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How a former caterer created the mercenary army fighting Putin's war in Ukraine

Guardian journalist Shaun Walker talks about Yevgeny Prigozhin, the tough-talking convict-turned-businessman who recruits soldiers from Russian prisons to fight in Ukraine. "It's just so out of the realms of fantasy that this former convict is going to fly around prisons in his helicopter and offer people salvation for fighting for him at the front, and then lead these battalions of prisoners to their almost certain death," He says. "It's so dystopian that it's really hard to believe. But yet it has happened."

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Terry is off this week. Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which sparked the largest land war in Europe since World War II. As the Russian military has struggled on the battlefield, it's become apparent that its forces have been boosted by the presence of tens of thousands of mercenary soldiers, many of them convicts recruited from Russian prisons. Our guest today, veteran foreign correspondent Shaun Walker, has written about the company that recruits and fields the mercenaries, the Wagner Group and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin has a colorful past and has built a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, he was known to many as Putin's chef. Among his many business ventures was a catering service that handled high-profile occasions for the Russian president.

The Wagner Group forces have suffered high casualty rates in the war and have been accused of atrocities against civilians and summary execution of its own soldiers who desert or disobey orders. Walker reports that Prigozhin has become a wealthy man and an increasingly visible political actor within Russia, clashing publicly with Russian military leaders. Shaun Walker is the Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. He reported from Russia for more than a decade and has covered the fighting in Ukraine. He's the author of the 2018 book "The Long Hangover" about Russia's evolution from the collapse of the Soviet Union to its current political and economic state. Before joining The Guardian, Walker wrote for The Independent.

Shaun Walker, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SHAUN WALKER: Hello - great to be with you.

DAVIES: Let's talk about Yevgeny Prigozhin. He was born in 1961 in Leningrad, was a petty criminal as a young man. What kinds of things did he do?

WALKER: Well, we know exactly what he did from some fairly extraordinary court documents from 1981 which go through in quite a lot of detail one of the crimes that he was sentenced at that time to 13 years in prison for. And we get this picture of Prigozhin and a group of three or four young guys, his friends, who were basically carrying out these opportunistic robberies, breaking and entering. One extremely sinister case that is laid out in these documents that they were leaving a restaurant around midnight, saw a young unaccompanied woman walking down the street, and basically Prigozhin grabbed her by the neck until she was - lost consciousness. The friends then took off her earrings, took her money and ran off with this. So this seems to have been, you know, just an ordinary day, as far as we can tell, for Yevgeny Prigozhin at the time. Him and his friends basically - yeah - involved in all kinds of street crime and sort of petty robberies and things like that.

DAVIES: Right. So he was sentenced to 13 years in prison, served about a decade - right? - and then was released in 1990 as the Soviet Union was coming to an end. What did he do when he got out?

WALKER: Well, that's right. So he comes out of prison. He spent his whole 20s pretty much in jail. He emerges just before his 30th birthday into this rapidly changing country, the very last death throes of the Soviet Union. And he's able, within a few years, to kind of cement this - an extraordinary rise. And, you know, many people at this time were making incredible transformations. It was the shock therapy. It was the introduction of capitalism. There was all these opportunities. But even by those standards, Prigozhin's story of a guy that had spent his whole 20s in jail is quite remarkable.

So, you know, he comes out of prison. He starts off selling hot dogs. He's mixing the mustard in his kitchen with his mother, going out and selling these hot dogs. But very quickly, he moves on to bigger things. He falls in with some new business partners. He ends up with shares in some supermarkets. And by the middle of the 1990s, he's got a new project, which is opening up a restaurant, which is quite a new concept, a fine dining restaurant in Russia of the '90s. There were not many places in St. Petersburg where you can go and eat nice food.

And to start with, this place - it's called the Old Customs House. To start with, it's a bit of a seedy establishment. It has strippers to kind of entice clientele, but before long, it gets a reputation as really being one of the best places to eat in the city. And so the business elites, the political elites, all kinds of people come to Prigozhin's restaurant to eat. And among them is the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. And on occasion, he brings with him his deputy mayor, which is a guy called Vladimir Putin. And that's the first time that Putin and Prigozhin come into contact, well before Putin has become a big, major political figure.

DAVIES: Right. So, you know, Putin's rise in the Russian political world is well-documented. Prigozhin would eventually get some big government contracts. Did that come from his relationship with Putin? What were they?

