'Putin's Chef' Has His Fingers In Many Pies, Critics Say

Jan 30, 2019
Originally published on February 15, 2019 7:49 pm

In 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted a dinner for President George W. Bush and other world leaders in St. Petersburg, Russia. In a photo, the man standing behind them is the caterer, wearing a tux and a white bow tie. His name is Yevgeny Prigozhin.

His nickname is "Putin's chef." So what's the big deal about him?

"He epitomizes a real renaissance man in contemporary Russia, which is to say that he runs some very high-end restaurants," said Angela Stent, the head of Russian Studies at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming book Putin's World.

Interesting. But what else does he do?

"He was the one running this Internet Research Agency, this troll factory in St. Petersburg that managed to mobilize thousands of Americans from 5,000 miles away to demonstrate and protest in the 2016 election," said Stent.

That gets your attention. And there's more.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (second right) shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, around his Concord Catering factory, outside St. Petersburg in 2010. The company has secured large government contracts to provide school lunches and feed the Russian military.
Alexei Druzhinin / AP

"He also runs Wagner, one of the largest mercenary private military groups in Russia," she added. "His troops are in Syria, they're in Ukraine, they're in a number of other places, where they are fighting in the Russian state's interest."

So he's got a lot cooking.

Tracking the key figures around Putin, and how they fit into the Russia investigation in this country, can be confusing.

Yet Prigozhin's name is worth knowing. He's burly and bald, at age 57. And while his name keeps cropping up, he's largely invisible — even in Russia.

"He doesn't have much of a public persona in Russia. Until very recently he was virtually unknown," said Dimitri Simes, who heads the Center for the National Interest, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "This is not a person who speaks at important political or business meetings. This is not a person who regularly appears on TV."

So where did Prigozhin come from?

He spent most of his 20s in prison on robbery, fraud and prostitution convictions. In the 1990s, he rebuilt his life with hotdog stands, which evolved into a catering business in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) serves food to Russian leader Vladimir Putin during a 2011 dinner at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow.
Misha Japaridze / AP

"He proceeded to get a big break catering high-profile events, one with Vladimir Putin and French President Jacques Chirac in 2001," said Michael Kofman, who closely follows Russia for the U.S. government-funded research organization CNA. "Eventually, he got a massive contract for feeding the Russian military and the Russian armed forces, which is probably where most of his money comes from."

At a recent press conference, Putin was dismissive when asked about his putative chef.

"All my chefs are employed by the Federal Guard Service. They are all servicemen holding different ranks. I have no other chefs," Putin said.

Regarding the private military company, Putin added: "If they comply with Russian laws, they have every right to work and promote their business interests anywhere in the world."

Those interests extend to Syria. In a dramatic confrontation last year, Russian mercenaries tried to seize an oil facility that was held by the U.S military and its allies.

As it was unfolding, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he wanted to find out who the attackers were and make sure they weren't part of the formal Russian army. The U.S. military contacted their Russian counterparts on a "deconfliction" hotline the two sides use to make sure they didn't shoot at each other in Syria.

"The Russia High Command in Syria assured us it was not their people," Mattis told Congress last year.

Once that was cleared up, Mattis said, "My direction was for the force to be annihilated."

And it was. The Americans say more than 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in withering airstrikes before they retreated from the one-sided fight near the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a dark suit, second from right, attends a meeting involving top Russian defense officials and members of Libya's National Army in Moscow on Nov. 7, 2018. The photo is taken from a video released by the Libyan National Army.
AP

"They are hired mercenaries who fight for money," Kofman said of the Wagner fighters. He said the mercenaries are allowed to keep a percentage of what they capture, and that's why they targeted the oil facility.

"They thought they'd take it and the thing turned out to be a fiasco," he said.

Kofman and other analysts see Prigozhin as the man funding these ventures, though he may not be involved in the details. In addition, it's not clear how much guidance the Kremlin provides, but it may be limited to some general guidelines, according to analysts.

Simes, meanwhile, notes that many rich businessmen in Putin's orbit are often described as "oligarchs." He disagrees with this label, saying it suggests they have real political power, which they don't in Putin's Russia.

He describes the Putin-Prigozhin ties as "not a relationship of co-equals, not a relationship of two intimate friends, but somebody who knows Putin reasonably well, who benefited from that relationship and who is prepared to be of help when needed."

Because Prigozhin and others like him are not formally part of the government, the Kremlin can distance itself and deny they are acting on behalf of the Russian state.

