Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin is pictured with then Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin in 2010
Moscow (AFP) – From helping to orchestrate interference in Western elections to personally recruiting prison convicts to fight as mercenaries in Ukraine, Yevgeny Prigozhin is emerging as one of President Vladimir Putin's most loyal -- and ambitious -- lieutenants.
After years operating in the shadows, the 61-year-old native of Putin's hometown Saint Petersburg is becoming an increasingly public figure that analysts say is eyeing a possible political role in Russia.
On the eve of the US midterm vote Tuesday, Prigozhin -- who recently stepped forward as the man behind the elusive but powerful Wagner mercenary group -- admitted also to trying to change the outcome of US elections.
"Gentlemen, we interfered, we are interfering and we will interfere," Prigozhin said on Monday.
"Carefully, precisely, surgically," he said in a statement interpreted by some observers as tongue-in-cheek.
Sanctioned by Washington and Brussels, Prigozhin has been accused of running an online "troll factory" to meddle in ballots held in several Western countries.
In September, he admitted that he had founded the Wagner group whose fighters have been at the forefront of Moscow's offensive in Ukraine. This month Wagner opened its first headquarters in Saint Petersburg.
Prigozhin had for years irritably dismissed allegations that he was linked with Wagner and the Kremlin had also denied any links.
The group's presence has been reported in conflict zones including Syria, Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic, where it has been accused of abuses and capturing state power.
In September, a video surfaced of a bald man bearing a strong resemblance to Prigozhin in a jail courtyard, offering contracts to prisoners to fight in Ukraine with a chilling set of conditions.
"If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it's not for you, we will regard it as desertion and will shoot you. Any questions, guys?" said the man.
"No one gives themselves up," he said, adding recruits should have grenades on them in case of capture. "If you die, your body will be repatriated to the place you wrote down on the form."
It was not possible to verify if the man in the video was Prigozhin but his company Concord did not deny it was him.
"Of course, if I were a prisoner, I would dream of joining this friendly team in order to be able not only to redeem my debt to the Motherland, but also to repay it with interest," Concord cited him as saying.
Prigozhin rose from a modest background to become part of the inner circle around Putin.
He spent nine years in prison in the final period of the USSR after being convicted of fraud and theft. In the chaos of the 1990s, he began a moderately successful business selling hot dogs.
From there he fell into the restaurant business and opened a luxury location in Saint Petersburg whose customers included Putin, then making the transition from working in the KGB to local politics.
The catering company he founded at one point worked for the Kremlin, earning Prigozhin the soubriquet of "Putin's chef".
Prigozhin has been described as a billionaire with a vast fortune built on state contracts, although the extent of his wealth is unknown.
One of the best-known images shows him at the Kremlin in 2011, bending down over a seated Putin and offering him a dish while the Russian leader looks back with an approving glance.
He was sanctioned by Washington which accused him of playing a role in meddling in the 2016 presidential election, in particular through his internet "troll factory".
Prigozhin at the time denied any involvement and in 2020 asked for $50 billion in compensation from the United States.
In July 2018, three journalists researching Wagner's operations in the Central African Republic for an investigative media outlet were killed in an ambush.
Western countries have accused the private fighting group of coming to the aid of the military junta in Mali, in a move that contributed to France's decision to end an almost decade-long military operation there.
Prigozhin has been unusually vocal in the wake of the poisoning of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who fell ill on a flight in Siberia and was then transferred for treatment in Germany in 2020.
The two have never made any secret of their enmity, with Navalny's anti-corruption group accusing a firm that worked with Concord of serving food in schools that was dangerous for the health of children.
Prigozhin sued Navalny for libel and a court ordered that the campaigner's group pay more than $1 million in damages.
"I intend to strip this group of unscrupulous people of their clothes and shoes," Prigozhin said.
© 2022 AFP