Chocolate museum in Saint Petersburg. Gold mine in the Central African Republic. Oil and gas companies of the Syrian coast.
The economic enterprises of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a former hot dog salesman turned warlord of the Wagner Group, which staged a brief rebellion against Russia’s military last month, extend far beyond the thousands of mercenaries he has deployed in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East. .
Through a vast network of shell companies and middlemen, Mr. Prigozhin’s activities included catering, producing action films, producing beer and vodka, cutting wood, mining diamonds, and employing people to sow disinformation in elections abroad, including the U.S. 2016 election.
The exact size of his business is a mystery.
With Mr. Prigozhin’s whereabouts unknown, the fate of his sprawling empire is uncertain. President Vladimir V. Putin has said that Russia financed Mr. Prigozhin’s businesses, but it is unclear how much control the Kremlin has over the trade network that reaches thousands of miles away from Moscow, experts say.
“It’s certainly not going to look exactly the way it has, depending on who’s leading it, how much oversight the Kremlin will have, and how long the leash will allow Wagner to operate,” said Catrina Doxsee, an expert on irregular warfare. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization.
Here’s a look at Mr. Prigozhin’s business interests.
Russia and Ukraine
Canteen, real estate and mercenaries.
From his humble beginnings as an amateur cross-country skier and ex-convict, Mr. Prigozhin carved a path through the turmoil of post-Soviet Russia, laying the foundations for his empire by opening hot dog kiosks in 1990 and later catering for the Kremlin. — earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”
Over the decades, he secured billions in state contracts and controlled an extensive portfolio of businesses, mostly in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city and his birthplace.
Mr Prigozhin’s businesses included construction, catering and entertainment. He ran a media company that began to be dismantled since his rebellion and initiated troll farms that sought to shape the US presidential election in 2016. His companies run hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and a gourmet grocery store on St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare.
Whether his businesses made consistent profits is not clear: Some went under, others stayed afloat. Over the years, Mr. Prigozhin has used money from state contracts paid to some of his companies to fund his other projects, including shadow jobs apparently ordered by the Kremlin.
“They were all interconnected, these ships, in the sense of general management and in the sense of a possible flow of funds,” said Marat Gabidullin, a former aide to Mr. Prigozhin who fought for the Wagner group before seeking asylum in France.
The Wagner group was paid nearly $10 billion by the Russian government, according to Russian state media. Mr. Prigozhin secured contracts worth an additional $10 billion from the Kremlin for his catering company.
On Thursday, the autocratic leader of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who intervened in the rebellion, signaled that at least some of Wagner’s fighting force might remain intact.
In June, Mr. Prigozhin accepted that he used profits from lucrative state contracts to finance Wagner in Africa, Syria and elsewhere – but always “to pursue the interests of the Russian state.”
“Everything works like a business model – he uses state resources to realize various projects,” said Mr. Gabidullin. “And within this, he gets his own bonus.”
Soldiers for pay, and interests in gold and timber.
Wagner’s main business in Africa is mercenaries: From Libya in the north to Mozambique in the south, the group has deployed soldiers in five African countries, providing security for presidents, supporting authoritarian leaders and fighting armed groups, often at high cost to civilians. populations
In the Central African Republic, Wagner provides security to the president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and trains the army. Observers called the group’s actions in the nation “state capture” because of how Wagner influenced political decisions to advance his interests at the expense of the public.
According to the United States, a military government in the West African nation of Mali has paid Wagner about $200 million since late 2021, essentially for mercenaries to fight against groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Wagner operatives also helped launch a decade-old United Nations peacekeeping operation, according to White House officials, forcing Mali to rely almost exclusively on Russia.
Beyond mercenary work, businesses affiliated with Mr. Prigozhin were present in more than a dozen countries. They mine gold in Sudan and the Central African Republic, where they also export wood, make beer and vodka, run a radio station, and have produced action films and organized a beauty pageant.
A firm affiliated with Mr. Prigozhin also controls Central African Republic’s largest gold mine, and recently signed new mining permits there for the next 25 years. The mine could bring in $100 million in revenue for the group annually, according to Hans Merket, a minerals researcher for the Brussels-based organization IPIS.
Fidèle Gouandjika, chief adviser to the country’s president, said that Wagner protected against rebels; provided quality timber to Central Africans through its timber trade; and sold cheap beer.
“So we tell them, ‘Take some diamonds, take some gold,'” Mr. Gouandjika said of what Central African officials offered Wagner for its services. “The West is jealous.”
Bashar al-Assad’s protectors and oil and gas explorers.
As Mr Prigozhin staged his rebellion last month, Russian forces in Syria surrounded several bases where Wagner mercenaries were stationed, including around the capital, Damascus. Fearing movement by Wagner fighters, Syrian forces set up checkpoints around the bases; the country’s intelligence services were put on alert; and telecommunications were blocked. The answer was another sign of Mr. Prigozhin’s long reach.
Officially, Russia intervened in Syria in late 2015 to help the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad turn the tide against rebels who are trying to oust him.
But Russian paramilitary fighters with a group known as the Slavonic Corps were detected in Syria as early as 2013, experts say. Although detailed connections between the Slavonic Corps and Wagner remain unclear, many Wagner commanders were originally part of the corps, according to Gregory Waters, a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Wagner asserted its presence in Syria in 2017. While the Russian military brought its air force and commanders, most of its front-line personnel came from Wagner, Mr. Waters said.
Wagner fighters have both captured territory from rebels and the Islamic State and guarded oil and gas fields and Palmyra, a major tourist site.
U.S. intelligence officials have described Wagner’s goal in Syria as capturing oil and gas fields and securing them for Mr. al-Assad.
At least four companies linked to Wagner and registered in Russia have exploration permits for sites in Syria, according to Lou Osborn, an analyst at All Eyes on Wagner, an open-source research group. All were placed under sanctions by the US Treasury Department.
These activities have been central to Russia’s quest to become an energy superpower, said Candace Rondeaux, a Wagner expert who is senior director at New America, a Washington research group.
“With Russia there is no de-conflicting or disentangling military interests from energy interests,” Ms. Rondeaux said.
Mr. Gabidullin, the former Wagner fighter, said Mr. Prigozhin’s vast network abroad had grown too much for the Kremlin to fully control.
“He has so many specialists there,” he said. “It is the specialists of the Ministry of Defense who need to learn from their staff.”