Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Monday that he had founded the Wagner Group private military company in 2014, the first public confirmation of a link he has previously denied and sued journalists for reporting.
The Wagner Group, staffed by veterans of the Russian armed forces, has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, among other countries.
The press service of Prigozhin’s Concord catering firm posted his comments on the social network VKontakte in response to a request for comment from a Russian news site on why he had stopped denying his links to Wagner.
“I cleaned the old weapons myself, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who could help me with this. From that moment, on May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, which later came to be called the Wagner Battalion,” Prigozhin said.
“I am proud that I was able to defend their right to protect the interests of their country,” he said in the statement.
Prigozhin’s Concord catering firm confirmed to Reuters that the statement was genuine.
Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” due to his company’s Kremlin catering contracts, has been sanctioned by the United States and European Union for his role in Wagner.
They also accuse him of funding a troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency that Washington says tried to influence U.S. elections.
Prigozhin has previously sued outlets including investigative website Bellingcat, Russian news site Meduza and now-shuttered radio station Echo of Moscow for reporting his links to Wagner.
Wagner was founded in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and started providing support to pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.