“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 as he holds out a drink bottle toward him.
The 43rd president said he didn’t recall meeting Prigozhin but quipped: “All I know is I survived.”
Prigozhin ran a string of 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 carry out active roles in Russia’s military interests in Syria, West Africa and most recently Ukraine. However, Prigozhin began to denounce his forces’ treatment 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 military headquarters and threatening the Kremlin, which scrambled to put down the mutiny, leading Prigozhin to leave for neighboring Belarus.
Putin has only vaguely acknowledged Prigozhin’s death. In televised remarks Aug. 24, the day after the plane crash, Putin spoke of him in the past tense and expressed his condolences to the families of all those killed. Putin described him 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 that judgment changed over the years. He called his counterpart a “wily politician who’s not afraid to use power” and said he believes Putin is more powerful today than he was when Bush was president.
Despite this, he said the Russian leader had “bit off a little more than he could chew” with the Ukraine war, noting that military morale in Russia was probably running low.
Asked Sunday about U.S. support for Ukraine, Bush said Washington should not demand 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 gotta give them what they need to win,” he said of weapons support, which has been a contentious issue among some Republicans. However, Bush noted that Kyiv should ensure it was staving off financial corruption.
The dinner snapshot with Bush, Putin and Prigozhin took place 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 bloc of industrialized nations in 1997. Russia was suspended from the group in 2014 after its illegal annexation of Crimea.
Another photograph from that trip appears to show another encounter a few days later, as Prigozhin, clad in 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 Yalta European Strategy conference, “I don’t miss power and fame,” and said he has mostly tried to regain a “sense of anonymity.” 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 everyday Ukrainians to “hang in there.”
Asked if 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.