Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close associate of President Vladimir V. Putin, acknowledged on Monday that he is the founder of the Wagner Group, a shadowy private military company that has fought on Russia’s side in the war in Ukraine.
“I cleaned the old weapons myself, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who could help me with this,” Mr. Prigozhin said in a statement that was posted on Monday by the press service for one of his companies, Concord Management and Consulting.
The statement is Mr. Prigozhin’s first public admission of his connection to the group, whose fighters have also been deployed in support of the Kremlin’s military campaigns in Africa and the Middle East, occasionally doing battle against U.S. forces. The Russian oligarch had previously denied links to Wagner and sued a Britain-based investigative journalist this year for suggesting he was its founder.
He said that his “group of patriots” was formed in May 2014, adding that he was proud to have supported “heroes who defended the Syrian people, other people of Arab countries, destitute Africans and Latin Americans.”
Wagner comprises an array of Russian mercenary groups and has evolved over time to function more like a private military contractor for Moscow. Wagner forces have been seen in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic, according to U.N. investigators and rights groups, which have accused the group of targeting civilians, leading mass executions and looting private property in conflict zones. The fighters have also acted as security advisers to various governments, including in Sudan and Mali.
In the war in Ukraine, the Russian mercenaries have assumed a more active role, augmenting Moscow’s forces in the east.
Wagner forces are increasingly being recruited from within Russian prisons and typically operate at a distance from the Russian military, which has allowed the Kremlin to downplay its military casualties and deflect responsibility for atrocities committed on the battlefield.
Mr. Prigozhin’s admission came weeks after he was seen in a video promising Russian prisoners that they would be released in exchange for a combat tour on the front lines in Ukraine. The video, which was verified by The New York Times, appeared to be the first time the recruitment process was captured on camera.
In 2018, Mr. Prigozhin, who is sometimes known as “Putin’s chef” for his Kremlin catering contracts, was one of 13 Russians indicted by a federal grand jury for interference in the 2016 American presidential election. Last year, the F.B.I. put Mr. Prigozhin on its most-wanted list and the U.S. Treasury placed him under sanctions for organizing disinformation campaigns in elections in Asia, Europe and Africa.
The U.S. government imposed additional sanctions on Mr. Prigozhin in March, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.