WALKER: There's this period between the first time when Prigozhin and Putin meet back then in the '90s in St. Petersburg. And to start with, even in those first years, there was not really any sign of this extraordinary rise to prominence that we would see later from Prigozhin. He starts off basically as a kind of reliable restauranteur. So, you know, Putin remembers him. He invites him and his catering company to start catering for some quite big government events. But really, this is catering work. I mean, Prigozhin is there. He's serving the wine himself. He's kind of handing out the plates. You can see, actually, in pictures, photographs from the early years of Putin's presidency, you can see kind of Prigozhin often lurking in the background. You would never have spotted him if you weren't looking for him. He's there, you know, hiding away when Putin is dining with George W. Bush quite early on in his presidency. You can see him in the background when Putin is hosting Prince Charles in St. Petersburg. And really, there's no sign at this point that this guy is anything other than a caterer.

But somehow, in these interactions, Prigozhin manages to catch Putin's attention. He manages to sort of show himself as a reliable guy, really, who can be on hand to serve is the way that Prigozhin put it in one of the few interviews he's given - is that Putin saw that I wasn't above bringing the plates myself. And something in this, and clearly something also in Prigozhin's personal ability to kind of ingratiate himself with superiors, leads to a situation where he starts to win contracts that are much bigger than simply catering for dinners for government functions. He starts to win these huge government contracts catering for schools, catering for the army.

And then from these army contracts, it metastasizes further. And in 2014, when Putin takes the decision to annex Crimea and invade Ukraine for the first time, and the Kremlin is sort of looking for ways to disguise the fact that its troops are active in Ukraine. Prigozhin steps in again. And this time, he offers to set up a kind of private military company which will be able to do the Kremlin's work for it but retain that kind of deniability. And then that moment, I think, is really the beginning of the Prigozhin we have today as the kind of warlord. And that's really the stepping stone from this first career in restaurants and in serving plates of food to dignitaries to this extraordinary figure that we see today.

DAVIES: You mentioned earlier his language and general vibe. Just tell us what he looked like and how he came after people.

WALKER: Well, you know, if you look at him now today, he is - you know, he's a big guy. He's got a shaved head. He speaks in kind of quite coarse language. And, you know, it's clear that this is not a polished guy. This is not a particularly well-educated or cultured guy, you would think, when you hear him speak. And indeed, in the past year, when Prigozhin has been flying around the prisons of Russia and basically pitching inmates that - if you come and fight for me in Ukraine, I'll give you your freedom. And we spoke when we were - me and my colleague, when we were researching this article, we managed to get hold of a few prisoners who are still in prison and speak with them either by text message or in other ways.

And I asked them sort of how they - you know, how they saw this guy, what - why people agreed to go, why, in their case, they didn't agree to go. And they all said to us, like, you know, we could see from this guy that he was one of us. We kind of respected him because he'd also been in prison. He had that - this whole - there's a word in Russian, zek, which means kind of convict or inmate. And they all said, you know, you could see that he was a former zek the way he talked, the way he kind of gave his word that if they fought for him, he would give them their freedom. All of these people said, you know, we wouldn't trust a normal Russian official, but this guy had something about him that made us think he was one of us.

DAVIES: And the interesting thing about that is that people who are, you know, career criminals are suspicious of other people, right? I mean, even one of their own. He must have had some ability to - he must've been a great communicator to connect with them and sell what he was selling.

WALKER: Yeah. I think he has - in his own way, he has a certain amount of charisma. And I think there's also a kind of, you know, slightly aggressive, slightly distasteful, but a straight-talking way about the way he speaks. There was actually - I think it was probably released by his people as part of his recent kind of PR drive. But there was a two-minute clip of Prigozhin walking into one of these prisons, assembling all of the inmates in the courtyard of the prison and basically telling them, as I was just saying, you know, basically saying to them, come and fight for me and we'll give you your freedom. And what you see is that he's not sugarcoating this at all. He's not pretending that this is going to be pleasant or this is going to be a holiday. He's basically saying that you're probably going to die. It's going to be absolutely horrible. The fighting is incredibly intense. We're going to throw you right in at the front line.

