This week, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the foul-mouthed oligarch who commands the mercenary army holding Russian front lines in Ukraine, took aim at a new target.
His online followers are already familiar with his tirades — videos posted on his Telegram channel in which a bald-headed 61-year-old man appears in military uniform to scold the Russian military leadership in the most rude terms. language, often referring to the name of the Chief of the General Staff of the RF Armed Forces and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu Valery Gerasimov.
His ability to speak publicly and with impunity about what others are imprisoned for, namely that the “special operation” on Ukraine has turned into a quagmire for Russia, leading many to conclude that he is doing this with the blessing of the president. Vladimir Putin, with whom Prigozhin has a long relationship.
But in a rant published this week, Mr. Prigozhin appears to have turned against his former patron. Making accusations that Russian generals hid ammunition while Wagner's troops died on the front lines around Bakhmut — an eastern Ukrainian city that became one of the bloodiest battlefields of the war — Mr. Prigozhin concluded: “Lucky grandfather thinks everything is in order “. /p>
"What if it turns out that Grandpa is a complete asshole?" he asked.
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As experts suggested he was referring to President Putin himself disparagingly, Mr. Prigozhin clarified that he meant either General Gerasimov or former Defense Minister Mikhail Mizintsev.
But a growing number of analysts believe that, given that the war is going so badly and Prigozhin has amassed so much influence through the Wagner group, he may be planning to challenge Putin in next year's presidential election.
“I think he's on his way to political power, I I think he has 2024 on his mind,” said Samantha de Bendern, a research fellow at Chatham House.
“My interpretation is that at the moment he is mocking Putin, he has not had time to say Putin’s name yet, but he is getting closer and closer.” top management was “gravely concerned” according to Mr. Prizogin. One source called his comments about the defense ministry a “serious threat” while another said that Prigozhin does not operate “as part of the same team and does not pursue the same interests.” like Russian authorities.
To challenge the Russian leader for power would be a stunning face for the former petty criminal once known as Putin's chef. But over the years, Prigozhin has repeatedly demonstrated a deft ability to rise above his position.
Like President Putin, Mr. Prigozhin was born in Leningrad in 1961, nine years after the Russian leader. After an unremarkable youth, young Prigozhin fell into a gang of thugs and in 1980 was imprisoned for a series of robberies.
After a decade behind bars, Prizogin was released from prison in 1990, during the last days of the Soviet Union. As the old rules fell away, opportunities abounded for enterprising individuals, and Prizogin quickly rose from hot dog stand to gourmet restaurants, meeting future President Vladimir Putin along the way.
He later became known as Putin's chef, but that name hid much closer relationships and much broader business interests, taking orders to service the army, government and Moscow schools.
Prolific PR man with a knack for making friends. important people, Prigozhin financed films in which Russian action heroes defend their homeland, and even admitted to running a notorious St. Petersburg troll farm spreading pro-Russian disinformation on the Internet.
But it was after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 that Prigozhy took on his most famous role, leading a group of Wagner mercenaries. While private military companies are technically illegal in Russia, the Kremlin needed a plausible debunking of military intervention in Ukraine and later in the Central African Republic, Libya and elsewhere.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner private mercenary group, makes a statement standing next to Wagner militants. Photo: PRESS SERVICE "CONCORD" Prigozhin broadcasts a tirade against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Photo: Planetpix/Alamy Live News
As conventional Russian military forces faltered in Ukraine, Wagner has become a key fighting force, with tens of thousands of prisoners released from prisons filling its ranks of up to 50,000 and serving as cannon fodder on the front lines in Ukraine, in first of all in a meat grinder near Bakhmut.
Meanwhile, Mr. Prigozhin's relentless pursuit of fame continues to polish his own image. Residents of the Russian village of Krasnoe, near the border with Ukraine, recently recorded a video calling for Prigozhin, rather than President Putin, to save them from Ukrainian shelling, complaining that the Russian authorities had abandoned them.
Russia expert and former Soviet diplomat Alexander Melnik describes Prigozhin as a cross between Grigory Rasputin and Donald Trump, gaining influence and pulling strings behind the scenes like a self-proclaimed saint who deceived the family of Russia's last emperor, Czar Nicholas II. while also gaining publicity like a former US President by being extremely outspoken and making inflammatory remarks to appeal to a populist base.
Russia expert and former Soviet diplomat Alexander Melnik describes Prigozhin as a cross between Grigory Rasputin and Donald Trump. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov
There are signs that the Kremlin is becoming increasingly concerned about Prigozhin's rising star. State media have already been instructed to stop covering Prigozhin, and the Washington Post has reported that the Defense Department is gathering material for a negative publicity campaign against him. Meduza reported this week that media outlets have been ordered to start “portraying him as a traitor.” if he continues to criticize the Ministry of Defense.
When President Putin delivered a speech at the May 9 military parade in Moscow to mark Victory Day, he thanked the Russian army and other forces in Ukraine, but did not mention Wagner.
“He obviously didn’t want to directly mention Prigozhin,” Ms. de Bendern said.
But the key role that Wagner’s troops play in Bakhmut gives Prigozhin leverage, as he hinted in his repeated threats to pull out of the fight due to disputes with the Ministry of Defense over the supply of ammunition.
“If they try to force him to leave, the entire front line will collapse,” said Ms. de Bendern.