Putin’s Chef Is Opening a Start-Up Accelerator for Russia’s War
But with IT workers fleeing the country, it’s hard to predict how successful the endeavor will be.
Vladimir Putin’s favorite mercenary group is attempting to up its game with a new St. Petersburg center to attract “inventors, designers, IT specialists,” and start-ups, the head of the PMC Wagner Group said Monday.
That sounds pretty ambitious for a group that just a few weeks ago was recruiting out of prison yards. Given the hollowing-out of the Russian IT and startup sector, it's hard to tell what sort of talent the center will attract.
The PMC Center is slated to open Nov. 4, and photos posted to the Russian social media site VK show it mostly complete.
In an Oct. 31 Telegram exchange, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin described the center as “a complex of buildings in which there are places for free accommodation of inventors, designers, IT specialists, experimental production and start-up spaces.”
Prigozhin said his goal is to create a sort of Silicon Valley-esque campus for Russian-war startups, to “provide a comfortable environment for generating new ideas in order to increase the defense capability of Russia, including information. If the project shows its success and relevance, we will consider the need to open branches.”
Long active across the world from Syria to Africa, the Wagner group has been operating in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February.
The announcement comes at a time when Prigozhin—who has been dubbed “Putin’s chef”—is challenging Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu over his handling of the war. The pitch: Russia isn’t making good use of its native IT talent in Ukraine.
Russia has yet to tap all its private-sector talent for the Ukraine war effort, said Sam Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an Adviser at the CNA Corporation.
“Many Russian volunteers as well as some private-sector companies publicly voiced concern that their achievements and products aren’t directly used in the war and that the MOD [Ministry of Defense] bureaucracy is interfering with quick and fast acquisition of necessary services. So maybe this center is going to attract such talent,” Bendett said Wednesday. “At the same time, the Ministry of Defense maintains a high-tech innovation center called ERA, and this Wagner center is basically establishing a parallel establishment. So it remains to be seen how this Wagner center and the Russian Ministry of Defense are actually going to cooperate.”
What also remains to be seen: whether such a center would have any meaningful impact on Russia's botched invasion. For all of Prigozhin’s talk, Wagner mercenaries haven’t fared much better against Ukrainian defenders than Russia’s regular forces, as evinced by a dramatic attack on the mercenary group’s Ukrainian headquarters in August.
And the Russian IT sector is not exactly what it was before the war. Within one month of the invasion, as many as 70,000 Russian IT specialists had already fled their country, the Russian Association for Electronic Communications, or RAEK, said in March, predicting that even more would leave in April.
The brutal clumsiness of Russia’s September mobilization has spurred yet more young men to flee. While some IT workers were excluded from the call-up, not all of them were. And life in Prigozhin’s employ isn’t much better than it is in the regular Army. In September, video surfaced of Prigozhin recruiting prisoners, offering reduced sentences for their volunteer service on the frontlines in Ukraine. He was forced to admit that his forces saw casualties but said that the ones who didn’t make it home died “heroes.”