But if you survive this, you know, I will - I've got your back. I will make sure you're given your freedom. I will give you everything you need to sort of get back going in normal life. And, you know, some of these people were people who still had 10, 15, 20 years to serve of their sentences. Some of them were convicted for multiple murders. So I think, you know, in this strange way, the fact that he was so open that, you know, this is going to be horrible, but at the end of it, I have the power to let you go, was in a weird way kind of - it was the kind of straight talking that these prisoners respected.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Shaun Walker. He's a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and author of the 2018 book "The Long Hangover." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Shaun Walker. He is a foreign correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. He's written recently about Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose company the Wagner Group has recruited tens of thousands of mercenary soldiers to fight for Russia in Ukraine, many of them from Russian prisons.

So Prigozhin first takes on this role of developing a private army in service of Vladimir Putin in 2014, when there was this Russian incursion into Ukraine which was disguised, right? The Russians weren't openly declaring their own military to be involved. So it was helpful for Putin to have Prigozhin develop this private military force. Did Prigozhin and the Wagner Group get assistance from the Russian military also?

WALKER: Yes, absolutely. So I think we can't really look at Wagner and Prigozhin out of the context of the Kremlin and the Russian military, even though, I mean, for a long time, Prigozhin denied having anything to do with Wagner or even knowing what it was and, you know, later then suggested that it's, you know, this independent fighting force. Vladimir Putin many times said that, you know, whatever Prigozhin is, whatever Wagner is, it has nothing to do with the Russian state. This, of course, is fully untrue. And the people in the defense ministry - they don't really like Prigozhin. They don't like his manner. He doesn't have an army background. He's - as we've said, he's very coarse.

But in case they have any doubt that they have to basically do what he's saying, he says to them, in the recollections of one person that we spoke to, these orders come directly from Papa. And this was remembered in the defense ministry because nobody else there calls Putin Papa. They call him Chief or No. 1 or something like that. But here was this guy who speaks about Papa. And that was clearly meant as a way to sort of demonstrate that he has this separate relationship with Putin that's very close, almost filial, and that basically, these guys have to do what he says because he's getting his orders directly from Putin.

DAVIES: So he gets his mercenary force going. They are active in Ukraine. But then they're doing other things, too. They also intervened in Syria, where Russia played a role on behalf of the Assad regime. What did they do? How were they regarded?

WALKER: Yeah. I mean, I think the Russian decision to intervene in Syria is another one of these really key milestones for the rise of Prigozhin because in Syria, Prigozhin is really everywhere. I mean, he is, again, winning all those contracts for catering, for logistics and so on. But the Wagner Group is also sent out there. And his mercenaries do quite a lot of the fighting in this intervention. It's not a very smooth relationship. Again, the military - they're not big fans of Wagner. They're not big fans of Prigozhin. But because Prigozhin is sort of - has this direct line to Putin and because he does have, you know, good fighters who are willing to go in and really do aggressive stuff on the frontlines, they're kind of forced to integrate these troops. And this, really, just - the Syria experience kind of adds to Prigozhin's clout.

DAVIES: You note that Prigozhin and the Wagner Group's activities in all of these theaters drew the attention of journalists and opposition figures, too, like Alexei Navalny. It can be dangerous in Russia to ask sensitive questions of the wrong people. Did they suffer consequences for these investigations?

WALKER: Well, yes. It certainly can be dangerous in Russia. There were a number of people who it can be particularly dangerous to start asking questions about. One of them, for example, the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov - people who look into his deeds and affairs often seem to have terrible things happen to them soon afterwards.

And another one who I would put right up the top there is Yevgeny Prigozhin. For a long time, he's been both extremely litigious, sort of going after anyone who suggests he's done anything wrong or even anyone suggests - who suggested that he, in fact, was behind the Wagner Group. Until very recently, he was suing people for suggesting that. And then when he came out last year and said, actually, I've been running it since 2014, his explanation for why he sort of sued everyone who said that previously was that in every issue, there should be room for sport. But as well as the legal side of things, certainly people who look into Prigozhin's activities tend to have rather worrying, sinister things happen to them soon after. One of the journalists who did one of the biggest investigations into Prigozhin had a severed ram's head delivered to his newsroom and a funeral wreath delivered to his home address. So it's kind of - really a bit of a sort of mafia touch.

