Fact Check: Did Wagner Group Founder Serve George W. Bush At Putin Dinner?

Russian President Vladimir Putin's influence over and management of his invasion of Ukraine have been challenged in recent months by one of his longest-running allies, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the notorious paramilitary outfit Wagner Group.

A series of statements by Prigozhin—the man accused by the U.S. of being the mastermind behind the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based "troll factory"—have called into question Russian military leadership, and sparked rumors that the paramilitary leader may even be plotting to seize power in the Kremlin.

His influence on and closeness to Putin are not a new development, with photos shared on Twitter appearing to put Prigozhin not only alongside the Russian leader, but accommodating former U.S. president George Bush at a set of lavish dinners.

Comp Image, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, Bush and Putin
Russian billionaire and businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin attends Russian-Turkish talks in Konstantin Palace in Strenla on August,9, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. and US President George W. Bush (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk on the grounds at Brdo Castle Hotel 16 June, 2001 in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Getty

The Claim

A tweet, posted on November 23, 2022, by Russian journalist Dmitriy Kolezev, shows what appears to be George W. Bush at a dinner with Vladimir Putin with "in the role of the waiter - Evgeny Prigozhin" (sic).

Kolezev posted a follow-up, correcting that the photo was from 2006 (not 2002 as he had previously claimed). However, he also provided another photo purporting to show Bush, Putin, and Prigozhin in 2002.

The Facts

In September 2022, Prigozhin, nicknamed Putin's Chef, admitted that he founded the Wagner Group, a notorious mercenary group fighting alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine.

The Wagner Group rose to prominence when it helped pro-Russian separatist forces in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics between 2014 and 2015.

It has been accused of human rights abuses by (but not limited to) the United Nations, the European Union, and the U.K. government. The group has been involved in the Libyan and Syrian wars and reportedly been deployed in Mali, Mozambique and Sudan, exerting Russian influence in proxy wars and sometimes seizing oil fields and other strategic interests.

Members of the European Parliament have launched a legislative initiative in November to add the group to EU's terrorist list, as part of a wider effort to designate Russia with "state sponsor of terrorism" status.

But, long before his new role in the paramilitary group, Prigozhin was the "primary caterer for the Kremlin" and the Russian military, according to Professor Kimberly Marten, chair of the political science department at Columbia University's Barnard College.

In a 2020 testimony to Congress, Marten said: "After Putin was elected president of Russia in 2000, he brought several foreign dignitaries to dine at one of Prigozhin's restaurants, including U.S. President George W. Bush at least twice."

She continued: "At some point during Putin's presidency Prigozhin's businesses diversified.

"He became the primary caterer for the Kremlin, for Russia's public school system, and (at least for two years, until the Defense Ministry ended it) for the Russian military.

"He also provided cleaning services for the military, where he was accused of corruption.

"In 2017 the Russian Defense Ministry started refusing to pay Prigozhin's invoices. He took the Defense Ministry to court several times, and largely won those legal disputes against the ministry, demonstrating the power of his 'roof' in the Russian court system."

Roof in this context means political leverage or patronage.

Several other photos show the Bushes with Putin and his former wife Lyudmila in Strelna, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

The photo of Prigozhin serving George W. Bush and wife Laura Bush is, therefore, authentic. It was taken in 2006 ahead of the G8 summit in St Petersburg, Russia, as the caption on the Getty archive photo confirms.

Vladimir Putin and President Bush in 2006
A photo shared on Twitter shows Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), his wife Ludmila (2ndR), former US President George W. Bush (2ndL) and his wife Laura attend a dinner, 14 July 2006, in Strelna outside St. Petersburg. Claims on social media suggest the photo also shows Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin serving former President Bush in the background. Getty

White House records of Bush's engagements from 2006 state that on July 14, 2006, "he and Mrs. Bush traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia" and later that same day in the "Italian Guest Room at Konstantinovsky Palace, the President and Mrs. Bush attended a social dinner hosted by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his wife, Lyudmila."

A joint statement by Bush and Putin, published by the White House following their encounter, said: "The United States and the Russian Federation are working together to meet the challenges posed by the combination of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.

