Brawling with elite, Russian mercenary boss wishes politician shot

FILE PHOTO: Evgeny Prigozhin assists Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a dinner with foreign scholars and journalists at the restaurant Cheval Blanc on the premises of an equestrian complex outside Moscow

By Andrew Osborn

LONDON (Reuters) - Yevgeny Prigozhin, the shaven-headed former convict and catering magnate who runs Russia's Wagner mercenary army on the Ukraine frontline, said on Friday that a politician who criticised him should be shot and may end up on a pitchfork.

Fuelling a growing standoff with Russia's political and military elite, Prigozhin evoked the actions of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during World War Two to excoriate a regional governor who had told him to stick to his food business.

"During the 1941-45 war, which is now being repeated, Stalin simply shot people like you. I think we're going to return to those times soon," he told Sverdlovsk governor Yevgeny Kuivashev, according to his press service.

"I'm sure that the time is not far off when people will reach boiling point and raise you and people like you up on pitchforks," he added, alluding to peasant rebellions.

Prigozhin, 61, who did nine years' jail for theft and street muggings in the 1980s, has emerged from the shadows to assume a high profile since Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

His fighters, whom he touts as among the best, are spearheading an offensive in eastern Ukraine.

On Friday, the war's anniversary, he announced that his men - including former prisoners like him - had captured a Ukrainian settlement on the outskirts of the small mining city of Bakhmut, which they have besieged for months.

Prigozhin's media profile, political influence, and fondness for profanely lambasting top army brass and anyone else in his way has angered some in government who want him reined in.

However Prigozhin, who grew rich from state contracts awarded to a catering company he controls, has proved hard to tame, given Wagner's big role and the support he has from influential military bloggers and some hawkish politicians.


Earlier this week, he accused various regional governors of refusing to bury Wagner fighters with military honours, labelling them as lawless, corrupt bureaucrats.

Kuivashev, the Sverdlovsk governor, hit back on Friday via the local news outlet: "If every businessman who makes money on school meals tries to run the country, we won't get very far," he said.

"Everyone has to look after their own business. Cook cutlets and boil pasta, and we in the regions will sort things out ourselves."

From eastern Ukraine, Prigozhin replied that he had stopped being a businessman a year ago and was now devoting his life to leading his fighters.

As well as menacing Kuivashev, he said the mayor of St Petersburg with whom he has a long-running feud, would have also been executed in Stalin's day.

Some analysts believe Prigozhin's thuggish behaviour is useful to the Kremlin as it keeps the elite fearful of what might happen if President Vladimir Putin were to step down.

Others, though, warn that Prigozhin and other figures in Russia with their own private armies, like Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, could one day go rogue.

One source close to the Russian authorities told Reuters in January that though the Kremlin viewed Prigozhin as a useful operator it maintained unspecified safeguards over leaders of armed groups. "There is a ceiling (of growth) and mechanisms in place," said the source, who declined to provide more details.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)