The grand opening of the private military company (PMC) Wagner center in St Petersburg by Evgeny Prigozhin, a mercenary company leader and Soviet-era convict, came as a shock to many in the country and abroad. For years, lawyers acting for Prigozhin launched legal cases against Russian independent journalists for trying to establish the link between 61-year-old Prigozhin and Wagner.
That’s all changed — the name WAGNER is now plastered all over the glitzy 24-floor building on the right bank of Neva river. Indeed, several uniformed men wearing the infamous Wagner insignia were spotted by journalists at the entrance.
But while Wagner is known for its bloody mercenary activities around the world — in Ukraine, across the African continent, for its alleged involvement in the massacre of Malians and others — the center is not supposed to be the HQ of the most famous Russian military company, or at least, not only that.
“PMC Wagner Center is a complex of buildings that provides space and free accommodation of inventors, designers, IT specialists, experimental production and start-up spaces,” Prigozhin said in a statement distributed by his company.
This raised eyebrows. Putin’s Chef is known for many things — for his criminal record, for wealth derived from Kremlin catering contracts, for his notorious troll factory, his private military company, which exchanges armed muscle to authoritarians willing to pay in diamonds, gold, oil, and other resources, and lately for recruiting convicted criminals directly from Russian prisons for the war in Ukraine. But IT start-ups? That appears to be the planned new offshoot for Prigozhin’s relentless expansionism.
Perhaps Prigozhin’s greatest talent is in identifying the Kremlin’s weak spots and rushing to fix them, no matter how controversial, bloody, dirty, or illegal. That is what makes him so indispensable to Putin.
When the Russian army found itself on the defensive in Ukraine, only PMC Wagner took the offensive. When the national mobilization effort felt ill-coordinated, it was Prigozhin who unhesitatingly raced to the Russian penal colonies, in person, and on film, so everyone could see him recruiting cannon fodder for the Kremlin’s war./Cepa