing dozens of his men.

Prigozhin’s Wagner forces left Ukraine and marched into Russia seizing control of the Russian military headquarters for the southern region in Rostov-on-Don, which oversees the fighting in Ukraine.

That started the rebellion, i.e. on June 23, 2023! The Wagner Group… went against the government of Russia amidst escalating tensions between the Russian Ministry of Defense and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner. (Wikipedia)

Following negotiations with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, Prigozhin agreed to stand down and, late on 24 June, began withdrawing from Rostov-on-Don. He, however, remains to be a force to reckon with ready to strike any time depending on his temperament.

After denouncing Wagner’s actions as treason, Putin offered not to press charges against members of the Wagner Group who participated in the rebellion, after they withdrew their forces in compliance with the negotiation made by Belarus president Lukashenko. While the group ended the rebellion, up to now there is no knowledge of where the leader of Wagner is. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on “Face the Nation” that he couldn’t get into where Prigozhin currently is located, but said it’s something they are “tracking” through intelligence.

Leading a group of mercenaries is expensive and maintaining it is even more lavish. How can a former hot dog seller do it? Well, after becoming a close friend of Putin, he set up a catering business which handed numerous Russian government contracts – leading to him being dubbed as “Putin’s chef”. That’s how he started getting rich as an ally of Putin.

Analysts say that Putin’s image as a tough leader was badly tarnished by the Ukraine war, now on its 16 months. Saturday’s march toward Moscow by forces under the command of his onetime protege, Prigozhin, exposed further weaknesses, analysts added. The crack in Putin’s leadership is becoming bigger and bigger and being exposed to the whole world.

It also meant some of the best forces fighting for Russia in Ukraine were pulled from that battlefield: Prigozhin’s own Wagner troops and Chechen ones sent to stop them.

While traffic returned to normal in Moscow, still the population are scared that Wagner Group might come back and re-stage another rebellion. The intentions of its leader Prigozhin were still being guessed and still hanging on the air, although many say he is after the Defense Ministry of Russia or even the presidency because he was the only one, analysts say, who can do that – going against Putin.

Prigozhin had shown that he is capable of leading and as an expert in using force to attain his goal. This is what is dangerous if he changes his mind to resume what he started to do – rebellion.

In addition to deploying Wagner troops to Ukraine, the Wagner Group has been active in Africa, where some nations have turned to the private army to fill security gaps or prop up dictatorial regimes.

Racz said: “In most cases, they provide training for local military forces, local security forces, but they are also engaged in VIP protection, also in guarding. And if necessary, they are able to conduct also high intensity operations, I mean real combat.”

Wagner not only operated in Ukraine but also in some countries, like the Central African Republic. Wagner exchanges services for almost unfettered access to natural resources. A CBS News investigation found that Russian cargo flights stopped in the country twice a week, possibly smuggling billions of dollars’ worth of gold back to Russia.

In addition to gold, CBS News also found Wagner was involved in illegal timber harvesting in CAR, another lucrative source of income.

His emergence as one of the only power centers in Russia able to challenge Vladimir Putin has led many to question whether he was after the top job himself.

After his success in the fast food world, Prigozhin went on to buy supermarkets and ran several restaurants and other businesses. In 1995 he opened a swanky restaurant called Old Customs House where Putin patronized. During the early years of his rule in the early 2000s, Putin often met foreign dignitaries in his home town St Petersburg and often took his guests to Old Customs House or one of Mr Prigozhin’s other restaurants, including New Island, a boat he transformed into a floating eatery. That’s how Putin and Prigozhin became close friends.

The group gained a reputation of doing the military’s dirty work when unleashed in Ukraine and as an arm of the Russian state in Africa – and is renowned for brutal violence, rapes and war crimes.

But tensions flared up repeatedly between Prigozhin and the Kremlin officials in charge of the war – defense minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the Russian armed forces General Valery Gerasimov – who the Wagner chief accused of deliberately starving his group of supplies and using his men as cannon fodder.

Dr. Marina Miron, a researcher at King’s College London, suggested Prigozhin might have his sights set on the position of Russian Defense Minister, rather than the Presidency.

“Many are saying this is a military coup against Putin. But in reality, it’s against the Ministry of Defense,” she told i. “I think what Prigozhin might be aiming for is to be the next Defense Minister.

Miron added: “I don’t think that he would try to go after the king, so to speak. In his videos, all his criticism is directed towards the Ministry of Defense. He’s much more into kind of the military side of things. He’s not a politician.”

While the rebellion stopped, Wagner’s leader is still roaming around Belarus and may still be planning to attain his ambitions either as a Defense Minister or president of Russia!

The chef is still on the loose!