And you mentioned Alexei Navalny. So yeah. His team did a series of investigations into Prigozhin and into how he was winning these government contracts back in 2015, 2016. And the main investigator on these was a woman called Lyubov Sobol, who is one of Navalny's top aides. And not long after one of these investigations came out, her husband was just arriving home to their apartment when a sort of unknown assailant appeared, stabbed him in the leg with a syringe and ran off. And he then collapsed.

I was talking to Lyubov about this recently when we were preparing this article about Prigozhin. Now, she is convinced that, of course, this attack was linked to her investigation. They managed to rush her husband to hospital. He got very quick medical attention. She said that the doctors told her that if it had been a bit longer, he may not have survived. It was a very strong animal tranquilizer that had been injected into his leg. And so, yeah, there are these kind of story after story of kind of quite unpleasant things happening to journalists. So yeah. Some pretty sinister things can happen to you if you cross Yevgeny Prigozhin. Let's put it that way.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Shaun Walker. He is a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and author of the 2018 book "The Long Hangover." He'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHEL PORTAL'S "THE SANDPIPER")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Terry is off this week. Our guest, Shaun Walker, is a foreign correspondent for the British newspaper the Guardian who's reported extensively from Russia and has covered the war in Ukraine. He's written recently about Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose company, the Wagner Group, has recruited tens of thousands of mercenary soldiers to fight for Russia in Ukraine, many of them from Russian prisons. Prigozhin has become close to Vladimir Putin and is now a wealthy man with an increasingly visible political presence in Russia.

So let's talk about Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group and what they were up to in Ukraine. I mean, you've talked about how he would personally go to Russian prisons and recruit people, tell them this is going to be rough. You may not survive. But if you are out, you will get a full pardon. Was there a time limit to how long they had to last? And did he tell them - I don't know - how bad, how hard it was going to be?

WALKER: Yeah. So the basic pitch that he has been giving to Russian prisoners was six months. So you know, even if you've got 20 years left on your sentence, if you come with me, in six months, you will be free. Now, rights advocates, lawyers say they have no idea on what basis he's able to make this offer. There's nothing in the Russian legal code. And there's been no amendments to suggest that it's possible to simply take people out of prisons and pardon them.

But the first set of people have already done their six months. And some of them have been freed. So it's clear that Prigozhin has the authority to do this. But, yes, the basic pitch is six months. It's going to be horrible. It's going to be very difficult. If you try to run away, we'll shoot you. If you don't give your everything, we will shoot you. There is no space for time wasters, for cowards. But you go to the front. You put in your service. You may die. If you don't, after six months, you're free to go. That's the pitch.

DAVIES: Wow. It's like something out of a bad movie. You know, it's - the legal side of this is interesting. I mean, a private individual doesn't really - I mean, it's not like they're going to court, where these people were sentenced and before whom victims might come and say, not so fast, you know? What are you - this person, you know, committed a terrible offense. It's this extralegal thing. And then there's also the fact that, as I understand it, mercenaries are actually illegal in Russia, right?

WALKER: Yeah. I mean, all of this is just the shakiest, most absurd legal territory imaginable. And, indeed, what you mentioned about victims - I mean, there have been one or two specific stories by some of the brave Russian journalists who are still in Russia of, you know, people finding out that the guy who, in one example, murdered and set on fire their family and was sentenced, basically, to life in prison for multiple murders has now done his six months at the front and is free.

DAVIES: Yeah. I was going to ask you about these reports of, you know, convicts who served their time, were released and then returned, you know, in some cases to small towns or villages, where they would be among their victims. Do we know anything more about what's been the, you know, the fallout from that, whether there have been subsequent crimes or anything?

WALKER: So I'm not sure that, you know, there's been anyone who has been able to do systematic enough research to understand whether there have been follow-up crimes. I mean, I think what I would say is something that the sort of political analyst and thinker Ivan Krastev said to me, which I found interesting about this, which is the idea that what Prigozhin is trying to do is really redefine who makes up Russian society and the Russian nation. And he made the point that, you know, there are more Russians who have a relative or somebody close to them in prison than there are Russians who regularly travel abroad.

