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The man behind the Wagner Group mercenaries fighting for Russia in Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Russia's war on Ukraine, the mercenary Wagner Group has taken center stage, along with its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Americans may remember Prigozhin as the mastermind behind Russian troll farms during the 2016 presidential elections. Russia's defense ministry knows him as their fiercest critic. Just yesterday, Prigozhin called them traitors. From his home city of St. Petersburg, NPR's Charles Maynes has this profile of the man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAM PASSING)

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: In a gritty industrial district of St. Petersburg, a new glass office tower rises, the words Wagner Center emblazoned across its rooftop. It's a symbol of Wagner's growing business empire. And it turns out you can get a tour.

ANASTASIA VASIEVSKAYA: It's a huge building.

MAYNES: Our guide, Anastasia Vasievskaya.

VASIEVSKAYA: It's 23 floors.

MAYNES: The Wagner Center, still under construction, is conceived as office space to serve the state, she tells me.

VASIEVSKAYA: Mostly, we're interested in those who are patriotic, you know?

MAYNES: There will be a free 24-hour media lab for patriotic bloggers to seed the internet - also seed money for Russian tech startups with potential military applications. And on the upper floors, luxury boardrooms with a view.

VASIEVSKAYA: We will not have offices here - maybe one or two, just for our - for big boss, not the big, big boss.

MAYNES: Can I ask about the big, big boss?

VASIEVSKAYA: No, I don't have any answers for that.

MAYNES: But the big, big boss isn't exactly a secret. After years of operating in the shadows, Wagner's founder, 61-year-old Yevgeny Prigozhin, now very much wants to be seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: This is video of Prigozhin at a prison colony in September personally recruiting Russian convicts to fight in Ukraine. Survive six months, promises Prigozhin, and you're a free man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: God and Allah can take you out of here in a casket, he says. I can get you out of here alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Or there's Prigozhin here, in the town of Soledar in east Ukraine this past January, where he says he's come to hand out medals to Wagner fighters after a hard fought victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: They're probably the most experienced army in the entire world today, he says of Wagner, an army that, after years of denials, Prigozhin now acknowledges as his own. It's a mercenary force that has been linked to covert Kremlin military operations in Syria, Africa, Ukraine and beyond. The question is, why go public now? Longtime observers say the answer lies in Prigozhin's pursuit of power and influence.

DENIS KOROTKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Denis Korotkov is a Russian investigative journalist who broke several of the early stories on Wagner's activities. That was in 2014. Back then, Prigozhin was better known as Putin's chef, a nickname he earned after building a restaurant and catering empire favored by the Kremlin from humble beginnings as an ex-con operating a hot dog stand. But Korotkov discovered Prigozhin was also secretly recruiting Russians to fight along separatists in the Donbas - a private militia he named after the 19th century German composer.

KOROTKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: It was with permission straight from the top, argued Korotkov, part of a Kremlin off-the-books effort to hide Russian meddling in Ukraine. Fast forward to today, and Korotkov has fled Russia out of concerns for his safety. But he says Wagner, now an army of some 50,000 men, is central to efforts to salvage Russia's current military campaign, and Prigozhin knows it.

KOROTKOV: (Through interpreter) The Russian army doesn't appear to have much incentive to fight. The people who enter Wagner are more motivated.

MAYNES: For months, Prigozhin has publicly criticized the Russian military's top brass as incompetent and out of touch. He's also feuded with them over who deserves credit for battlefield victories when they come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: This is Prigozhin claiming Wagner fighters were solely responsible for seizing territory near the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut earlier this month. Prigozhin presents Wagner ranks as the best of the best - better trained, equipped and paid than regular troops.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BEST IN HELL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Prigozhin has even produced slick action films that mythologize Wagner heroics and sacrifice, even if real life is proven more complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIKTOR LITOVKIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Viktor Litovkin, a military analyst with the state-run TASS news agency, notes Wagner operates in a legal gray zone. Despite its now acknowledged role in the Kremlin war effort, Wagner, he says, is still formally an outlawed militia at home.

LITOVKIN: (Through interpreter) If the government allows Wagner to work and doesn't get in their way, it means the government approves. It approves, but it bears no responsibility because the men serving in Wagner aren't soldiers. The law doesn't apply to them.

MAYNES: Like Russia's military, Wagner has faced and denied allegations of war crimes in Ukraine. Undisputed is the group's practice of extrajudicial killings of its own fighters suspected of disloyalty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: In November, Wagner released video footage of the execution of one of its own members. Prigozhin has since embraced the executioner's tool, a sledgehammer, as a proud symbol of Wagner battlefield justice. All of this, the violence and the infighting with Russia's military, is happening on President Putin's watch. Whether because the Kremlin leader is allowing it or simply can't control it is a matter of debate. Either way, Prigozhin benefits from the ambiguity, says Alexandra Prokopenko, an independent analyst focused on Russian government policymaking.

ALEXANDRA PROKOPENKO: We don't know for sure how Putin thinks about Prigozhin. And Prigozhin knows that no one knows. That's his quasi-influence.

MAYNES: Many say Prigozhin's brutality and bravado is a prelude for a push for personal power. Prokopenko argues Prigozhin is still fundamentally reliant on his personal ties to the Russian leader - a patronage, she notes, that could disappear at any moment.

PROKOPENKO: When the war will end - and this war definitely will end someday - he will become a liability.

MAYNES: For now, Prigozhin insists he's a simple patriot focused on the mission at hand and telling it like it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: In a recent video interview with a pro-Kremlin military blogger, Prigozhin insisted he had zero political ambitions and hopes only to retreat with his mercenaries to a warm climate once the war is won. Yet Korotkov, the journalist, says Prigozhin's continued public role, perhaps even survival, given the powerful enemies he's made, depends on his army constantly proving itself on the battlefield, whatever the cost in lives.

KOROTKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "If Wagner doesn't make significant achievements in Ukraine, Prigozhin's star will, of course, fall," says Korotkov. "And there will be plenty of people," he adds, "who would be happy to participate in burying him."

Charles Maynes, NPR News, St. Petersburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.