The last? Prigozhin's pirouette, 'Putin's chef' who dared to rebel against him

The Wagner Group leader accepted exile to Belarus after charges against him and his mercenaries were dropped, from where he hopes to focus on his political ambitions.

If anything has characterized Yevgeni Prigozhin's career, it is his ability to reinvent himself. From being a common criminal who passed through the prisons of a dying USSR to rubbing elbows with the Russian elite. From founding a hot dog business to serving meals to Vladimir Putin himself and, in the process, becoming a multimillionaire with public contracts. From creating a private army and becoming the spearhead of the Russian army in Ukraine to rebelling against the Russian president. From threatening Moscow to meekly accepting exile in Belarus.

Prigozhin was born in Leningrad in 1961. After a fleeting attempt to develop a sports career, the future oligarch began his dalliances with the law. He was convicted for the first time in 1979, in this case for robbery. His career as a common criminal was more successful than the track, and he was soon stringing together new convictions for theft, fraud and teenage involvement in crime, which earned him a 13-year prison sentence. However, he was pardoned in 1988 and released two years later. He had spent almost a third of his first 30 years behind bars.

From selling hot dogs to serving receptions to the Russian elite

After his time in prisons, Prigozhin apparently made a U-turn and started a hot dog business. Cooking seemed to be his specialty and he opened a series of restaurants that caught the attention of Putin himself. His company, Concord Catering, won multimillion-dollar contracts from the state to cater for school canteens, the Russian army and even to organize banquets in the Kremlin for the crème de la crème of Moscow´s social elites. This earned him the nickname "Putin's chef," bestowed, according to Prigozhin himself by opposition figure Aleksei Navalny.

However, the food business did not seem to satiate the cravings of Prigozhin, who created the Wagner mercenary group in 2014, with which he has participated in armed conflicts around the world, especially in Africa. The paramilitaries employed by the group soon gained notoriety for being tough and dangerous guys while also garnering a reputation as torturers and murderers that has earned them numerous accusations for human rights violations.

Claims to interfere in several U.S. elections

In addition, the Russian oligarch owns other companies with which he claims to have influenced a number of US elections and publicly assured that it is something that "we have done, we continue to do and we will do in the future," after being asked directly about his involvement in this matter through a trolley factory in St. Petersburg. The US sanctioned Prigozhin and three of his companies, including Concord Management and Concord Catering.

After the chaotic start of the Ukrainian war, Putin set Prigozhin and the Wagner Group as a spearhead to subdue Ukrainian cities. From the beginning of the conflict, his relations with the Russian high command, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, deteriorated dramatically. The mercenary leader accused the Ministry of not providing them with sufficient ammunition and of using the soldiers, especially his own, as cannon fodder.

Exile in Belarus

Last Saturday, after directly accusing Shoigu of a rear-guard attack that cost the lives of 2,000 of his mercenaries, he rebelled and led his men into Russian territory, where he seized two towns and began marching against Moscow. Finally, after mediation by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, he agreed to halt his attack and go into exile in Belarus, after all charges against him were dropped.

Beginning of a political career?

The military group's departure from the front line does not mean the end of the oligarch's aspirations for power and influence. He had already been announcing for some time his intention to move away from the war effort to focus on social and justice work, especially in Russia. While not opposing Putin, but many of his ministers, his latest moves seem to hint at his intention to turn Wagner into a political movement from which to position himself in the race to replace the current Russian president when he decides to leave power (or is forced to). Experts also do not rule out that Prigozhin was killed by Russian agents in the neighboring country.