And, yeah, Russia, I think, after the United States has the highest level of incarceration in the world. And so part of Prigozhin's pitch, really, is that, you know, patriotic, real Russia is not the guys that go to Paris for the weekend. It's not the cosmopolitan elites. It's these prisoners. And if you want to get Freudian about it, I mean, you know, of course, he spent his 20s in prison himself. So there is part of this, I think, that is about, you know, this guy saying to these people, even convicted of horrific crimes, you know, you do your time at the front, and you will get redemption. And you will be released back into society. And you will become part of society. And I guess, in certain constituencies in Russia, that's something people find horrifying. And in other constituencies, it's something people find, perhaps, quite appealing.

DAVIES: Well, you know, and war veterans are often honored. If they're returning as criminals but also heroes, that's kind of odd. I mean, I guess the other question that would occur is, if they were plucked from prison by someone who had this extralegal authority to grant a pardon, could that same person give them protection from future crimes? I mean, right? If you get into trouble, you call Prigozhin. And he's got the kind of connections that can get you off.

WALKER: Yeah. And we've certainly seen a little bit of that. I mean, it remains to be seen exactly how all of this plays out. And I think, perhaps, a lot will depend on what happens to Prigozhin himself in the coming months. But certainly, he has been making this pitch that, OK, these guys, they have - they should be absolved of whatever sins they had committed by this service at the front. And on their return, they should be given every help to reintegrate into life, into ordinary life. So we've seen him release videos of him sort of having these fireside chats with people who have come back from the front and him saying, you know, here is this - here is your sort of card to freedom, you know? There's a phone number here. Call it if you run into any problems.

We've heard him suggest that Russia's top universities should find spaces for free scholarships for these former prisoners who return from the front. We've even heard one politician say, well, we should create some seats in the Duma, the Russian parliament. And we should have MPs who are these former prisoners who have come back from the front. I'm not sure how much of this will actually happen. But it's certainly, yeah, emblematic of this idea that Prigozhin kind of wants to redefine who are the real Russians. And to kind of - while on the one hand, yeah, many of these people are used as cannon fodder, but those who survive should be respected and kind of given a new status.

DAVIES: I'm going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Shaun Walker. He's a foreign correspondent for The Guardian. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS SCLAVIS' "FETE FORAINE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is Shaun Walker, a foreign correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. He has written recently about Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose company, the Wagner Group, has recruited tens of thousands of mercenary soldiers to fight for Russia in Ukraine, many of them from Russian prisons.

So I want to talk about the role of the Wagner Group and their soldiers in the fighting in Ukraine. You know, convicts are, you know, presumably tough guys and people not afraid of a physical confrontation. There's a little difference between that and being a trained soldier. I mean, how much training do they get before they go into combat?

WALKER: Extremely little, I think, is the answer to that - perhaps a couple of weeks. All of the reports we've had of the way that the convicts are used by the Wagner Group is that, you know, they're not used on sort of difficult strategic operations or anything particularly targeted and careful. And they're really used as cannon fodder. And talking to Ukrainians who have been on the other side of the lines and kind of watched the Wagner troops approach them, they've said the same thing - that it's - you know, it's really kind of strength in numbers. It's a bit of a disregard, really, for human life. And for those who have not fancied it and have decided that they want to either defect or don't want to advance, we've had numerous credible reports that there's been executions of their own people as kind of punishment for disobeying orders and to keep everybody else in line and to keep them sort of - you know, forcing them to sort of surge forward in these pretty grim, almost suicidal movements forward.

DAVIES: Yeah. There's a famous video of one soldier who defected to the Ukrainian side and then got sent back in a prisoner exchange. You want to just tell us about that?

WALKER: Yeah. So this was a chap called Yevgeny Nuzhin. He surfaced when some Ukrainian journalists interviewed him in Ukrainian captivity, and he basically told his story, which was that he was a prisoner in Russia. He was recruited by Prigozhin to fight at the front. He arrived at the frontline, started reading about the war, decided that he didn't want to be part of this and simply walked across the frontlines and surrendered to the Ukrainians. Now, somehow, some time after that, he was swapped back in a prisoner exchange and arrived back in Russia. And the next thing we heard from him was this really horrific video where he basically says who he is, and then we can see how he is murdered with a sledgehammer basically to his head as a essentially as a warning, I think, to other Wagner troops that this is - you know, even if you defect, there's going to be no safety for you in Ukraine. We will get you, and we will kill you.

DAVIES: And this video - was it - I mean, do we know was it released by the Wagner Group or by Prigozhin's people? Was the intent to send a message?