However, the U.S. government has shown a strong interest in Prigozhin.

The Treasury Department sanctioned him in 2016 for supporting Russia's military occupation in Ukraine.

Robert Mueller's team indicted him last February, saying he used his catering company to fund the Internet Research Agency, which interfered in the 2016 election.

There's virtually no record of Prigozhin speaking publicly. But he did comment on the indictment, telling Russia's state-run Ria Novosti news agency, "Americans are very impressionable people. They see what they want to see. If they want to see the devil — let them see one."

There was a rare sighting in November, when a Libyan military delegation met their Russian counterparts in Moscow. A video of the meeting shows everyone in a military uniform — except one Russian, who's conspicuously wearing a business suit. The man is Yevgeny Prigozhin.

And in the latest twist, Reuters reports that hundreds of Russian mercenaries are now in Venezuela supporting Nicolás Maduro, the embattled president. The Kremlim denies this.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Our next story is about a Russian linked to all of the following events - Russia's occupation of Ukraine, the Internet troll farm that interfered in the U.S. presidential election and a large-scale clash with the U.S. military in Syria. We're not talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin but rather the man referred to as Putin's chef. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has this improbable tale.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: Morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Morning.

(CROSSTALK)

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: There's this photo from a 2006 summit that shows Russian leader Vladimir Putin hosting U.S. President George Bush at a dinner in St. Petersburg. Standing behind him in a tux and a white bow tie is the caterer, Yevgeny Prigozhin. And why should we care about Prigozhin, the man known as Putin's chef? I asked Angela Stent, the head of Russian studies at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming book "Putin's World."

ANGELA STENT: He epitomizes a real renaissance man in contemporary Russia, which is to say that he runs some very high-end restaurants.

MYRE: That's nice. Anything else?

STENT: He was the one running this Internet Research Agency, this troll factory in St. Petersburg that managed to mobilize thousands of Americans from 5,000 miles away to demonstrate and protest in the 2016 election.

MYRE: OK, that gets your attention.

STENT: And then he also runs Wagner, which is one of the - I guess it's the largest mercenary private military group in Russia. And his troops are in Syria. They're in Ukraine.

MYRE: It can be confusing tracking the key figures around Putin and how they fit into the Russia investigation in this country. But Yevgeny Prigozhin is one name worth knowing. He's burly, bald, age 57, and he's largely invisible even in Russia.

DIMITRI SIMES: He doesn't have much of a public persona in Russia. Until very recently, he was virtually unknown.

MYRE: Dimitri Simes heads the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank.

SIMES: This is not a person who speaks at important political or business meetings. This is not a person who regularly appears on TV.

MYRE: Prigozhin spent most of his 20s in prison on robbery and fraud convictions. He rebuilt his life with hot dog stands, which evolved into a catering business. Then...

MICHAEL KOFMAN: He proceeded to get a big break catering high-profile events. One was Vladimir Putin and French President Jacques Chirac in 2001.

MYRE: Michael Kofman closely follows Russia at the research organization CNA.

KOFMAN: Eventually he got a massive contract for feeding the Russian military and the Russian armed forces, which is probably where most of his money come from.

MYRE: Vladimir Putin dodged the question when asked recently about his putative chef.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) All my chefs are members of the Federal Security Service. They're all military personnel of different ranks. I have no other chefs.

MYRE: And regarding Russian mercenaries, Putin said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Through interpreter) If they comply with Russian laws, they have every right to work and promote their business interests anywhere in the world.

MYRE: Those interests extend to Syria. In a dramatic confrontation last year, hundreds of Russian mercenaries tried to seize an oil facility held by the U.S. and its allies. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress he first wanted to make sure the attackers were not part of the actual Russian military.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM MATTIS: Senator, the Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people.

MYRE: Once that was cleared up...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTIS: My direction was for the force then was to be annihilated.

MYRE: And it was. The Americans say more than 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in withering airstrikes before they retreated. Meanwhile, Robert Mueller's team indicted Prigozhin last year on charges that he funded the Internet company that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Prigozhin responded with a rare public comment, saying, quote, "Americans are very impressionable people. They see what they want to see. If they want to see the devil, let them see one."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

MYRE: And one place to look may be Venezuela. Media reports say hundreds of Russian mercenaries have flown in to support the embattled president, Nicolas Maduro. The Kremlin denies this. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.