Prigozhin is having a tough time keeping a lid on his business dealings with a rogue’s gallery of African dictators and Middle Eastern strongmen.
years ago, Yevgeny Prigozhin barely registered a blip on Google trends in
English or Russian. Today, the Kremlin-connected businessman better known as
“Putin’s chef” is persona non grata in many places around the world, including
the United States, where the Treasury Department leveled another round of
sanctions against Prigozhin this week for his role in Russia’s interference in
the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Prigozhin’s close ties to President Vladimir Putin have long been known to
Russian observers, stretching back to their younger days in St. Petersburg in
the 1990s, the Kremlin insider was virtually unknown in the United States until
recently. Now, Prigozhin ranks as one of the most visible targets of the U.S.
response to Russian election interference. The private jets and yachts that
Prigozhin has used to shuttle from one warzone business deal to the next are
now effectively barred from landing in any port that trades with the United
after Treasury officials announced the sanctions, Secretary of State Mike
Pompeo said the U.S. will continue to try to box Prigozhin in and monitor the
activities of the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg troll farm that
Prigozhin, according to a 2018 U.S. indictment, helped finance to wage
“information warfare against the United States,” specifically against Hillary
Clinton’s presidential campaign. The Mueller Report laid out the “active
measures” of the Internet Research Agency in painstaking detail, exposing
Prigozhin’s role in funding its disinformation campaign through a company he
controlled, Concord Management and Consulting.
cutting off Prigozhin’s financial flows and impeding his ease of movement
around the world is laudable and necessary, it may not be enough. It might also
miss other important targets for sanctions that could be key to placing more
pressure on the Kremlin ahead of 2020 to deter further election meddling.
Prigozhin uses a web of front companies with similar names to still finance the
Internet Research Agency, according to U.S. Treasury officials. Public records
indicate that that same network of companies has been linked to shipments of
Russian-made weapons to Syria, in violation of international sanctions.
officials this week suggested that Prigozhin’s private jet was registered in
2012 to a company in the Seychelles called Beratex Group Limited, which media
outlets had reported earlier this year. Priogzhin reportedly used the plane to
make multiple trips to Syria and to several African countries, including Sudan,
Chad and Kenya. In a statement released in response to press queries, Prigozhin
denied that he owned or used the plane.
for offshore companies, online merchant marine recruitment services and other
publicly available records suggest that there are strong links between Beratex
Group Limited and a sprawling network of shell companies and logistics
contractors that supports sales and transfers of military weapons, primarily
through ports in Ukraine and Russia. Known colloquially as the “Odessa
Network,” it has been implicated in numerous shady shipments of Russian- and
Ukrainian-made tanks, anti-missile defense batteries, armored vehicles and
Group Limited appears in the U.K.’s Companies House registry, along with
several other companies bearing similar names such as Beratex SA, Beratex
Limited and Beratex Inter Limited. According to that British registry, Beratex
Limited and Beratex Inter Limited were linked to employees of a
Seychelles-based service that registers offshore companies, which itself is
implicated in massive money-laundering schemes that served Russian mobsters and
oligarchs, and an array of organized criminal gangs. Data unearthed as part of
an ongoing study I am leading into proxy warfare indicate that several one-time
employees of the Moran Security Group, a Russian private military security
company with links to the Wagner Group, the private military contractor that
Prigozhin ostensibly manages, listed a Seychelles-registered company called
Beratex Ltd. as a previous employer.
has other problems to deal with. Fresh public exposure about the activities of
the Wagner Group also threatens to upend his crooked business model—and
potentially his usefulness to the Kremlin. Bloomberg reported last month that
Wagner Group contractors are fighting on the front lines in Libya, in support
of Gen. Khalifa Haftar and his breakaway Libya National Army, which has been
trying to take Tripoli.
Wagner Group seems to be struggling in its push to help Haftar capture Tripoli
and other key locations in western Libya. Amid reports that forces loyal to
Libya’s U.N.-backed government raided a Wagner Group base of operations near
the town of Bir Allaq, a video surfaced on YouTube depicting Libyan government
fighters picking over personal items of a Russian contractor, apparently
discovered after Wagner contractors were forced to flee. During fierce clashes
with Libyan government troops in early September, Wagner Group fighters
reportedly sustained multiple casualties in airstrikes near the strategically
important al-Watiya airbase.
is having a tough time keeping a lid on his business dealings with a rogue’s
gallery of African dictators and Middle Eastern strongmen. So it is not hard to
imagine that Putin and the Russian state enterprises that the Wagner Group
serves might one day rethink whether keeping Prigozhin around makes good
business sense. Even in the unlikely event that U.S. sanctions and the federal
investigation into Prigozhin’s company and the Internet Research Agency wipe
out a good portion of his empire, evidence and history suggest the Kremlin
would have no compunction about replacing him. After all, since Putin came to
power, Prigozhin is likely just one of many mid- to high-level Kremlin-approved
managers who has over the years handled weapons and energy deals around the
this means for Prigozhin and the Wagner Group in the longer term is far from
certain. But it seems that the tangled web he weaves is starting to unravel.
Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the
Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University.
Her WPR column appears every Friday.