For the first time since July 2022, the Russian invaders in Ukraine have been able to claim that they’ve captured a Ukrainian town — Soledar, prewar population 10,000. Even though the Ukrainian military hasn’t officially admitted ceding Soledar, plenty of video evidence suggests that Russian forces control most of it. The man responsible for the victory, such as it is, has no military rank and is better known as “Putin’s chef”: He’s Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group Private Military Company.
In the telling of Western intelligence services and analysts, Prigozhin has been gaining influence as his private force, which has been allowed to recruit convicts in exchange for pardons, has become one of the main driving forces of the invasion. This narrative has been backed up with impressive numbers. The UK government and the US National Security Council estimate the size of the Wagner force at 50,000, 80% of them convicts, and the UK has put the group’s monthly outlay at $100 million, suggesting major state funding. Prigozhin, though wealthy from government catering contracts, could never afford to spend on such a scale or even to pay 50,000 soldiers the 240,000 rubles ($3,500) per month plus bonus that Wagner offers volunteers (even if the convicts make less).