Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin has acknowledged he founded the Wagner Group, a private military company in 2014, the first public confirmation after he previously denied ownership and sued journalists for reporting it.
The Wagner Group, staffed by veterans of the Russian armed forces, has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, among other countries.
The press service of Prigozhin’s Concord catering firm posted his admission on the social network VKontakte in response to a request for comment from a Russian news site on why he stopped denying his links to Wagner.
“I cleaned the old weapons myself, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who could help me with this. From that moment, on May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, which later came to be called the Wagner Battalion,” Prigozhin said, who has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I am proud that I was able to defend their right to protect the interests of their country.”
Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” because of his company’s Kremlin catering contracts, has been sanctioned by the United States and European Union for his role in Wagner.
They also accuse him of funding a troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency that Washington says tried to influence US elections.
Prigozhin has previously sued outlets including investigative website Bellingcat, Russian news site Meduza, and now-shuttered radio station Echo of Moscow for reporting his links to Wagner.
In July, the United Kingdom’s defence ministry said the Wagner Group had likely been given responsibility for specific sectors of the front line in war-torn eastern Ukraine, in a similar manner to normal army units.
This new level of integration between the armed group and the Russian army “further undermines the Russian authorities’ long-standing policy of denying links between [private military companies] and the Russian state”, it said at the time.