Outspoken Putin ally Prigozhin's St Petersburg defence tech centre opens

ST. PETERSBURG (Reuters) - Russia's Wagner Group, a private militia controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, opened a military technology centre in St. Petersburg on Friday, the latest move by the Putin ally who has criticized the Kremlin's defence top brass over the Ukraine conflict.

The opening of the "Wagner Centre" is seen as another step by Prigozhin to publicise his military credentials and take a more public role in shaping Russia's defence policy.

It follows several steps to bolster his public profile in recent weeks, in contrast to years the businessman spent operating in the shadows and denying he was behind Wagner, whose contract soldiers are supporting Russia's army in Ukraine.

The opening of the large steel and glass office building was attended by a mix of veterans in military uniforms and young tech and cultural professionals, with lectures from nationalist and pro-Kremlin figures saying the centre would help "make our great country even better."

A truck was parked outside emblazoned with the 'Z' symbol used by Russian forces in Ukraine.

"We are inviting startups involved in IT, industrial technology and those developing new ideas which they are ready to apply in the field of national defence," said Anastasia Vasilevskaya, press secretary for the centre, where several drone aircraft were on display.

"We are of course interested in projects that can act as import substitution," she said. Sanctions by Western countries made it harder for Russia to buy foreign weapons technology.

Prigozhin has made a series of outspoken interventions about Russia's setbacks during what it calls the special military operation in Ukraine, joining Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in ridiculing the performance of Russia’s generals.

Prigozhin last month publicly confirmed for the first time that he was the founder of Wagner, which has also deployed troops to Syria, Africa and Ukraine. The United States and European Union have sanctioned Prigozhin for his role in the group.

There was no sign at the opening of Prigozhin himself - sometimes dubbed "Putin's Chef" for his sprawling catering businesses that have swept up government contracts.

"The creation of such a centre was a long time coming. The only thing is that it appeared really late," said volunteer Alexey Savinsky, clad in military camouflage. "This centre had to be opened a year before the special military operation. So, it’s two years behind the schedule."

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)