Former president George W. Bush was recently surprised to realize he was served by Wagner mercenary group boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin during a dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin years ago.
Bush, 77, was asked during a conference over the weekend whether he was shocked to learn of the recent death of Prigozhin in a plane crash months after Prigozhin led a short-lived rebellion against the Russian military leadership.
“No,” Bush replied. “What’s shocking to me is I saw a picture the other day of a G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, where he was the guy serving me the food,” Bush said. “He was Putin’s chef.”
The image was taken as Bush and his wife, Laura, attended a dinner with Putin and his then-wife, Lyudmila, in 2006, during a Group of Eight summit. Prigozhin is seen leaning close to Bush’s shoulder while holding out a bottle.
The 43rd president said he didn’t recall meeting Prigozhin but quipped: “All I know is I survived.”
Prigozhin ran successful restaurants in St. Petersburg that were frequented by Putin in the 1990s, when Putin was a top political aide in the city. As Putin rose to power, he sent lucrative food service contracts with schools and the military toward Prigozhin’s catering company, Concord, earning Prigozhin the nickname “Putin’s chef.”
He soon became a firm ally of Putin’s, leading mercenary forces to advance Russia’s military interests in Syria, West Africa and, most recently, Ukraine. However, Prigozhin began to denounce the Defense Ministry’s treatment of his forces in the Ukraine war and publicly criticized what he called inadequate military and financial support for his troops.
In June, Prigozhin and Wagner forces swept into the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, seizing a military headquarters and advancing toward Moscow. The Kremlin scrambled to defuse the mutiny, leading to an arrangement in which Prigozhin was to leave for neighboring Belarus and avoid prosecution in Russia.
Putin has only vaguely acknowledged Prigozhin’s death. In televised remarks Aug. 24, the day after the plane crash, Putin spoke of Prigozhin in the past tense and expressed condolences to the families of all those killed. Putin described Prigozhin as “a man of complex fate” who “made serious mistakes in his life.”
Bush, on first meeting Putin in 2001, famously said he had gotten a “sense of his soul” and found Putin to be “trustworthy.”
On Sunday, speaking to the Yalta European Strategy conference via video link from Texas, Bush said his initial judgment has changed over the years. He called Putin a “wily politician who’s not afraid to use power” and said he believes the Russian leader is more powerful today than he was when Bush was president.
Despite this, he said the Russian leader “bit off a little more than he could chew” with the Ukraine war and noted that military morale in Russia is probably running low.
Asked Sunday about U.S. support for Ukraine, Bush said Washington should not demand that Ukrainians give up land to an “invader” to achieve peace.
“The United States should not try to impose a peace on a democratically elected government,” he said. “But we’re in. And now that we’re in, we’ve got to give them what they need to win,” he said of weapons support, which has been a divisive issue among some Republicans. However, Bush said Kyiv should ensure that it is avoiding corruption.
The dinner snapshot with Bush, Putin and Prigozhin was taken on July 14, 2006, when ties between Washington and Moscow were less fraught and the United States was seeking to facilitate Russia’s admission to the World Trade Organization. It was the first time the G-8 had met in Russia, which joined the Group of Seven bloc of industrialized nations in 1997, making it the G-8. Russia was suspended from the group in 2014 after its illegal annexation of Crimea.
Another photograph from that trip appears to show an encounter a few days later, as Prigozhin, wearing a white bow tie, stands behind Bush and Putin as they attend a working dinner with other leaders of the G-8 nations.
Bush, who left office in 2009, told the conference, “I don’t miss power and fame,” and he said he has mostly tried to regain a “sense of anonymity” after leaving the White House. But he said it was important that the United States and “collective nations who believe in a free Ukraine” support Kyiv and President Volodymyr Zelensky. He urged Ukrainians to “hang in there.”
Asked whether Putin’s leadership could survive losing the war in Ukraine, Bush told the conference: “That’s up to the Russian people. … They’re smart people.”
Brian Murphy contributed to this report.