All countries have mafia — but the Russian mafia has a country, a joke goes.
Evgeny (Yevgeniy) Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef,” started his business career in the 80s, in a Soviet prison, serving a decade of hard labor for theft, fraud, and robbery. In the 90s, he got involved in organized crime in St. Petersburg and managed a gambling business supervised by Putin. In the early 2000s, he made millions of dollars receiving exclusive state orders for catering, maintenance, and construction from the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense.
He built his own empire within Putin’s empire. Prigozhin serves the Kremlin’s interests by sponsoring mercenary groups that are led and staffed by known neo-Nazis and convicted criminals. Illegal in Russia in the past, these private military groups were openly supported by the Kremlin as they carried out military operations in Ukraine and Syria.
In Syria, companies associated with Prigozhin receive 25% of oil and gas money generated in the territories they reclaim for Assad. As a result of the above activities, Prigozhin was sanctioned by the US and EU as a person close to Putin and has been put on the FBI wanted list in February 2022.