WALKER: We have to assume that it was. When Prigozhin was asked about it, he didn't directly say, oh, yes, this was me, but he sort of joked about it. He said it was a great show. And, you know, this is the way Prigozhin communicates - this kind of really ugly, dark humor. He never directly admits to something but will sort of, you know, give you a wink and suggest that this guy got what was coming to him. So I think the most likely explanation is, yes, indeed, like, they went to great effort to get this guy back and then performed this horrific extrajudicial execution as a warning to others who might be thinking of the same thing. And we also have a lot of evidence that, you know, simply out in the field, if people disobey orders, they will just be taken to one side and executed. We spoke to one former Wagner commander who said he'd personally seen several executions in the field of people who were trying to disobey orders.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, there was a story in The New York Times which estimated that about 40,000 inmates would have joined the Russian forces, which, if so, would have been roughly 10% of the country's prison population. Do those numbers sound about right to you?

WALKER: Yeah, that does sound about right. And, I mean, it's an extraordinary number of people. And it's - you know, it's one of the many things about this war that - I mean, if you had suggested that this would happen a year ago, I mean, it's just so out of the realms of fantasy that this former convict is going to fly around prisons in his helicopter and offer people salvation for fighting for him at the front and then lead these battalions of prisoners all to their almost certain death. I mean, it's so extraordinary. It's so extrajudicial. It's so dystopian that it's really hard to believe. But yet it has happened.

DAVIES: Prigozhin has claimed that they have had more success than the Russian military, that they captured the town of Soledar, if I'm saying that right, and have made progress in other areas. Are they right?

WALKER: Well, it's certainly true that, you know, since last spring, successes for the Russian army in Ukraine have not been very frequent. You know, the invasion didn't go as Putin had planned. The withdrawal from the outskirts of Kyiv at the end of last March was a disaster. And since then, the Russians have very little to show for this kind of bloody, painful and ongoing mess. So, yeah, when Wagner troops took over the small town of Soledar late last year, that was indeed the first Russian military success for some time. At the same time, it's clear that they took enormous casualties doing so. So, yeah, I mean, Wagner certainly had more success than the Russian army, but the losses it sustained in doing so were so major that I think many have questioned whether that's really going to be sustainable as a long-term way of fighting.

DAVIES: Going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Shaun Walker. He's a foreign correspondent for The Guardian. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOPY'S "FANTASY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Shaun Walker, a foreign correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. He has written recently about Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose company, the Wagner Group, has recruited tens of thousands of mercenary soldiers to fight for Russia in Ukraine, many of them from Russian prisons.

You know, Prigozhin, after for years denying he was even connected to the Wagner Group, which fields these mercenaries, now embraces it, brags about it. And he has publicly castigated leading members of the Russian military, accusing them of treason and saying that they've failed to provide him with necessary supplies, etc. What has been their reaction to this? How has it affected his standing in the war effort? Do we know?

WALKER: Well, it's been a really interesting dynamic to observe because, as you say, some of the things that Prigozhin has said about the Russian army leadership - if any ordinary Russian posted a status on Facebook saying such things or allowed themselves to say such things publicly, the next day they would have the police at their apartment door. And they would be arrested, and they'd probably spend several years in prison. So, you know, it's really quite extraordinary in the middle of this war effort that you have this sort of rogue warlord who is publicly insulting the top military brass.

And, you know, I think certainly we know that even back in 2014, the top generals didn't really like Prigozhin. And absolutely, they will be furious by his outbursts and his insults right now. Of course, you know, the arbiter in all of this is Putin. And what we haven't really seen - except for very, very vaguely, we haven't seen the Army kind of publicly pushing back against Prigozhin and taking this feud into the public domain. They've just basically had to swallow it and deal with it. But you can be certain that kind of behind closed doors, they will be taking their concerns about Prigozhin to Putin and trying to sort of bring this guy down to size.

DAVIES: You've talked about Prigozhin's style, his crude and in-your-face persona. And a couple of things that I read just are really stunning - one of them that he challenged Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, to a duel when he was in the cockpit of a bomber, apparently, and then, in another statement, threatened to urinate in the face of one of his critics, who was a former Russian commander and a blogger. I assume you've heard these things. I mean, does that kind of vulgar stuff help him? I don't know. What do you make of that?