"We recognize the devastation that could befall our peoples and the world community if nuclear weapons or materials or other weapons of mass destruction were to fall into the hands of terrorists.

"We are closely cooperating to lessen that unacceptable danger, including by strengthening the nonproliferation regime and ensuring the security of nuclear weapons and fissile materials."

The statement said that both countries recognized "the vital role of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)" and called for "Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy."

A Kremlin statement from July 15, 2006, added that Putin had "expressed his satisfaction with the results of Russian-American talks and emphasized that they took place in a very well-intentioned and constructive atmosphere."

It continued: "The Russian head of state noted that during the meeting with the President of the United States they did not limit themselves to discussing current problems.

"The participants of the talks tried to look at Russian-American relations in light of the future and in the wider context of developing the system of international relations."

Although Prigozhin was not captioned in the photo of the dinner between the two world leaders, he can be clearly seen gesturing to pour a drink.

The provenance of the 2002 photo can be traced back to a Kremlin statement, titled "President Vladimir Putin, President George Bush and their wives attended a performance of the 'The Nutcracker' at the Mariinsky Theater."

"George Bush said he had admired the ballet," it stated

"He wrote words of thanks and admiration on a card which he put into the basket of flowers given to the ballet company. Vladimir Putin sent the dancers a similar basket.

"After the performance the distinguished guests met with the lead dancers in the White Lounge. They thanked the artists for their wonderful performance and the pleasure they had experienced.

"At the end of the day the Russian and US leaders went on a short boat trip down the Neva River."

Again, while Prigozhin is not captioned in this photo, his appearance is clear and corresponds with the testimony of Marten's Congressional report, which cited a 2019 NPR article.

While an historic supporter of Putin, Prigozhin has become increasingly critical of the Russian president's government and its military leadership.

A Newsweek report, published on November 18, 2022, stated (according to FSB letters shared by Igor Sushko, the executive director of the Wind of Change Research Group, a Washington-based non-profit organization) that Prigozhin is preparing brigades in anticipation of "domestic terror" in Russia.

"Our analytics and reports go up the chain and they understand there that the level of popular discontent is growing exponentially and we will not be able to extinguish it using legal methods," the whistleblower wrote.

"The Service (FSB) is not ready for internal terror, and Prigozhin and [Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov] think that their time has come, and moment to shine has arrived. Both realize that if they stop fighting and start a dialogue, both will cease to be necessary to Putin."

Prigozhin has also led open criticism of Russia's defense ministry and its head, Sergei Shoigu, over Moscow's battlefield setbacks in Ukraine.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a U.S. defense and foreign affairs think tank, stated in an October 2022 report that Wagner Group could "pose a threat to Putin's rule," claiming Prigozhin is accruing power and setting up a military structure parallel to the Russian Armed Forces "at least within the information space."

The ISW has also said that Russian journalists have often asked the Wagner Group founder if he has ambitions for the Kremlin, indicative of a public perception that he may attempt to enter a position of power.

Prigozhin's criticisms have been met with support from, among others, ex-Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov, who described Prigozhin in a post on Telegram as "the voice of the people."

Calling for Russian oligarchs to contribute more to Putin's military efforts, Markov wrote: "The Russian oligarchs, in fact, did not earn their billions, but cleverly dragged them away when dividing the common Soviet property.

"And now they are trying to change their citizenship to Israeli or Armenian or Uzbek and steal these billions there. So Yevgeny Prigozhin becomes the voice of the people. Because he speaks the truth."

Newsweek has contacted George W. Bush and the Kremlin for comment.

The Ruling

True

True.

Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin was pictured with George W. Bush in 2006 at a dinner hosted by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Their encounter took place before the 2006 G8 summit in St Petersburg, Russia. The White House released a joint statement from Bush and Putin, remarking on Russian and U.S. discussions regarding nuclear weapon proliferation and nuclear energy.

Another photo featuring the three men, from 2002, is also authentic, verified by a Congressional report and a statement by the Kremlin.

FACT CHECK BY Newsweek's Fact Check team

True: The claim is verifiably correct. Primary source evidence proves the claim to be true.
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