WALKER: I mean, I think he's enjoying himself in his own weird and twisted way. I think, you know, until a year ago, he wasn't a public figure. He never gave interviews. He never really appeared in public, and he shunned all publicity. The invasion of Ukraine has totally changed that because, you know, Wagner no longer needs to be secret. Wagner is openly part of the war effort. And he sort of, first of all, slowly came out into the public eye, and then it soon quickly became apparent that he enjoys this. He enjoys being in the spotlight. He enjoys these public feuds. And, you know, every day he has press services releasing a new statement from him in response to questions from journalists. He rarely answers the question, but he will normally use that crude humor that you mentioned to make some kind of terrible joke about the questions that he's being asked. But it is very clear that he is kind of relishing being a public figure now.

DAVIES: You've written that as his profile has increased, he's presented - he's pushed this idea that, you know, the Russians that we should really admire are not rich people who fly to London and buy apartments in the West but ordinary Russians who have made mistakes, who may have gone to prisons but who have sacrificed and been true patriots. They've been willing to go and fight for their country. These sound like the kinds of things that a populist - an aspiring populist politician would say. Is he believed to have political ambitions? And the obvious question here is, will Putin regard him as a threat?

WALKER: This is one of the big questions in Russian politics inasmuch as Russian politics exists right now. You know, what is the ceiling? What is Prigozhin's ceiling? And is there a chance that, you know, up to now, he - we've seen him be absolutely ruthless about generals, about politicians, about pretty much anyone but slavishly loyal to Putin. And he's kind of the anti-elite Putinist. He never has said a word critical of Putin. And, of course, Putin has been his benefactor for this whole journey. You know, is there a moment when he could suddenly turn against Putin? I mean, you know, history is full of those examples, and it's not impossible. But I think so far what we see is that he is still somebody that is very reliant on Putin's favor. And we don't see a sign of him kind of trying to push against the Kremlin. We see him trying to work within the sphere he's been given by Putin and kind of maximize his potential in that way.

You know, it's a big question where Prigozhin will be in a year, but it's also a big question whether he will even still be alive in a year. One of the ways that Russia and the Kremlin has traditionally dealt with its proxies in Eastern Ukraine who became a little bit inconvenient or a little bit too outspoken - and this happened on several occasions - was that they would simply die in an explosion or a car bomb. And the Kremlin would say, oh, they've been targeted by Ukrainian diversionary groups. What a tragedy. But, you know, it was fairly clear that this was - these were people who were being taken out by their own side. I don't think that's an incredibly unlikely outcome for Prigozhin because he is angering so many people in the Russian elite. But, you know, equally, so far, we've seen him just rise and rise and rise. And who's to say where his ceiling is and where that stops?

DAVIES: Interesting. Yeah. A man from a dangerous world playing a dangerous game. You know, on the military side, there's been reporting that Prigozhin is no longer able to recruit in the prisons. I think there was some reporting that the Russian military itself might be recruiting in the prisons. Do we know what this means?

WALKER: Yeah. I mean, there's certainly a sense that sort of after that initial flurry of recruitment, where tens of thousands of prisoners were sent off to the front under Prigozhin's command, I mean, that's not an inexhaustible resource. And it seems that sort of his recruitment is over, as you say. There have been, as you say, some reports that the regular army is now recruiting in prisons. But I think we're not talking about anything like the same numbers as we were seeing in the volunteer drive.

But I think as the war kind of heads into its second year, it's very unclear how Prigozhin and Wagner will fit into this now. You know, is he basically a busted flush? He's used his troops for some small gains. He's taken enormous losses. He's burned all his relationships with the defense ministry. And essentially, he's going to be quietly maneuvered out of the way, perhaps suffer, quote-unquote, "an unfortunate accident," or are we going to see what we've seen with Yevgeny Prigozhin all along his career, which is that, you know, against the odds, he somehow comes out even stronger than he was before?

DAVIES: Well, Shaun Walker, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WALKER: Thank you very much for having me.

DAVIES: Shaun Walker is a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and author of the book "The Long Hangover." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like our conversation with New Yorker staff writer Michael Schulman about the history of conflicts over the Academy Awards, or with emergency room physician Farzon Nahvi, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And for a peek behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our newsletter. You'll find bonus material about the interviews, staff recommendations and highlights from the archives. You can subscribe via our website at freshair.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "MELODIA DE ARRABAL")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "MELODIA DE ARRABAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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